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Word of Advice: Unleash the Power of Presence

Advocate for social change, Maya Mehta in 2015

Advocate for social change, Maya Mehta in 2015

When you hear Londoner and lawyer MAYA MEHTA speak, you listen.   We Are Daytrippers recently attended an event called Putting the Soul Back into Business which was hosted by Harvard Club of the United Kingdom and co-hosted by Ms. Mehta.  Not only did Maya project the presence of a strong woman who genuinely cares about social change, but she also seemed to make sure it was going to happen; there was something extra-special about her.  We reached out and found out how she continues to intend to move mountains for the greater good.  Maya has founded Microfinance Groups at her current and past employers with law and investment firms.  In 2004, she established an advice surgery for Asian victims of domestic violence and forced marriages in East London.  Maya studied law at Oxford and in 2013 she co-founded the Harvard-Oxford Alumni Social Business Group, a forum dedicated to bringing “social intrapreneurs” together to use business as a force for positive social change.  Her message encourages all of us not just to sit there and tsk-tsk about social issues we notice or feel passionate about: but to do something:

THE POWER OF PRESENCE

Feeling Powerless?

When I hear about the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram and dragged into the forests of Nigeria, or rather when I don’t hear about them anymore because the world forgets so quickly and moves on to the next popular hashtag or the next ice bucket challenge, I feel powerless.
But then I remember how I felt back in 2004, when I kept reading stories about young Asian girls who were forced into marriage, or even worse, subjected to honour killings by their own families for choosing to be with the person they loved, or who committed suicide because they did not want to marry a complete stranger.  I couldn’t just turn the page of the paper and turn a blind eye.  But then I couldn’t exactly fly to Pakistan, India or Bangladesh and catch the perpetrators.  However, I could change things here at home in London.   

I would travel on the DLR to my law firm in Canary Wharf, watching children playing on the estates of Shadwell, their mothers hanging laundry out of the windows of the surrounding tower blocks.  The juxtaposition of the gleaming glass towers of Canary Wharf and the relative poverty of the surrounding areas was striking.

Mobilising Resources Around Us

Having met with a local charity, the Newham Asian Women’s Project, it became clear that the abuse of Asian girls was happening not just a million miles away, but right here on my doorstep.  I knew I had a wealth of resource at my fingertips– professionals such as lawyers, IT experts, secretaries, all of whom were passionate about helping others and were willing to give up their lunchbreaks to do so.  We weren’t experts in the field of domestic violence, far from it, but we had a basic skill to offer – the skill of listening, of being present.

Having asked the charity what they needed and having enlisted support from my law firm and my peers, the “Newham Asian Women’s Project Advice Surgery” was born.   Each week my colleagues would travel two stops on the Jubilee line to lend their ears to and give basic advice to the women of Newham.

Before we knew it, word spread like wildfire around the local community and women, often with their children, were lining up for advice on all sorts of issues.  It was often so simple.   One young girl ran in and told me she had been beaten up by her boyfriend.  She just wanted to enlist on a journalism course so that she could learn how to write well and tell her story.  We heard her aspirations and pointed her in the right direction.

Another lady was living in fear of her stalker ex-husband who was subject to an injunction but she still did not even dare to take her child to the local playground in case he showed up.  When we suggested she go further afield and take a trip on the Jubilee line to London Zoo she looked at us as if we had suggested going to the Moon.  She didn’t know how to use the tube.  But when we showed her a tube map and explained how to get there, her face lit up with an empowered sense of liberation – a whole new world of possibilities outside Newham had been presented to her.

Just by being present and engaged for one lunchtime a week (often less of a commitment because we had devised a weekly rota), we were able to instil a sense of self-worth into victims of abuse and remind them that they do have a voice, they do have a choice and that no-one could tell them otherwise.

The more complex issues were referred back to the charity but even in those instances we were able to use our basic professional skills to interview the women, elicit information, identify red flags, make phone calls to specialist services and point them in the right direction.  This saved the charity valuable time.

10 years later, now with clients of the firm involved and thanks to the dedication of colleagues who kept it going when I left the firm in 2011, the advice surgery is still going strong.

Call to Action

What I have learnt is that if there is a social issue that disturbs us, we don’t have to wait for government to take action, for students to take to the streets or for celebrities to tweet.  And we certainly don’t have to feel like our only option is turn a blind eye.  If I hear about something awful and find myself constantly thinking about it as I try to proceed with my day, that is my call to action.

This happened recently when I saw on the news a beautiful Eritrean girl who was languishing in the notorious refugee camp of Calais, “The Jungle”, having been trafficked for thousands of miles across Africa.  She had so much hope, promise and defiance in her eyes, I couldn’t forget her.  The obvious next step was to brainstorm with my peers about the issues faced by victims of trafficking and to partner with a charity who might welcome some different skillsets and a few extra pairs of hands.

Unleashing the Power of Presence

There is so much we can do just by asking a charity or other expert on the ground what they might need (to ensure we are a bonus, not a burden) and offering to spend precious face-to-face time listening to and engaging with victims of poverty, trafficking, domestic violence, the elderly or disabled, whatever the issue may be.  This is how we can unleash the power of presence, a weapon too often forgotten in an age of smartphones and social media.   This is the offline revolution.  This is the power of that is within each of us to drive forward social change.

The Daytrippers Team:  Thank you Maya for your contribution and we wish you the very best.

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