Conversation with 25 Leaders in Action: Rajasvini Bhansali

Thu, 2015-08-27

To commemorate AAPIP’s 25 years of building a more democratic philanthropic sector, we asked you to help us identify 25 leaders who are making a difference in your local community and/or nationally. The 25 Leaders in Action honorees represent a diverse group spanning a wide range of organizations, years of experiences, roles and sectors.  We invite you to learn about these outstanding leaders, their inspiring work and what keeps them going in our blog post series.

 

Rajasvini Bhansali, Executive Director, International Development Exchange (IDEX)

1. Why are you passionate about advocating for AAPI communities?

I think of where I come from. Rajasthan – that sand dune, camel-filled land many tourists know for its ornate palaces, bloody royal histories, colorful clothes, and delicious food. Rajasthan – the land of the lowest female literacy rates in all of India, highest rates of child brides, shocking rates of female infanticide and domestic violence, with very few Rajasthani women in positions of social and political power. These are my people – the pastoralists, nomads, small businessmen, hustlers of the desert, and the non-violent, anti-authoritarian, liberation-focused Jains.

I credit my culture and family, for raising a strong, resilient, self-assured woman who, at 40, can only remember the immense lessons of patience, kindness, interconnectedness, joy, culture as power, and passion. My internal world resonates in a rhythm of music and dance that is as deeply embedded as the desire to be useful, because where I come from, “I” is always an “we” and that cultural legacy lives on, in me and in the work and in the life I craft.

2. What do you believe are the most critical issues facing AAPI communities today?

Our global food system, dominated by corporate-driven agriculture practices that push out small-scale farmers, is broken and has dire economic and environmental consequences. And around the world, unjust and unsustainable economic systems have created massive inequality, leaving about 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty. This unchecked resource consumption in the so-called “developed world” has led to an environmental and climate crisis that threatens our planet and our collective futures. 

But there is good news amidst all this. In Asia and the Pacific, and around the world, visionary local leaders are creating and implementing innovative initiatives to transform our food systems for the better, build wealth in their communities, and fight for true climate action.

3. In what ways do you strive to address the unmet needs for AAPI communities?

Many philanthropies see their role as “special forces” of poverty reduction. They sweep into a troubled area, introduce programs, distribute aid, implement quickly, get quick results, and sweep out: mission accomplished.

But here’s what’s wrong with that scenario: social and systemic injustice has deep roots in the fabric of local social, political, and economic history. We, in the West, are not in the best position to understand or address those problems. The people who can solve them best are the people whose lives are most affected by them.

That’s why IDEX seeks out dedicated and embedded local partners who are working to understand and address their own problems. We help each group develop its own skills, function more effectively, understand its objectives, make high-quality decisions, put plans into action, and evaluate its achievements. We want to enable people to be agents of long-term, sustainable change in their own societies, to affect their own conditions.

This approach is a slow, deep-acting method. We’re not rushing in, “special forces” style. IDEX offers long-term, general operating support through our grantmaking. Our 30 years of experience shows that local, grassroots solutions are ultimately more relevant, effective, empowering and long lasting than top-down and “imported,” solutions. 

4. What keeps you inspired?

Our partners’ triumphs. Several of our partners have been globally recognized for their game-changing models and solutions, for example: challenging Monsanto on the right to know what is in South Africa’s food; pioneering a new model of joint community ownership of land in India; and empowering hundreds of rural women with new ways to build strong livelihoods in Mexico.

So much funding goes to searching for new solutions when, in reality, those of us making grants are often not in the best position to understand local problems. This is why we fund the kind of local, grassroots work that can create long-lasting outcomes.

And this is why one of IDEX’s goals is to shift the cultural paradigm of top-down international aid efforts, which historically ignore local wisdom.

Rajasvini Bhansali is the Executive Director of International Development Exchange (IDEX) and a passionate advocate for participatory grassroots-led social change and movement building. In a wide-ranging career devoted to social and economic justice, she has led a national social enterprise, managed a public telecommunications infrastructure fund addressing digital divide issues, and worked as a researcher, planner, policy analyst and strategy consultant. Vini also worked alongside community leaders as a capacity builder for youth polytechnics in rural Kenya for over two years.

Born and raised in India, Vini earned a Master′s in Public Affairs (MPA) with a focus on technology and telecommunications policy from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and Bachelor′s degrees in Astrophysics and Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities & Social Sciences from UC Berkeley.

Vini has been involved in community organizing and volunteer board roles for the last two decades. She is currently active on the Board of Directors for Greenpeace USA and the Rockwood Leadership Institute. Inspired by the potential of social justice philanthropy to support movements and community based organizations, Vini has also served on the steering committee for the Bay Area Justice Funders Network (BAJFN) and on the advisory board for the Agroecology Fund. She currently serves on the Planning Committee for the 2016 Association of Women in Development (AWID) International Forum on Women’s Rights and Development on cross-movement dialogues, solidarity and strategies.  

Vini lectures in the University of California at Berkeley Master’s Program in Development Practice and the University of Vermont Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources new Master’s Program in Ecological Sustainability.

She is also a published poet, essayist, storyteller and popular educator. When not engaged with community organizations, Vini can be found hiking, cooking and dancing with friends.

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