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Neuroscience, Barbecue, And A Vibrant Indian Diaspora: My Time In Kansas City

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In June of 2019, I moved to Kansas City, nestled right at the heart of the United States of America. Excited about working at one of America’s best research institutes, I was hardly concerned about my travelogue as Kansas City is unlike New York or Chicago, bustling with busybody travellers.

What I realised, however, was that this city had a lot more to offer in terms of the scenic urban landscapes and their historical significance. The first thing you notice in Kansas City is not the skyscrapers or make-believe glitter of American capitalism but a city deeply rooted in its history and culture. The largest city in the mid-western US state of Missouri, Kansas City is located right at the confluence of the adjoining states of Missouri and Kansas, giving it a unique geographical identity.

Encompassing different aspects of the American heritage – from food to art and music, this city has often been tagged as the ‘quintessential American’ city. All across Kansas City, the delicious barbecue and soulful jazz music can keep you hooked to its nostalgic atmosphere.

National World War I Museum and Memorial. (Photo provided by author)

Despite being consistently engaged in laboratory research, looking for answers to the problem of sensory processing in the brain, I often had the chance to visit the major landmarks of the city and appreciate their sheer grandeur.

Perhaps the most recognizable building in KC is the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, which is one of America’s largest. The sprawling campus of the museum and its adjacent lawn are a favourite among visitors and heaven for any art enthusiast. As you approach the huge stairs to enter the museum complex, you are greeted by a giant replica of Rodin’s Thinker, which serves as a reminder of the value of thought and contemplation in man’s quest for greatness. Receiving that profound message in the midst of a modern, fast-paced world was spiritual bliss in itself.

The museum is populated by some of the greatest works of art you can find in the US, both ancient and modern. It was here that I was introduced to the contemporary masters like Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, and Salvador Dali whose colourful expressions of life and its complexities made me feel perplexed and fulfilled at the same time.

In stark contrast to this hub of human excellence is the World War I memorial, a symbol of man’s fallibility and propensity for war, located next to the historic Union Station. Climbing up the pedestal of the 217-foot tower, I could feel the weight of my own vulnerability for the kind of vices that lead men to war.

Thanks to the visionaries who would have first imagined to build this structure, anticipating that someday another human being will walk on its stairs and understand the value of peace and harmony in a world so delicately balanced on our moral irony.

To escape the tiring weekdays, Kansas City also offered me various options to have some fun and light-hearted weekends. For someone who is not into shopping, Kansas City’s malls and public spaces have a lot to present for adventure lovers. The Sherlock Holmes themed escape room took me back to 1895 when Holmes and Watson were solving crimes in Victorian London while ‘Survive KC’ brought me face to face with a zombie apocalypse.

The Union Station is a center for an array of activities and also has special exhibits that tell stories of history and science in an interactive and creative manner. Shoppers can find comfort in the nearby Crown Center which is full of high-end stores and restaurants.

Rodin’s Thinker at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. (Photo provided by author)

Being An Indian In Kansas City

The Indian community in Kansas City is like any other Indian community in a major American city – vibrant and amicable. Meeting a friendly Uber driver from Haryana or bumping upon familiar faces at a local Indian grocery store strangely makes me feel at home.

Moreover, my own institute employs a reasonably high number of Indian scientists and researchers, which made me proud of the quality of scientific manpower that India can boast of. In spite of some rumours about general discomfort for immigrants in Trump’s hyper-nationalist America, I found the city surprisingly congenial and open-minded for a first-time visitor and worker from a foreign land.

The people of KC are amazingly tuned to cross-cultural conversations which can make anyone feel welcome and respected. Every time I take an Uber to an Indian store or restaurant, the drivers startle me with their own stories of Indian cuisine and spices. Indian chefs definitely have a bright future over here!

Kansas City exposed me to a side of America which is much more diverse and culturally rich than what one sees on the tableaux and fancy Hollywood films. It is a city where one can truly experience the American dream while being constantly aware of the deep philosophical and social values that spawned it. Kansas City is truly a home away from home.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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