Written in the Stars: Reflections on Un(Certainty) in Advocacy
From India to Indiana
Growing up in Indiana, I often thought about how my white friends ate dinner: setting tables, passing dishes, eating their “greens” while describing highlights from their days at school. Although these scenes were overly simplistic, generalized ideations developed from a smattering of play dates and Disney channel shows; they seemed humorously distinct from my nights at home: two sprightly children, a teenager, and two uncompromisingly dedicated immigrant parents gathered in the living room, watching the flicker of Indian soap operas as we reached for the roti and sabzi on our precariously placed plates.
Between the drama of our shows aired a regular rotation of commercials for brands of achar, delicious Maggi noodles, and our favorite: advertisements for astrology services. My siblings and I would recite the words back to the television, boisterously echoing explanations about the potential for astrology and numerology to provide powerful insight into our lives. However, as much as we giggled at the commercials’ redundancy, we did not laugh at their claims. After all, we too had astrologers.
Like many people in India, my grandmother believed in the power of Jyotisha, or Vedic, astrology, a complex combination of astrology, Hindu ideology, and spirituality. She would frequently gather the birth dates, locations, and times of her six children and eleven grandchildren for astrologers and pandits in Orissa — my parents’ home state in India and where my grandmother lived — to study. After every reading, she would call my mom, from India to Indiana, to relay the details of our horoscopes. As children, my brother, sister, and I relished this information; we would fall over each other as they spoke on the phone, hissing. What did they say about me?
Our parents raised us to respect astrology, but they persistently discouraged fervent belief in pseudoscience. It was always just for fun. Yet, either as an homage to my Hindu roots or to my late grandmother, I still turn to the stars (carefully, with interest and not for guidance) in times of transition or uncertainty — which is why I read my horoscope last week.
It said that I was a 24-year-old experiencing a “period of confusion,” which I did not need the vast power of the stars to know. However, reading this prompted me to reflect on times that I felt great clarity.
From SU to SA
In my senior year of college at Syracuse University, I served as the student government Vice President.
I have met very few people who do not possess at least some degree of dismissiveness toward the government. I understand this, and I am not without my moments. It is warranted to feel angry at a system built by and for a select few — a system that continues to oppress many, celebrates greed over good, and prioritizes wealth for a small group rather than prosperity for the majority. Yet, I am also aware that this disdain seeps from the highest offices in our country to state elections to collegiate student governments and student council elections in grade school. In my opinion, it is utilized as a tool, one of many systemically implemented barriers, to further disenchant (and disenfranchise) historically marginalized groups of people from leading in all levels of government.
My experience in student government refined my conception of intersectional advocacy. I learned that the best way to lead was with humility, understanding that my experiences on and beyond campus as a nondisabled, cisgendered Indian American woman both paralleled and differed from my peers’ — the parallels were as critical as the differences; I learned that if I wanted to work toward allyship in all facets of my advocacy, especially allyship for Black and Brown folks around the world, anti-racist work should become omnipresent in my life. I witnessed the transformative, structural progress that came when people and issues that were traditionally kept on the periphery were given opportunities to harness the richness of institutional resources.
Our team successfully advocated for expanding mental health services, implementing diligent research conducted by the previous year’s student government leadership. We addressed stigma and health access by funding rounds of free STI testing for students. As the administration presented us with architectural renderings of new spaces on campus, we urged them to place the Disability Cultural Center, LGBT Resource Center, and Office of Multicultural Affairs accessibly in the center of campus; as the adage goes: location, location, location. We engaged with schools and community organizations in Syracuse, slightly puncturing the bubble that the University resides comfortably within. During trying times, when videos surfaced of Syracuse University students engaging in racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic behavior that was hostile toward disabled people, we advised the administration to work with marginalized groups on campus, and we fought for anti-racist, intersectional action and university-wide policy reform.
That these changes are only a small sampling of what we accomplished that year is my biggest pride to date.
I took the lessons I learned at Syracuse University to South Africa after I graduated in 2018. There, I worked at a high school in Umlazi, the fourth largest township in the country. The students who attended the school were mostly, if not all, Black, and they continued to face the abject repercussions of decades-long oppression from the racist laws and policies of apartheid. I leveraged my position and privilege to connect students with previously inaccessible opportunities, many of which their peers in other parts of the country — white parts of the country, affluent parts of the country — could access with ease.
When I reflect on clarity, I am brought back to these hugely distinct experiences at the beginning of my advocacy career only a couple of years ago. During these times, I was confident in my capabilities as an advocate who kept anti-racist, intersectional social justice at the core of her work — and herself. I knew who I was, what I represented, and where I was going.
From Clarity to Confusion — to Clarity
It is now December 2020, and we remain trapped in the depths of a global pandemic that has robbed us of millions of precious lives across the world. In the United States, harmful and hateful rhetoric continues to divide our nation further, and Black people fight for their right to live.
As advocates, activists, leaders, and human beings, we feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility to do our work in the most obvious ways. In my case, that was by representing tens of thousands of students or completing development projects internationally. When I transitioned into advocating in less “grand” ways — like, in my 9-5 job that works to provide legal services for children experiencing poverty — I felt confused and hopeless, criticizing my advocacy as too broad or too narrow in addressing the various issues we are navigating nationally and internationally. I found that my previously possessed clarity had all but diminished, besides a few flickering moments here and there — until, funnily enough, I read my horoscope, and the short phrase “period of confusion” provided me with the validation I needed to allow myself to be confused.
Therefore, I write this piece to advocates, activists, or people trying to do better who have felt as I do lately. I do not wish to encourage complacency, as we all have roles to play in dismantling a broken, unequal system. However, I do want to validate feelings of confusion and dispel those of self-doubt. Our feelings are justified, and they are necessary for our growth.
Sometimes, they are even written in the stars.
About the Author
Angie Pati is a proud Syracuse University alumna (’18). Her passion for intersectional advocacy began during her tenure as vice president of Syracuse University’s student government, where she was awarded the Senior Vice President’s Award for Outstanding Senior Leadership for her work. In 2019, she served as a Fulbright Scholar in South Africa. There, she led a female empowerment group and a gender-inclusive leadership academy at a high school in addition to researching systemic barriers to health in female adolescents from Black townships. She now works as an investigator at a legal nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. Contrary to what the above piece might infer, she is not overly obsessed with astrology; yet she feels it’s important to note that her birthday is June 15, and she is a Gemini.