Preethi Herman, 2018 Obama Foundation Fellow

For me this is not just a project. It's a fundamental transformation of how women make their voices heard and how decisions are made in a society.”

—Preethi Herman
2018 Obama Foundation Fellow

Unleashing the Power of Women

Preethi Herman

When Preethi Herman left her hometown in Southern India, she discovered that there are millions of problems in the world—but just as many people to solve them. She founded the She Creates Change program at the Change.org Foundation in India to unite people around her country and beyond to drive for that change—and to keep women’s leadership at the forefront of it.

Change.org is a global petitions company designed to empower a generation of first-time leaders to take action in their communities. Five years ago, Preethi established the platform in India as part of the Change.org Foundation, a sister organization to Change.org that uses the platform in global south countries to build citizen-led social movements on a regional, national and international level. When she noticed that just twenty-three percent of the platform’s users were women, Preethi created She Creates Change to help more women become social change champions and leaders in their community. The organization helps users start petition campaigns that address any issue they choose—from combating patriarchy to getting more women involved in every level of decision making in their communities.

Q: To start, maybe you can tell me a little bit about yourself? Where did you grow up? What is your family like?

A: I am originally from the South of India. I grew up in a very loving, but very low income family. I think I grew up seeing my mother—I didn’t fully appreciate it back then—being the person who kept my family and everything we had together and ensured that my brother and I had access to an education. And honestly, I just could not get along with my mom. Looking back, I was fortunate to have seen an incredibly strong woman step up to do what was needed for her family. I don’t think I understood the depth and enormity of this, nor the influence it had on me until much later.

I grew up in a very conservative household in an area with a lot of wildlife and nature. I have a strong connection to nature because of it, but until the age of fifteen, I wasn’t allowed out of my home other than to go to school or to go to church. That took quite a toll on me. My exposure to the world around me was really limited. Mind you, this was before I could access the Internet. We hardly had newspapers, and we had one library that was not accessible. I was hungry to understand what the world was like and tried to paint a picture by piecing together the little bits I heard or saw. I grew up being told to be a certain person behaving a certain way, and I eventually hit a phase of rebellion when I decided to move out of my hometown to Bangalore to study there.

Q: How do you think those early experiences—your upbringing, leaving your hometown—shaped your journey to where you are today?

A: Deciding to leave my hometown was my first step towards beginning to explore what I wanted to do. It’s been a long journey, there have been several ups and downs. I knew that I wanted to do something that would make me happy. I overcompensated for the lack of that kind of freedom in my life when I was younger, and ended up channeling all of my passion into work.

I worked with indigenous communities and very marginalized communities in slums, and honestly, I failed at some parts of that because my privilege didn’t allow me to see things clearly sometimes. I didn’t grow up in a slum or in extreme poverty, so it was difficult for me to really empathize and understand issues of people who lived in those conditions. There were times when I could have been patronizing or insensitive, even though that certainly wasn’t my intention.

Q: Did that change at some point? Do you feel you get a better sense of your privilege later as your career grew?

A: Humbling experiences like that forced me to recognize the limitations of my capacity and privilege. I put myself in situations that would allow me to experience the reality beyond my privilege. I lived in a tribal community that had no roads, no electricity, or medical facilities. You had to walk about four or five kilometers to get to the closest village or town. Those experiences still drive my work and life.

When I grew tired of looking for solutions to huge issues like poverty on my own, I started recognizing the potential of regular citizens to be changemakers. I am convinced that social change cannot be monopolized by a group of people or organizations and that needs to be a truly collective effort. There are millions of problems in this world, and the solutions are going to have to come from millions of people.

As I was playing around with that idea, a friend of mine told me about Change.org, which was just very new at the time. They encouraged me to apply, and I ended up helping establish and bringing to scale Change.org in India.

Q: What was it like getting Change.org up and running in India?

A: We started out trying to showcase how people can use technology to accelerate connection, reach and impact. We also started showcasing how anybody could become a changemaker. And it worked. We now have more than twelve million people using Change.org in India and several hundred stories of impact driven by regular people.

We were bringing attention to taboo topics like female genital mutilation, getting top decision-makers to interact with citizens, and helping to bring about change on everything from road safety and pension taxes to maternal health and child protection.

I’m proud of it, I’m proud of my team and all that we’ve been able to achieve, but more than that, I think this work really reinforced my belief in the leadership and the goodness of people. I really believe that if people are given a chance or find themselves in a situation that makes them angry or frustrated at a social issue enough to want to change it, anyone can be a changemaker.

Four years down the line, however, we started noticing a trend of the platform being used mostly by men—at the time I think seventy-seven percent of our users in India were men. It really shattered me. I couldn’t believe it. Just twenty percent of our users were women! We hardly had any petition campaigns run by women, but yet, data showed that even though they were fewer in number, women won more campaigns.

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Q: That’s interesting. Why were the women-led campaigns more successful, even if there were fewer in number?

A: Well, out of all the advocacy campaigns people were focusing on, most of them that were run by women had powerful storytelling. The stories normally came from a place of personal experience of discrimination, so they were incredibly relatable. They made it easier for people to connect with huge issues more personally, so it was a great way to mobilize people around their cause.

Their work also built community. A lot of the women who started a petition had no idea what to do, so they would ask for help and would look to crowdsource the strategy. It’s a beautiful kind of leadership that is community-oriented and really persistent. All of these helped them win their advocacy campaigns, even though they took longer.

This pattern also made me reflect on my experiences of growing up in the place I did and going through multiple experiences of being a woman in a country that would not see me—or other women—as equal, and had culturally-set norms and roles for them even in the most progressive spaces. I think that’s what led us to focus on getting more women on the platform, and it helped us realize that this work is so much more than a “women’s project.”

We had to ask ourselves why we weren’t seeing more women leaders across the board, and that question took me on a journey that I’m still on. My entire life seems to have been in preparation for what I’m doing now, which is just being able to have empathy for others and insight into different experiences to ultimately empower women to step up to be leaders.

I’m acknowledging and unleashing the untapped power of half of the world's population.”

—Preethi Herman, Obama Foundation Fellow

Q: You just mentioned that your work is beyond a “women’s project.” What do you mean by that?

A: I’ve always been unhappy at my work being described as a women’s project. A women’s project or gender-related program or anything to do with women has always been seen as a category. I like to think that since we’re talking about fifty percent of the world, it’s not just a small category or area of expertise; it’s half of the world.

It’s not just women’s work, and I fear that bucketing it into such a small category completely undermines the scale and the power and the potential of what we’re doing and what’s already happening.

It’s not to say that I don’t respect or value moments like International Women’s Day, I certainly do—especially when it comes to the suffragette movement—but it’s challenging to see how it’s become a commercialized, “pink” day. It’s a day to recognize that women are not a category, or a sub-section. This is a human issue and we need to acknowledge the scale of what we’re doing. I’m acknowledging and unleashing the untapped power of half the world’s population.

Q: Building on that, can you describe what the world would look like in India and beyond as your work grows its impact?

A: The She Creates Change program is about identifying potential changemakers, providing them training, and building community around them by bringing them together and encouraging collaboration. The broader impact of this work would be a generation of women changemakers who are involved and whose voices are heard at every level of society.

In India specifically, I would see women who would set new norms of equality, act as role models for others and inspire future leaders. They would change the debate on almost everything. They would be able to accomplish incredible things because they will be strong women leaders who can master technology to reach even further. That is what will transform a lot of the inequalities we see around the world, especially in the global south countries. And it all has to be tailored to each country, community, and person trying to do this work. The biggest mistake one could ever make is trying to use a one-size-fits-all model of change.

Q: Is there any advice you’d like to share with people who are interested in the kind of work you’re doing?

A: Trust your instincts and believe in yourself. This life and work can be really isolating. Most of the changemakers I work with have mentioned to me that the biggest thing they need to be effective and impactful is support from others, especially the community of changemakers; because the most difficult part of their journey had been the feeling of being alone in doing what they were doing.

A lot of women involved in this work need to pull themselves up from the depths of disempowerment that they or their society or their families pushed them into. Those are harsh words, but that’s the reality. I feel that isolation consistently, even now. There are always going many more people who say to you that you are not capable, that you shouldn’t be doing it, than people who cheer you on and support you no matter what you do.

The additional piece of advice I’d like to share is that it’s okay to make mistakes. You will mess up, and you’ll learn from it, and then you’ll move on. I think the thing that I’ve learned, especially now that I’m a mom…

Q: You’re a new mom? Congratulations!

A: Yes. (laughter). Our daughter came to us a lot earlier than we expected. My spouse and I become instant parents and I don’t think there is anything in the world that can prepare you for that.

Switching to mom mode has been quite chaotic and a big hit on my self-esteem. Suddenly, everything you do becomes something that could probably have been done better. It took me a little while, but the minute I started trusting myself and going with my gut, I started relaxing more. I started seeing better results. My daughter started responding better to me, everyone else started responding better to me, and it was exactly what I tell my changemakers all the time: Trust yourself. I think that advice is for everyone no matter where you are or what you’re doing in life.

Q: Wow, congratulations again. Before we end on that joyful note, I was hoping you could tell me how the Obama Foundation Fellowship has impacted you and your work?

A: I don’t think there’s been anything else in my life that has been so focused on my growth and my well-being than this fellowship. The kind of support I’m being given is something that leaders like me don’t usually get because we’re always on the run, and I was surprised to see that I even needed it. I was so busy paying attention to all at the things I needed to do, I didn’t realize that maybe, if I’m taken care of or provided with a certain amount of support, I could do all those things better. I feel very lucky and grateful to be with the other Obama Fellows who are truly a community of inspiring leaders and incredible and yet humble human beings. In many ways, this program has done a She Creates Change on me.

You can learn more about Preethi, Change.org, and meet our other current class of Fellows here.

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