In celebration of International Women’s Day, we are sharing a series of interviews
with incredible women who #PressForProgress and are making a difference in Canada and around the world. Check our blog throughout the month of March for new inspiring interviews.
Name: Anu George Canjanathoppil
Occupation: Director of Operations, IJM New Delhi
How she's making a difference: Working through partnerships to accomplish the vision and mission of IJM.
1) Tell us a bit about yourself.
I guess one can say I’m a puzzling mix for most…a bit of an entrepreneur, a street theatre performer, a news reader, lawyer and the biggest piece, that of a relentless justice seeker. However, whichever way one looks at it, I believe everything I add up to, stems from the environment I grew up in and the foundations laid by my parents. The strongest memories I have growing up in a home with 2 older brothers was the constant encouragement –I would go as far as to say goading– to stand up for what is just and right. My parents treated all three of us children in exactly the same way – no differences, no partiality, no favoritism. I say this specifically because that is definitely a luxury for most daughters born in an Indian household. Daughters are often seen as a liability because of the huge dowry which is expected to be spent on them. I have been extremely lucky and I have learnt that it cannot be taken for granted.
My father is a very unconventional Indian man, in more ways than one. And believe me, I don’t say this only because he is my father. Early in life I began to realize that he was different from most other fathers. For starters, he was the one who stayed at home while Amma, my mother, went out to pursue her career. My father is a quaint and unusual mix of farmer-writer-sculptor-cartoonist-screenwriter-pathbreaker and so much more which I am still discovering. He refuses to be put into any stereotype - something he does with a unique, enviable ease.
He has been and is my greatest inspiration – and the often difficult things I learn from him are my greatest and most abiding lessons. I have seen him stand his ground – even when there was no audience, no applause and no recognition. I have seen him give himself up unconditionally to the values he held true and strong. I have seen him train his sight vertically in faith, and refrain from too much disappointment when looking horizontally at people around proved difficult. Over the years and through the checkered events of my life, I have often had reason to go back to these priceless lessons (and my father) to be assured that it is all worth it - every single challenge, failure, success, doubt, certainty, faith, sorrow and celebration.
2) What unique gifts do you bring to the world?
To be honest, it has taken me some time to see some of my strong personality traits as unique gifts. I am thankful for those in my life who have never given up reminding me again and again that they are gifts. One of these as observed by colleagues, I believe is the ability to respond with a clear head in times of emergency.
For me, the time to panic and be unnerved is usually after the situation has been dealt with effectively and in as many ways as possible. Then, I guess reaction sets in and its okay to let the counterpoise kick in. Over the years I have also learnt that to be able to identify immediately and intensely with another person’s pain, whether it is physical, mental or spiritual, is indeed a gift. This has often helped to establish an immediate connection with people in every line of work I have had the opportunity to be involved in.
3) How are you making a difference right now?
My work with International Justice Mission has given me a range of opportunities I could only have dreamed about anywhere else in the world! More so because the work we do to bring justice to the poor is so, so close to my heart. In my initial roles with the organization, I had the unique opportunity to lead teams that go out on to the field to liaise with the government to bring rescue, rehabilitation and prosecution to survivors of bonded labor in the country. Those are experiences I will never forget– the more than 10,000 people who were rescued by our teams and the thousands more who were impacted, the circumstances of their bondage and then the hope they were able to experience and live with! The stories of transformation we have been part of are embedded in my heart as windows of light and love.
In my present role, I have the opportunity to move into another area of work I have begun to enjoy – overseeing the operations of the Delhi Field Office, which is developing a new model of working through partnerships to accomplish the vision and mission of the organization. This role gives me a bird’s eye view of the lay of the land and allows me to expand my vision and thereby get creative with how this very urgent problem can be addressed.
4) What motivates you to do what you do?
As I mentioned before, the work of justice became personal to me very early in my life. Whether it is the course of events in my own life or the things I have seen happen in the lives of those close to me (family and very close friends) injustice, violence, abuse, discrimination, and any kind of inequality just spurred me to act first – and think later. This has definitely gotten me into more scrapes than I can recount in a single conversation and has led me into places where I would not have ventured, had I applied any thought. But I must say that I have absolutely no regrets about any of it. The way I see it (and have had great role models to demonstrate it for me right at home) if I say or do nothing when things are not right – I inadvertently become a perpetrator of that injustice too.
It is thus so significant for me that I was hired to join IJM as a lawyer, giving me the perfect place to join a team of people with a tenacious desire to stand up and speak up against injustice and abuse. What made it even more compelling is that IJM in India works with the government and the public justice system to end the prevalence of Bonded Labour – a practice which was declared a crime by an Act passed way back in 1976! To witness the impunity with which it is still practiced in various parts of the country just breaks my heart and I am just grateful for the chance to be a part of abolishing this form of injustice.
5) Why are you passionate about the work of IJM? How do you show your support?
I don’t even need to think twice to answer this question unequivocally – it is the IJM Theory of Change articulated by Gary Haugen, our founder and CEO, in his book ‘The Locust Effect’
that draws me to the work we do! I believe he effectively captured the ethos of our present world and outlined the only way out of it, into a world where justice for everyone, including the poor, is possible. What makes it even closer to my heart is that it perfectly reflects lessons from my own life. The first step to ending poverty is to end violence. And the only way to end violence is by the public justice system working effectively for the poor in the country.
It is really that simple and that complicated. And when I thought about how I could support this amazing and compelling work, again, there seemed to be just one way – to pluck myself away from everything familiar, comfortable and complacent to join the team of fearless and passionate workers at IJM. And so, yes, here I am….7 years into this amazing journey!
6) What would you like to see happen for women in the future?
You have asked me my dream question! What I would like is to be part of ushering in a world where women are free to be just women – not like men, not equal to men, not afraid, not ashamed, not denied, not abused because they are weak or vulnerable, not violated because they speak up, not shamed for exercising fundamental rights…a world in which women are free to just be women in their own right.
And to anyone who may think this kind of a world sounds a tad utopian, my response is to ask "why”. Because I believe this is the picture of a world that would finally qualify as "normal”. The way things should be.
7) If you could have a coffee chat with any woman, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
Strong women, grounded on their beliefs against all odds have always inspired and stirred me. In the Canadian context, I would love have the opportunity to engage in a conversation with Madame Jeanne Sauve – a woman of many path-breaking firsts to her name. Her visionary approach was unconventional and I have been one of the many who benefitted from it as a Sauve Fellow a few years ago. Her legacy lives on, in and through the hundreds of young leaders from around the world, who have become stronger and more determined change agents through the amazing work of the Foundation.
Apart from the Canadian context I would have loved to meet with the almost legendary Rosa Parks. Her famous words make an indelible impression on my mind even today: "I would like to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free… so other people would be also free.” When this 42-year-old African-American seamstress refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on the Montgomery City bus, she did something which was hitherto unheard of.
Her one single, brave and determined action ignited a boycott which continued for 381 days, until the city repealed its law enforcing racial segregation on public buses. The rest as they say, is history, as Rosa went on to become known as ‘the first lady of civil rights’ in the United States.
In my own life, I have had more than a few instances and opportunities to stand up and say "no” to injustice and everyday violence, in the ways I know. Rosa Parks and her courage to be unafraid and be the first to stand up against an ‘accepted’ norm is a continuous inspiration.
8) What’s your favourite inspiring quote?
"When our grandchildren ask us where we were when the voiceless and the vulnerable of our era needed leaders of compassion and purpose, I hope we can say that we showed up, and that we showed up on time"– Gary Haugen, President and CEO, International Justice Mission
9) What advice do you have for the women in our audience who want to make a difference in the world?
I have a "call” going out from my heart to the heart of every woman, every ally, every sister, every partner, every kindred spirit out there. It is a personal creed which has served as an excellent guidepost, keeping me on track over the years. The first pointer of this personal creed is:
1. Be afraid. It may sound strange, but I encourage you to be afraid. Someone once said that courage is not the absence of fear but the journey you are willing to take to overcome it. Be afraid of your actions. The simplest example I can give here is when you are driving. The more afraid you are of the consequences of your actions the more attentive you are, right? In this case, you are out in the world, trying to make a difference in the lives of people and you must be afraid of the consequences of your action and in some cases, inaction.
2. Be Someone Else. We all tend to have an idea of who we think we are. You are probably not who you think you are. You are always more than what you think you have figured yourself to be. Have the courage to be that someone else because that someone else could be you. That peculiar someone may actually be your true identity. A person willing to challenge the norms and be an exception. Not because it is cooler but because that is who you simply are. Be someone else. Put yourself in the shoes of another person. Why? Because that will help you bridge the gap from being sympathetic to empathetic. Be someone else- and then keep telling yourself who you are because it is so easy to forget.
3. Show up! My decision to dedicate my life to work that would make justice for the poor possible became more cemented after a very personal experience with violence and injustice. I was working in Mumbai with some street children, teaching them theatre and drama, which apparently irked some local mafia guys. I was attacked one evening by a group of men – brutally beaten, threatened and verbally abused. No one came to recue me. No one came to support me or even protect me from these men. I managed to escape, but not before incurring some major losses – I lost a few teeth, a lot of blood, most of my faith in human beings and my own sense of self and worth. I recovered slowly with the unfailing support of my family…and here I am! We are all kind of making crossword puzzles with our lives, looking to fill those spaces with something meaningful. Find that space – find a place where you can add value. Don’t wait – you can start today.
4. Woman up! What do I mean by that? Start looking at the world as made up of different parts – each supporting the other. Women are not the weaker, needing-strengthening-part. Start recognizing the inherent strength that supports the whole. Give dignity where dignity is required and this is something all of us need to be sensitive to. It is only when we are able to look at the symbiotic nature of our lives that we are going to make any sustainable change or difference anywhere.