I never thought I needed to feel empowered, until I did.
Amidst a nationwide lockdown, while I retreat into my house, avoiding all human contact, ever so often I find despair knocking on my door, slyly pulling me by my hand, tempting me to follow. The despair brings with it an inability to imagine another possible future for myself and for the society I am a part of.
I look around only to find that I am not alone. Around me are other young people, taken aback by the uncertain times today. As we are confronted with a reality that is so much bigger than us, we don’t know what to do, how to respond. To step out of this despair, I like to go back to moments when I have felt empowered, to spaces that have enabled me to feel so.
My journey as a youth worker with Pravah began three years ago. As part of the youth team, I was to create spaces that would enable a diverse group of young people to unlearn, learn and act.
As a young facilitator, this was a journey that I too was on. Little did I know that this journey would also equip me to find and hold onto hope in times of despair. As I reflect on what was about this journey that made me feel so, a particular kind of space comes to mind.
I was not used to being asked how I felt. I was used to being told as to how I should feel. I remember being absolutely taken aback when I was first asked, “What feelings were you able to experience while running the project?” What an absurd question, I thought to myself. Eventually finding ease in it over time, it pushed me to realise that how I felt mattered — acknowledging and expressing it was natural and important.
“Tell me about yourself”, I asked a volunteer whilst in a 4-day-long residential workshop as a part of one of our programmes called the SMILE In-turn-ship. What followed was an hour-long conversation where he expressed with all his heart about himself and I only listened.
Just listening and acknowledging what he had to say about his life experiences without judgement made him feel understood, valued. “Thank you, for you understood me like nobody else ever has,” he told me at the end of the workshop. It amazed me. As little as I did in that conversation, it had made such a huge difference to him.
The incident pushed me to confront a stark truth about young people in our country; are we devoid of spaces where we are heard without judgement? Where what we feel is received with care and patience? Where when despair comes calling, just feeling heard is enough to feel hopeful?
Having studied development in an academic space, I thought I knew what inclusion meant, until I was confronted with a different language than mine. It led me to realise that to truly practice inclusion, I needed to expand boundaries, build perspective and become a part of experiences that were outside of my everyday life. I needed to open myself up to learning and more importantly unlearning.
In all the spaces I have facilitated, young people from across diversities of sexuality, caste, class, religion, region, or disability have come together and been pushed to engage. I have witnessed the unlikeliest of friendships bloom, and with it, individual perspectives develop. Young people like me have expanded their limits and grown into leaders.
If you have ever noticed the process of unlearning, it allows you to let go of what you could be becoming, while shaping you into what you aspire to become. It helps us believe that a better future is always possible. That is an empowering place for me to be in when I have despair tugging my hand, tempting me to follow. I pull my hand away and walk in the opposite direction, towards hope.
As I became aware of my privileged life, the easiest thing for me to do was to fall into guilt. Guilt became a comfortable (yet highly self-deprecating) place to be in. I was told not to feel guilty by people around me, but it wasn’t until I was asked, “What more can you do and become?” did I feel a nudge, to move from thought and intent to action, to take charge.
I hung on to this question and looked around to see what I could do. I started at home, with family and with my peers listening, challenging, unlearning and learning. I changed and so did my relationships — to become more meaningful.
I now find in me the ability to drive a change that I aspire for, and even though my actions may hardly be making a difference in the larger scheme of things, when I know that I can challenge the inertia, I feel hope rushing back to me.
The ‘space’ I have referred to throughout my reflections is a space that most people are trying to find. Where the movement from despair to hope is not in isolation, not judged or predetermined, we call this the fifth space. Beyond the spaces of family, friends, career, education and leisure which often feel prescribed, this space equips us with capacities to reflect, learn, unlearn and take action, thus enabling within us the agency to steer our boat in the direction we want to go.
Through its very nature, the fifth space has allowed me to experience empowerment, and in times when despair comes visiting, I feel I can take charge and direct myself towards hope. Having the life that I do, having been handed all the opportunities that made me reach where I am today, I never knew I needed to feel empowered, until I did, and that made all the difference.
 Pravah SMILE In-turn-ship is a volunteering programme for young people between the age of 18 and 25 where they are placed with a grassroot organisation/movement for a period of 3-6 weeks in any part of the country. SMILE encourages volunteers to turn the gaze inwards, and extend the understanding of their own selves to the society. It is thus referred to as “In-turn-ship”.
 Based on the insights gained over the past 26 years, Pravah and Commutiny — The Youth Collective, have developed a unique approach to youth development embodied in the concept of the Fifth Space. As a society we have ‘legitimized’ four spaces for young people: family, friends, career/career-related education and leisure. A Fifth Space is envisioned as one which is co-created, co-owned and co-led by young people, where they can discover themselves by engaging in social action, forming meaningful relationships across borders, and become active citizens.