Conversations on tech and social justice: Shoba Sriaiyer

Shoba Sriaiyer, Founder, Act Now Mantra (Photo by Ekta Dokania)

I met Shoba Sriaiyer at her home in Downtown Seattle. As we watched the sun set over the magnificent Puget Sound Waterfront, we talked about the need for in-person, closed-room conversations in a world increasingly dominated by emerging technologies, and Act Now Mantra, the nonprofit she co-founded in 2017 to promote meaningful conversations between people with diverse opinions.   

(Act Now Mantra was also founded by Rohita Shanker, Lynn Whitbeck, Vicky Chan, Neelesh Kamkolkar, Dolores Gill, and Tres Cozine.)

The following is an excerpt of this conversation.

Ekta Dokania: I was intrigued to learn that Act Now Mantra does not record or do a live-broadcast of their events, which are usually panel discussions or lectures on a topic of civic interest. What is the reason for this?

Shoba Sriaiyer: There is the opinion that if it is not broadcast the things that people share will be very different than if it is broadcast publicly. There is a trust in a closed physical group. Meeting in person builds community and encourages interaction. … Our first event was “Ask a Muslim a Question,” because there was a lot of hatred and the Muslim community was very fearful. We invited Muslims from different countries on the panel — there was an Indian, a Pakistani, an Iranian couple, and an Iraqi lady. … One of them shared that sometimes, at work, he can see the question that his colleagues have but they won’t ask it.

We start all events by saying that the purpose is to initiate conversations. We want the audience to listen to each other with open hearts because we need the moderates in the country to start talking and influence each other in slight ways and see the other’s points of view.

Once, I invited a gentleman who was anti-Gun Control Legislation to participate in a panel discussion. … We met for breakfast at CJs. Technology can connect people in limited ways. You can exchange phone numbers, emails, Facebook comments, but you cannot talk at length. There is only so much you can type and once you type it becomes impersonal. There is me and my computer. I am not really seeing the human being on the other side of the computer. When we met for breakfast, we talked, and while telling me his story, he cried, openly. Seeing him, I cried. This is human connection which will happen only if you are actually with a person. If somebody types, “I wept,” you question that. But when it happens in person, it impacts you in a way that technology can never do.

I believe that is one of the reasons for depression and suicide in the younger generation. Even though they might have a thousand friends on Facebook or Instagram followers there is no depth of connection. Who can they talk to if they really want to, who can they share their hearts with? One needs those people, right? Technology actually dissuades you from doing that because it gives you that false sense of security that you have a lot of friends.

Ekta: How do closed-room conversations help solve critical social issues?

Shoba: Democracy is predicated on the premise that everybody has a place in it, has equal rights and the theory of social contract that everybody’s interest should be looked after—for which everyone’s voice has to be heard. … We are losing some of the basics of democracy and the importance of debate. … For an inclusive society, we need to consciously bring back the art of civic discussions, look at each problem from different angles and be comfortable with what is called cognitive dissonance. I don’t know the answer yet to this social issue and it might have preexisted me. But I am comfortable that any one of these could be the answer.

The initial Act Now Mantra team and volunteer Meeting in the Lobby of Shoba’s Apartment (Photo Courtesy: Act Now Mantra)

Ekta: Tell me about how your life story helped to shape your values.

Shoba: I grew up in a small town in India. My parents were progressive and encouraged me to study and go overseas. I got the chance to go to Japan on a full scholarship. I remember the things that I saw there. When there was the testing of nuclear arsenal in India, in the early ’90s, about four American expatriates asked me how India could do such a thing. US is the largest nuclear power, yet they were questioning me about India’s move. The hypocrisy of it stayed with me. …

We want everyone to be happy but it’s a theoretical concept and one needs to do what they can. I have seen it in my family’s history. My grandfather was a part of India’s freedom movement and went to prison for it. He died young because of Tuberculosis. My mother had to stand up for herself because she was the first daughter-in-law in my dad’s side of the family to go to work. It didn’t happen without any friction. People asked why she can’t be content without a job. It was expected that having a family should be enough for a woman. I am shaped by my and my family’s life experiences, the places I have lived and the questions I have been asked.

It was just impossible to not do anything with the shock that came with the election in 2016. I’m lucky to be surrounded by smart people who care, like Pallavi Garg, Piper Lauri Salogga, Jayant Swamy and Christina Reed. All of us felt guilty of having been complacent. We thought everything was fine and were not aware of how deeply some portions of the population were affected. As we made plans, we realized that to do anything we needed money, a bank account and be registered as a formal organization. The things that we wanted to do came first, and Act Now Mantra was the logical outcome. Since our inception in 2017, we have organized several discussions as part of our Heart-to-Heart series on diverse themes like ‘Ask a Muslim a Question,’ ‘Gun Legislation,’ and ‘What is Feminism.’ Our next event will be ‘What is Masculinity’ which is coming up on February 6.

Ekta: What are your thoughts on gender diversity and the scarcity of women in technology roles?

Shoba: What I hear women say about engineering is that there is not enough support. But I don’t want to talk about the engineering community because I’m not an expert. In an event we organized at Uber we discussed authenticity. In order to be accepted as a leader you need to be authentic. But, in a setup like America, when you are authentic in your own way people don’t understand. The way that I express may not immediately appeal to the majority but that might be authentic to me and that’s a problem.

I think not having enough women in these positions means that there are not enough role models.  Also, … when a woman in a big position makes a mistake it gets reflected as the mistake of not just one person but is representative of all women leaders and that’s not fair. Barack Obama had to be so perfect and blemish-free because he was the first black president and here, we have somebody who has done like a thousand lies and it’s just continuing. When you are from a minority community you become representative of that whole group, it’s not just about you. Women have to be allowed to be imperfect and make mistakes. … We have to get there in order for us to make progress.

Our “What is Feminism” event happened in the same week that Brett Kavanaugh was being interviewed. It was our first ticketed event and got good participation. In that event, we reached the conclusion that women have to keep speaking up, nothing that was worth winning was won just like that.

Ekta: Tell me about the upcoming ‘What is Masculinity?’ event. The description reads that a diverse panel will debate what modern day masculinity looks like and aspires to be for everyone’s wellbeing. What led you to pursue this topic?

Shoba: If women have to get the life that we deserve, men also need to have the space to not be the warrior all the time. Men have to be allowed to cry.  Men have to be able to express gentle emotions. Men have to be able to wear a pink tutu and do ballet or bake a cake. At home, my husband is a chef. We discovered this slowly in my marriage, but it is fine so he’s the one who cooks.

We live in a world where men are now getting parental leave but all that didn’t happen easily. One of the biggest women’s issue is the career break after having a child. Men have to be able to take a break to do the child rearing and they have to be encouraged to do it. They should not be made to feel shy about it. If men are allowed to express gentle emotions, it will become more real and accepted. Women cannot have a good place in society if we don’t allow men to be everything they can be. If we limit their role then our role is automatically limited. It is just a logical follow-up to the feminism event.

ACT NOW Mantra presents the latest in their heart-to-heart series “What is Masculinity?” on Wednesday, February 6 from 5:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at  925, 4th Ave, Seattle, WA 98104. Light refreshments will be served.

Tickets are available at Eventbrite: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/heart-to-heart-series-what-is-masculinity-tickets-54187040898

For more information about ACT NOW Mantra: http://www.actnowmantra.org

This discussion will center around the recent Gillette ad on Toxic Masculinity.

[Editor’s note (2/6/19 at 4:16 p.m.): The names of all the co-founders of Act Now Mantra were added to this story for clarification.]


 

Conversations on Tech and Social Justice: This story was made as part of The Seattle Globalist’s 2019 Emerging Tech Fellowship, in partnership with the University of Washington’s Communication Leadership master’s program.

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