“She got my dad a job, actually her story is amazing,” Shilpa Guha talks cheerfully of her mother who is her “rock”. She laughs in a loud voice as if she fears nothing. She says that her mother, after getting a physics PhD in India got a fellowship to the United States and by showing her husband’s resume in different places in the US she got him a job, too.
With her curly hair falling over her shoulders and a smile on her face Shilpa Guha, an Access Academy teacher at Asian University for Women (AUW), tells her mother’s story and how amazing she is. Shilpa was born to Indian parents in New Jersey. In spite of being born and spending her whole life there, Shilpa appears as a typical Indian girl while she has been to India only a few times for leadership and women’s rights conferences. She is wearing Shalwar Qamees, and a Bindi is shining on her forehead between the two eyes, giving a pure Indian feature to her face. She excitedly exclaims her time in India, the “richness” of everything, and the great women leaders that she met there.
Her story is a coin with her mother’s story engraved on the one side of the coin and hers on the other. She said that her mother raised her a feminist and taught her not to be ever a dependent woman, especially on a man. “I don’t know how young I was when she started talking to me about this concept or when she started implanting this idea of ‘you have to be independent, you have to stand of for yourself’,” she added.
As a person passionate about “everything,” Shilpa reveals where her passion lies. Passionate about justice, about equality, she says, “I am the most passionate about when people who have been oppressed or marginalized are able to find a voice.” Once, she says she taught public speaking in a leadership seminar at AUW. She had her students who mostly came from different levels of male dominated society to go on the stage, get the microphone and talk. Then she found out that after being part of many clubs such as public speaking, many of her students have got a voice and have been able to get such kind of confidence. “I don’t know if I could feel more passionate about anything more than that” she says.
A body of energy, of inspiration, of motivation, of empowerment, and of strength and struggles, Shilpa’s mother has been an exemplary leader that she adores. “She is a great example of someone who really took charge of her life but in many ways she was also an example of different types of oppressions” says Shilpa. Her mother, growing up in a very poor family and having lots of imbalances in her life, embodies both women’s struggles and their strength which makes her a perfect ideal for Shilpa as she explains so.
Shilpa says it is an honor to call oneself an activist where she defines activism as to have the desire to do something about the injustices, to take steps against a very dissatisfying situation, or to achieve a certain goal. “Even though I may not be out in the streets protesting everyday about certain issues, I would call myself an activist, in spirit” says Shilpa. She started her path to activism when she was in school. Shilpa and her friend wanted to start a club as another chapter of Equality Now. However, she sadly describes that there were not enough people as the members of the club, not enough people who would care.
The smile comes back to her face when she says that she had the opportunity to stir the part of her identity that was defined by activism and feminism which made her mother “thrilled”. Finishing her school in New Jersey Shilpa continued her education in New York. As one of the “biggest steps” in her life, during her college Shilpa left her job at the Student Life Office which she says was just not fulfilling and started working for the center that was working for women. She wanted to do a job that would make her feel that she is making some kind of contribution, or working towards achieving a certain goal. During this decision she says, “I figured out what really is my goal” and that activism and doing something became a way of being, a “lifestyle” and a “driving force” in her life.
Shilpa took part in organizing and leading many leadership conferences in India, interned for Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom at the United Nations and also the Human Rights Watch. To further contribute to human rights and women’s rights initiative “especially in an international way,” her passion, she came to AUW.
Shilpa also talks about the challenges of being an activist. She acknowledges that “Part of being an activist and fighting injustice is being informed and deeply understand the injustices…and there are so many realities that could make you completely devastated and disillusioned”. Hearing a story or reading news about the horrifying things taking place all over the world and that people could do such things to each other is really devastating and difficult.
Besides chasing goals, Shilpa is a dreamer. She dreams of being an “activist actress”, a lawyer by the day and an actress by the night. Passionate about arts and dance she thinks arts besides being a way to expressing yourself is a platform for conveying a message. For a while she says she wanted to become a newscaster on TV having a journalist talk show where women leaders would be invited to draw on important issues. While happily talking about her dreams, she exclaims that “I want to do something that allows me interact with people who want to commit to the very principle of equality and justice, people who really believe in the human and human connectedness.”
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.Voices of Our Future 2013 Assignments: Profiles