On death, social change, and the online persona

Recently, I ran across the blog of “Indian Homemaker,” an everyday Indian Homemaker who cares deeply about issues like feminism, human rights, tolerance and peace, gender equality, and her day to day experiences. It was interesting to see those perspectives from a “housewife,” who normally would be stereotyped as an individual who is not feminist or politically active. She defies stereotypes, and I am thankful for people like her for expanding our boundaries daily.

But what struck me most was that her most recent blog posts are heartwrenching, focusing on the death of her 19-year old daughter Tejaswee, who passed away just last month due to dengue fever. What truly tugged at my heart strings was the link to Tejaswee’s blog, where she had written about her own hopes, dreams, and passions. I’ve never met her, but her blog spoke to me; she was an intelligent young woman, around my age, with ambitions of becoming a politician in India, working towards ending poverty, and adopting a daughter. I too, have so many similar goals – down to adopting a child. And so, the reports of her death hit a little too close to home. Here are a few thoughts:

Social justice means fighting for human potential

It made me realize, again: this is reason we [in the "field" of social justice] are doing this work. I saw so clearly that this smart young woman had so much potential. Potential to achieve great things, right injustices, help change lives of the poor and marginalized. This potential was all robbed when she passed away. This made it so clear to me that what I am fighting against is the barriers that lack of human rights and equal opportunity places in front of people, preventing them from achieving their full potential. Because if we all had the opportunities to pursue our dreams – how different – how much better – would this world be! Reading Tejaswee’s posts made this fully apparent.

We live on through our online personas

I thought, also, about how in this day and age, our online personas change the way we think of death, life, and humanity. You or I or anyone else can venture over to her blog, read her writing, and feel like we know her personally. And yet – she is gone. She is not here physically, but she lives on through her online presence. It is a strange contradiction, but somehow a comfort. By baring my thoughts to this online platform, I feel like I, too, would be remembered even after I’m gone. We will all live on beyond our physical time here on earth. We can be remembered for who we were. There is something deeply reassuring about that, and I am thankful to the Internet for ‘eternalizing’ those of us who choose to have an online presence.

Bringing humanity back to social change efforts

I also realized that by reading Tejaswee’s blog posts and intimate thoughts, I almost felt like I knew her – and so, the tragedy of her death was personalized. She wasn’t a vague statistic; she was a human being, with feelings and dreams. And I wished I could have done something to avert her untimely death.

The use of online personas could be a valuable tool in the world of international development, human rights, and anti-war activism. Right now, the violence of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is muted. While we may see destruction, death, carnage through videos and news stories, we can never truly fathom the immense human potential that is being lost through these conflicts. The same goes for the thousands of women who die every day from childbirth, the children who perish from malnutrition worldwide, the senseless deaths of the poor from diseases like malaria, TB, and HIV/AIDS. The same goes for the violence and rapes taking place in the DRC, prisoners in Zimbabwe dying from poor prison conditions, the Pakistan floods, and the countless stories of the daily struggles of the poor, marginalized and minorities around the world.

These people and their lives are all reduced to numbers. X number of people have died today of Y disease or Z war. These stories are not personalized and so, most people living privileged lives in the West never truly understand the scale of what is happening and the importance of doing something. We can improve advocacy by personalizing these stories, by making these struggling individuals humans, not numbers on a screen. And we can do that by allowing them to tell their stories, what makes them tick, what they want to accomplish in life, who they are, and why they love – and publishing these online to create their online personas. Only in this way can we get people to understand the immense human potential that is being destroyed every day. Only then can we inspire more people to take action. And only when we turn numbers into personas can we give due respect to the individuality, beauty, and significance of every single human life.

What do you think, about death and the online persona? I would love to hear your thoughts.

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5 Responses to On death, social change, and the online persona

  1. Pragya Nandini says:

    Wow, Akhila. Truly excellent post. Hearing about Tejaswee and her life ambitions struck a chord within me too. While it is so saddening to hear about her story, we may take comfort in knowing that we can still do something for so many other people out there. I feel as though stories such as these simply add to my personal sense of urgency to go out and do something.

    • Akhila says:

      Same here- it definitely makes me want to do something and make an immediate impact, which is why I think stories like these can be really powerful tools for social change. By reading stories like this, people can be compelled to actually take action. Although it’s a sad story, like you said the hope that we can do something to prevent such situations in the future can compel people to action.

  2. Roz says:

    Thanks for writing this, Akhila. I think you make some really insightful observations here — it’s so true that an online persona, as much as others (who are not on the blogosphere/twitterverse/etc) “bash” or sometimes even ridicule it, I think it is an essential component to this new community of changemakers on the web. On the other end of the spectrum, as you said, it’s also great to read about the stories of others. The internet has really begun to connect us to even those at the BOP: maybe not in the way we’d like, since they most likely are NOT blogging, but we see profiles about individuals and entrepreneurs on websites like Kiva.org, which begins to weave this narrative about the lives on those at the BOP that we are not really exposed to. But at the same time, how much should we (on one side of the spectrum) really be “writing” their stories FOR them? Is there a way we can change this one day?

    • Akhila says:

      This is definitely something I’ve been thinking of– we need to get the Internet & social web in the hands of the people in the BOP in developing countries, rather than writing their stories for them.

      I still think that us writing their stories is not as powerful, or authentic, as these individuals taking things into their own hands. There were some projects like the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) which could have been used to develop this potential, but I think that most people right now would agree that it’s important to first focus on the essentials – food, medical care, employment opportunities, and basic needs – before we can go on to focus on the delivery of Internet and computer technology to developing communities. I agree with this too, but there are definitely ways to circumvent this.

      Reporters, for instance, can begin by asking people their stories, and writing down (almost word for word) what they say, to ensure that it is their authentic voice speaking. They can use these stories on news sites, blogs, etc.

      Another good way to go is to create Vlogs – videos are easy to create and can be extremely powerful. One good example I saw recently is http://invisiblepeople.tv/blog/ – a website that allows the homeless (in the u.s) to tell their own stories. The end result is really, very powerful.

      I think these are great options in the short run :)

  3. Courteanybarnett says:

    1. Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos Islands
    PRESS RELEASE – 6th April, 2009
    Courtenay Barnett has today transmitted his “Prison and Penal Reform in the Turks and Caicos Islands: A Position Paper for Improvements in the Prison System” to His Excellency, the Governor of the Turks and Caicos Islands ( TCI) for delivery to the Secretary of State in London, England . This scholarly work is a call to action for the British Government to fulfill a duty to the people of the TCI in regard to obligations existing under Article 73 of the United Nations Charter.
    Mr. Barnett draws upon his personal experience as a defence attorney in the TCI, and his academic research to define the problems in the penal system as it currently exists and presents practical actions for mitigating them. There has been a steady rise in crime from 1986 to 2009 in the TCI, with a tendency toward more violent crimes, which can be traced to certain internal and external factors that have affected the indigenous population. As prison sentencing has increased, this increase in imprisonment has resulted in a shortage of capacity in the local prison facility. The simple choice given the Secretary of State is either to invest in building more prisons, or to invest in cost effective programmes that can reduce the need for imprisonment. The TCI is offered as a laboratory in a small controlled environment for testing policies and programmes designed to minimise recidivism.
    The primary material factors contributing to the rising crime problem in the TCI are: colonial neglect; a highly skewed economic distribution accompanied by a desire for material possessions exceeding the earned income of many inhabitants; governmental and public administration corruption on the part of the colonial appointees and local elected officials; illegal migration; illegal guns; and illicit drug related activity. Realising that the TCI is not economically viable without external support, the people of the TCI have shown that they are unwilling to accept political independence. The well-being for the TCI therefore remains the legal obligation of the British Government imposed by Article 73 of the UN Charter, which states that as a member state having assumed responsibility for a territory must “…ensure, with due respect for the culture of the peoples concerned, their political, economic, social, and educational advancement, their just treatment, and their protection against abuses.” Hence, Mr. Barnett appeals to the Secretary of State for specific grants to address these issues as a matter of legal duty towards the TCI.
    Addressing income earning potential for the population between the ages of 16 to 35, the age group most prone to engage in criminal activity, he suggests that Her Majesty’s Government establishes a non-political and non-partisan office of ‘Youth Commissioner’. The main focus of this position would be: implementation of a programme to assess and guide the individuals in that age group to purposeful academic training, job skills, and placement in income earning activities. The jobs envisioned can be directly linked to national development, whether they are initiated by the private sector or the government, thereby benefiting the society as a whole.
    Mr. Barnett cites illegal immigration from Haiti as directly linked to the increase in illegal arms and drugs in the TCI. He makes an urgent request to Great Britain to fund maritime border patrol of the islands, engaging the US in assistance with this effort, but not ignoring the need to provide humanely for legitimate refugees. Further, he advocates working with the US to eradicate the sources of guns and drugs flowing through Haiti and elsewhere.
    ‘DIMET’ is the term he has coined standing for the principles to address reform in the prison itself: Define goals for the prison; Individually structure rehabilitation for the prisoner; Monitor discipline; Educate the inmate; and, effect Transitional justice for the prisoner after release. Mr. Barnett acknowledges that there will be individuals in every society who are violent and unrepentant and who therefore are not candidates for reform. However, for the rest, it is in the interest of the society to make every attempt to work with convicted offenders to keep them from engaging in criminal activity again after they are released. He advocates a structured programme, whereby the prison has defined goals with specific and measurable outcomes at the societal and individual levels.
    The paper engages the British Government at the policy level. It questions the assumptions behind merely depositing undesirables in prison. It focuses on the historically derived racism which has led to British public policy neglect of the TCI. It reflects on the real issues underlying prisoners social origins and presents practical and just solutions.
    Wilberne Persaud, former head of the Department of Economics at the University of the West Indies, said “A welcome eye-opening look at a problem, elements of which are much too common in our region … perhaps exposure to a broader audience will force the authorities to act.”
    It remains to be seen whether Her Majesty’s Government can appropriately and responsibly assist “the honest people of the Turks and Caicos Islands” to whom this paper is dedicated.
    ERRATA
    1. Page ii “a society . . . find” should be “a society . . .finds”
    2. Page 10 “populous” twice on page 27 instead of “populace”
    3. Page 19 reference to Binyam Mohamed as “citizen” is incorrect since he is a “resident” of the UK
    4. Page 38 “sanitised” (sanitized in US spelling) is misspelled “sanistised”.
    5. The number 1 is used instead of capital I for the Roman numeral on:
    Page 23, George III and Henry VIII
    Page 38, William III
    Pages 43, 47, 49, & 50, prisoner numbers
    Only the first is a real solecism and the others might be excused for reason of typographical constraints
    6. Page 32 “ on the police” should read “ harsh on the police”
    7. Page 35 “ Chagossians” is misspelled “ Chaggosinas”
    8. Page 41 “Bloom-Cooper” is misspelled “ Bloom-Copper”
    9. Final correction: “ Change your mind and you change your outlook” – please read with that thought in mind.
    N.B. Any findings of error can be forwarded to courtenaybarnett@yahoo.com. Critical comments and/or constructive suggestions are welcomed.
    _____________________________________________________________________________
    Courtenay Francis Raymond Barnett is a graduate of London University. His areas of study were economics, political science and international law. He has been practising law for over twenty seven years, has been arrested for defending his views, and has argued public interest and human rights cases. His web site: http://www.globaljusticeonline.com

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