Bhavani is one of the youngest employees of Swasti. At 23, she is perhaps one of the youngest programme managers of a social development program in India! I wanted to profile her because I love her not just as a person but also because I respect her as a young professional. So, we sat in my room with a big bowl of buttery popcorn to share.
“It’s so weird being interviewed by you, because it’s you”, giggles Bhavani, referring to the fact that I have been mentoring her for the past two years.
Bhavani leads the GenY programme, that works with LGBTQAI+ youth in India. When I asked her about her reason behind joining Swasti, she said, “I chanced upon Swasti. My father is a development sector professional and he guided me”.
Joining Swasti at 20, Bhavani initially thought that she would stay for a short while, working with the HR team and then use a Masters programme as a bridge to enter the development sector. But a serendipitous interaction with Prof. Sunil Khanna of OSU led her to approach me. She adds that she understood very soon that Swasti is a space where, if you ask for opportunities, you are given a chance, regardless of your qualification.
When I asked if she was always interested in the development sector, she muses that it was a fluke. “It was not planned. It was not something I put on a vision board.” Bhavani studied commerce at the prestigious Shri Ram College of Commerce in Delhi: “When I took up commerce in college, I thought that like most people I would do an MBA. Then I interned in the corporate sector and hated it!” Active in different societies at college, she once took part in a competition and reached the final round where they had to design a program for LGBT youth—and her teammate refused to cooperate because of prejudice. She said that was when her interest in the development sector was sparked.
For her first assignment, Bhavani was sent to take photos at a Swasti field site at Chikballapur, but the experience of fieldwork at Dharmapuri and Krishnagiri—the lively CBO environment, with everyone laughing and discussing things— helped her make up her mind. One of the interviews she did, with a transwoman at Dharmapuri about her livelihood opportunities, kept coming back to her. Bhavani says she grew up in a protective environment, and that conversation made her realise that you can change your life, no matter what your past is.
And the changes for her were coming thick and fast: growing rapidly as an interviewer, she joined a study on people living with HIV in Avahan III, one of Swasti’s flagship initiative in five states. She remembers fondly the pace of travel through the states, hopping on to local buses and conducting interviews every day. “It was an immense growth opportunity for me”, she says, “After a few months of the Avahan study, I began to lead Gen Y.”
As program manager for GenY, she creates safe and empowering spaces for young people to ‘Live beyond Labels’, regardless of social status, gender identity or sexual orientation. As exciting as the work is, it has its ups and downs. “When I first began to lead a research program, it was difficult for people to understand why a 21-year-old without a relevant college degree was leading the program. It was difficult to establish leadership, to be a leader and appear as a leader, but being a program manager has helped me mature as a person. I like the way I have matured. I am happy with the growth.”
She reminds me about when she joined Swasti. It was December and the office was all decked up for Christmas. When I had asked her for her choice of drink, she sheepishly told me she was below legal drinking age!
Bhavani chuckles and says maturity has meant getting to know herself much better: “I don’t like most people. I prefer animals. I do NOT like people who are mean to animals. And I do not like it if someone comes off as pretentious.” When asked what makes her tick, she says it’s being in creative spaces, problem-solving, and finding time to read.
It’s a fair way down the road from the ‘naive child’ (her own words!) who spent her first three months in HR scanning copies and sorting through cartons of paperwork!
Until Bhavani’s dreams come true and she develops her choice of superpowers – i.e. the powers of telekinesis (“Imagine plates cleaning themselves, the house cleaning itself!!”, she adds with glee), her expressed personal goals are in learning to read emotions better.
On the professional front, Bhavani is now off to take a health break for a while. Next up: she is looking for opportunities to develop her communication and research skills, and starting to explore educational opportunities.
Bhavani’s wisdom is surely outsized for a 23-year-old. I’ll leave you with one of her pearls:
“I think when young people start working and face different challenges, they get attached to the lessons they learn and after a while, they become rigid with their lessons. Sometimes the conclusions are not what to stick with.”
Bhavani, as you read this I leave you with golden nuggets that were passed on to me by my mentors:
~ Believe in yourself (as you always have) and your inner strength. If you aren’t dead yet, you’ve only emerged stronger and perhaps a little wiser.
~Success does not mean recognition from others, certificates, and titles, but of the lives, you’ve touched and the difference you’ve made
~ Work with both heart and head diligently and keep your eye on the prize
~ Don’t take yourself too seriously, life is funny!
“As you explore many exciting opportunities, I wish for you bountiful adventures along the way…to love, life, contentment, and success!