Lysa John is Secretary-General of the CIVICUS World Alliance for Citizen Participation. She has worked on issues of governance accountability and social justice since 1998. She most recently worked with Save the Children International as their Global Campaign Director, and previously served as Head of Outreach for the UN High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Agenda. Born in India, Lysa John spent the early part of her career working on grassroots-led advocacy and large-scale campaigns, including at Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA), ‘Wada Na Todo Abhiyan’ (Don’t Break the Promise Campaign, India) and the Global Call to Action against Poverty (GCAP).
We caught up with Lysa recently and she shared some reflections from her time at YUVA, her thoughts on the changing civil society landscape, and more. Excerpts from the interview are reproduced with permission below.
1. Could you share with us some major learnings from your time at YUVA?
One of the most significant lessons gained from working at YUVA is the need for organisations to continuously clarify what they stand for and link all efforts back to these fundamentals. At YUVA, our focus on the five core values — social justice, gender justice, environmental sustainability, honesty and integrity, secularism and democracy — as the basis of everything we do provided a strong orientation to what the organisation ultimately stood for. This allowed us to actively check our direction of travel and offered immense collective strength and energy when facing setbacks or challenges. Even today, when I meet people from YUVA there is a conviction that we share and represent the values that brought us together then.
The second major learning is the range of strategies we would deploy to achieve our mission. YUVA is very uniquely positioned to drive holistic change at various levels, ranging grassroots action to international advocacy. YUVA’s 11 levels of interventions provided a template for us to think about change in a multi-dimensional way rather than in a piece-meal fashion. This enabled us to undertake a wide range of actions and initiatives, ranging from seeking legal reparations for victims of communal riots locally to supporting the organising of major global gatherings, including the first World Social Forum held in Mumbai in 2004.
At YUVA, we also learnt to think of how we served the interests of civil society and social movements more broadly, as opposed to focusing on immediate organisational interests in isolation. Staff at YUVA were always challenged to think of our contribution in relation to broader trends in human rights. This commitment to broader ideals and enhanced strategies has been an invaluable lesson to me in my roles beyond YUVA as well.
2. YUVA’s grassroots work has been at the core of interventions from the start and we have also engaged in advocacy efforts over the years. Going forward, how do you feel we can continue to strengthen our grassroots work while developing our position of influence?
YUVA has been very active in taking voices from the ground to policymakers at the national and international levels. Very few organisations currently represent such a breadth of reach and influence. The organisation has played an important role in building and strengthening grassroot-led alliances, such as with the Nagpur-based Shehar Vikas Manch (City Development Forum) which has been bringing local communities together to articulate their developmental concerns in the context of cities; while the ‘Ekal Mahila Sangathan’ (Single Women’s Coalition) enabled joint actions against violence and eviction by single women across the city of Mumbai.
More recently, YUVA’s ComplexCity which aims to bridge differences by encouraging dialogue and engagement between people is particularly significant as we live in a time where the extreme polarisation among classes and communities is a growing threat across countries. This makes it imperative for civil society organisations to engage with one another and the public, to bridge the social barriers and address the real issues that drive deprivation and discrimination across contexts. YUVA’s work on combining grassroots work, advocacy and public opinion building offers important lessons in this regard.
3. Given the changes in the civil society landscape vis-à-vis human rights, how do you feel organisations should approach the rights framework?
In the current times, we are facing multiple onslaughts on the human rights framework, and there is increasing move to shut down or curb the important work that civil society undertakes to achieve these rights, or call out violations. We need to revitalise our ability to engage communities and the public on human rights issues. In doing so, we also need to find ways to learn from the rights-related achievements we secured in earlier decades so that we keep reminding ourselves and the world that many of the entitlements that are being eroded (or taken for granted) today have resulted from long periods of struggle.
Further, we need to be innovative in shaping policies and actions that would help us address new and emerging social and environmental challenges with greater intelligence and effectiveness. Whether it be the rights of stateless populations, issues of data privacy or the protection of natural resources, we need to invest in strategies and tools that will help us keep up with the changes we expect to see tomorrow, rather than only mitigate the challenges of the day. Doing this requires new thinking on how we can unlock the exchange of ideas, expertise and resources for change across citizens, civil society and other stakeholders.
4. What do you feel are the major implications of increasing privatisation and decreasing role of the state in public affairs in India?
Globally, there is an increasing debate about the role of businesses. Wealth and resource concentration is increasing in the hands of a few, and the case is no different in India as well. Across countries, we are witnessing a powerful nexus between governments and businesses, with devastating social and environmental consequences. As evidenced by the research undertaken through initiatives like the CIVICUS Monitor and Annual State of Civil Society reports, legal and policy safeguards aimed at protecting social, economic and civic rights are being dismantled at a rapid pace, even as the obscene concentration of wealth in rich and poor countries is fuelling unprecedented levels of repression and violence against human rights defenders.
We need to be aggressive in how we hold businesses and governments accountable in sharing information and adhering to human rights standards. In doing so, we should also work on mainstreaming the case for human rights among consumer lobbies and business leaders who are willing to do the right thing. Their collaboration is critical to the lasting solutions we need on issues like tax justice, domestic resource mobilisation and climate change. We have to be ready to oppose and call out unethical practices and also continue to look for champions who can drive change within these systems from the inside.
5. Could you comment on YUVA’s investment in people and how it has been able to steer the organisation across the decades?
YUVA’s focus on building people to lead change has been unique. There has been a commitment to personal growth and leadership development across the board. I recall that staff across the organisation were actively provided the opportunity to join leadership development programmes that encouraged us to think about ourselves with the responsibility (and ambition) needed to be a change maker and future leader of the sector.
Most people I know from YUVA remember their time with the organisation as a critical phase in their careers. This is because the organisation gave us the inputs and opportunities we needed to flourish. We need to reinforoce this culture of investing in the next generation of change makers more widely across organisations. New recruits need to be invested with a sense of being not just part of a specific project or agency, but with the understanding that they have important contributions to make to the diversity and innovation we need as a sector.
6. What is your message for YUVA?
My journey with YUVA has been a significant and influential part of my life. It was my first job, and everything I have done after has been built on values and experiences that I gained here. My message to colleagues at YUVA would be to embrace all opportunities available to understand yourself and the change you can inspire in the world. Very few organisations provide this space to explore and tap into one’s potential in the way that YUVA does. You are fortunate to be here (as we were) — make the most of it!