A journey in social impact: A conversation with Prof. Mohan J. Dutta
Raksha Mahtani is currently a teaching assistant in Communications and New Media. Before this, she served as a Research Assistant at the Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE) and at the Asia Research Institute (ARI). Raksha’s work on academic-activist collaborations explores the ways in which social impact can be theorized, measured, and evaluated.
1. Please share with us your CNM journey.
You know, I first came to CNM in 2008, during my sabbatical from Purdue University. This was a way for Debalina and I to be together for the first time as a family in the same space because of the US immigration laws that meant that she had to wait before migrating to the US.
Then head Milagros Rivera was building a department that was truly inter-disciplinary, bringing together computing scientists, interactive media designers, artists, social scientists and humanities scholars to generate a creative space for conversations on the emerging new media landscape and communication. These conversations were truly cutting-edge, pushing the boundaries of how we come to understand the nature of communication. What touched me greatly about the department was this constant exploration of new ideas. Millie planted in me the idea of returning to Singapore. So when she invited me to consider the Headship for CNM, I thought, this would be a great way to continue this conversation. I returned to Singapore in 2010 as Lim Chong Yah Professor, delivered a talk on “Communications and social justice,” and got to meet colleagues once again, and then returned in 2012.
I have been honoured to lead a department with so many inspiring colleagues. Professors T. T. Sreekumar, Ingrid Hoofd, Lonce Wyse, Denisa Kera, Hichang Cho, Milagros Rivera, Julian Lin, Iccha Basnyat, Alex Mitchell, these are some of our many inspiring colleagues to work with, who shaped and helped grow my own thinking. While unfortunately some of these colleagues left CNM, they continued to shape the CNM vision through ongoing conversations. The 2018 Communication Interventions conference we are now holding will see a number of these colleagues return.
Between 2012 and 2018, our department grew rapidly. Our student numbers increased, course offerings covered a depth and a breadth that was unique not only in Asia but globally. I was lucky to lead a curriculum revision that sought to define our core identity and build a learning journey around this identity. When you think of CNM, you think about the kinds of students we attract and nurture. I am proud to witness the journey of students who are deeply grounded in theory, engaged in conversations with practice, and committed to making Singapore and the world a better place to live in. Our curriculum has grown and developed with this ethos at heart. Our internships, partnerships with practitioners, academic-practitioner conversations are all grounded in this ethos of connecting communication to everyday life. Our emphasis on connecting digital making, digital storytelling, art practice, fundamentals of social science (with compulsory quantitative and qualitative research methods) and humanities prepare students that are well-rounded and solidly grounded. Our faculty experiment with a variety of methods of pedagogy, and at the same time offer vital anchors for interrogating these methods in terms of their relationship with the neoliberal university.
To keep up with the student demands, the Department has been on a hiring spurt. We hired a number of young junior colleagues, including Drs. Nancy Flude, Elmie Nekmat, Taberez Neyazi, Jiyoung Chae, Ee Lyn Tan, Sofia Morales, Weiquan Lu, Eun Hwa Jung, Shaohai Jiang, Renyi Hong, Andrew Quitmeyer, Asha Pandi, Dazzelyn Zapata. Each of these colleagues are amazingly inspiring, doing work that is pushing the boundary spaces between communication and digital artefacts, and contributing CNM student learning in ways that push our students to imagine new possibilities. We have been graced by the presence of a number of Visiting Scholars, Professors Harmeet Sawhney, Charles Briggs, Barbara Sharf, Gary Kreps, Deborah Lupton, Jeffrey Peterson, Evelyn Ho, Susan Douglas, Debbie Dougherty, Raka Shome, Sameer Deshpande. These colleagues from across the globe have enriched our worldviews.
I am delighted to see our hard work and creativity as a department be recognized in our global reputation. Not only is CNM a “go-to” department for many peers across the region and Asia who join us to study our curriculum innovations, but we are also recognized for our leadership in building a program with the ethos of “communication that creates.” This creative potential of communication is a theme that resonates across the array of practices in CNM, always with an eye toward generating social impact.
2. You have spoken before of your great affection and fondness for Singapore. How has it been living here?
Living in Singapore has been one of the most joyful experiences of my diaspora life. In almost half of life spent outside my country of origin, I found “home” in Singapore, in its wide diversity of and respect for different cultures. I could be walking down a street, and be immersed in conversations that ranged from Malay to Singlish to Mandarin to Tamil. I could be walking down a few blocks, and find a mosque, a Buddhist temple, A Hindu temple, and a Church, all woven together in a neighbourhood. I could walk into a hawker center and have my fill of the spicy Szechwan Qong Qing chicken, hotpot, thosai, and char kway teow. President Obama described Singapore’s multiculturalism as “rojak—different parts united in a harmonious whole,” drawing reference to the local dish that’s a messy mix of all different fruits, itself a multicultural affair, with Indian, Malay and Chinese influences. Our family, our children born in Singapore, with US passports, and deep roots of joint families in India (both Debalina and I come from Bengali joint families), has found root and meaning in this Singaporean multiculturalism, has learnt life lessons from it, and relished the diversity of interactions.
I have to share with you this story, I had first read about Singapore in an Opinion Piece in The Statesman when I was seventeen or so, about how this tropical nation in Asia that guaranteed universal public housing. Embedded in this initial perception was the story of a state that was committed to the wellbeing of its people. That story had stayed with me.
Debalina and I spent six months, our first six months living together as a couple, in the Gillman Heights apartments (which were already being taken down part-by-part to make room for the design wonder, Interlace), and our first child, Shloke was born here that year. Incidentally, our next two children, Trisha and Soham, were also born in Singapore. The people of Singapore, the hawker centers, China Town, Little India, multicultural conversations, celebrations of difference, these created great impact on my ways of being and thinking. I am touched by the kindness of everyday Singaporeans and their openness to difference.
Although I grew up a Hindu, I love the sound of the Azaan (the Muslim call for prayer that echoes from mosques at early dawn and dusk). Debalina and I have spent precious times walking through the bylanes of Arab Street. The diversity and richness that you see along Bussorah Street, Haji Lane, Bali Lane, Muscat Street, the serenity of the Masjid Sultan Mosque, the food at the local eateries, these are part of our family. Singapore is truly a crossroad of the world, with so many different cultural experiences and narratives flowing through its spaces. The routine everyday interactions, at the hawker stalls and food courts, at the neighbourhood wet market, at the neighbourhood temple, have enriched our souls as a family.
As a scholar who studies everyday life, and does so by building academic-community partnerships, I have been very lucky to build so many embedded relationships in Singapore. Working with families residing in HDBs, and specifically in the rental blocks, with transgender sex workers, with patients in hospital settings, I have come to witness the everyday grace, dignity, and strength of Singaporeans. Forming advisory boards for research projects, I have come away transformed by the depths of conviction and courage of so many community members I meet.
Most importantly, as a teacher, I have been inspired by my many students. They are Singapore’s tomorrow, and in them, I see this beautiful conviction in working toward a better Singapore, in contributing with heart, and in making a difference. We have our alums who have gone on to climb difficult mountains to raise funds for the needy, run social enterprises for women in poverty, develop projects for low income families, create solutions for migrant workers – there is so much heart in all of this. This heart is the other side of the Singapore story, a story often untold.
3. Impact is a theme that often resonates through your conversations. So how do you understand impact?
The question of impact is a tricky one. Impact often depends upon who defines it. For funded projects, it is usually the funder that defines impact, and this is done in the form of knowledge gained, attitudes changed, and behaviors adopted.
Impact itself can become a game, with scholars often making tall claims to carry forward their research careers, with little relevance to community life. You have a lot of posturing that feeds the neoliberal configuration in academia. For instance, you have academics writing about their role in social justice without ever having put their bodies on the line. I have been struck by how often community members, especially the marginalized in a society, note that academia sponsors the sort of “tourism” where academics go in and out of communities, making knowledge claims about the impact, all the while giving back very little in reality to community life. So I am humbled and tentative when talking about impact, grounded in the notion that impact has to be defined by the communities we come to work with. This is especially critical because “community engagement” “ground-up approach” “participatory action research” “PhotoVoice” etc. are the precise tools of the neoliberal University, serving its logics of expanding co-optation and control through the commoditization of social justice and community participation as the “radical chic.”
For me, in my limited knowledge, the impact of the work we have done at CARE as a collective is in two aspects.
The first is in terms of the material interventions we create, with the hard work of researchers, community members, community organizers, and activists. So for instance, when we build a health center with collective community effort, or build community cultural centers for participating in local cultural practices of health (such as songs and dances that community members see as integral to their health), or build community playgrounds, these are material resources that are tangible. Community members can continue to tap on these material resources in the long-run, as well as use these resource and intervention models for their own advocacy in their communities. Similarly, when we petition state development sectors to build irrigation systems or sources of clean drinking water in communities, the interventions are tangible to both community members and research teams.
The second form of impact however is central to the work of the culture-centered approach (CCA), and is the hardest to measure, the creation of communication infrastructures and communicative capacities in communities at the margins. This transforms into the ability of community members to articulate their ideas, and have their voices be heard in ways they find meaningful. Impact in this sense is both a sense of efficacy (the belief that both individually and as a community) in being able to have a voice that can make a difference. So a lot of the work we run on communicative capacity building in collaboration with communities at the global margins translates into the foundations for grassroots democracy that interrogate the practices of marginalization. For instance, in our ongoing work with women farmers across India, the communicative capacity turns into an interrogation of and resistance to the marginalizing neoliberal agricultural policies, not just in local structures, but also into the national and global structures. Similarly, in our collaboration with Project X that we have worked on, the “Stiletto Alliance” advocacy campaign disrupts the normative notions of gender performativity, foregrounding the voices of transgender sex workers that draw out their experiences of pain, strength, and advocacy.
4. What has been your most impactful work in communities worldwide?
The one most impactful project that is very close to me is the “Voices of Hunger” project. It is impactful because the nomenclature of the project, “Voices” and “Hunger” emerges from communities experiencing hunger worldwide. Mapped across five countries currently, from the US to India to Singapore, the project looks at how hunger comes to be understood in the lifeworlds of those with inaccess to material resources. I say this project is impactful because as a communication intervention, it disrupts the erasure of hunger from national discourses. You see, culture has systematically been deployed by those in power to make claims to difference that justifies and perpetuates the hegemony of the elite. The CCA, by inverting culture and by drawing on it as a site of storytelling from the margins, creates narrative anchors that tell hitherto untold stories. The many voices of the marginalized make power uncomfortable, holding it to account through stories, images, and embodied presence. As communicative infrastructures, the sites of storytelling at the margins transform the hegemonic structures of storytelling, thus culturally centering communicative spaces.
5. What are some of the most meaningful moments of your Singapore projects?
One of the projects in Singapore that holds great meaning for me is the “Singaporeans left behind” advocacy project. This project is rooted in our work in building communicative infrastructures for families living in poverty in Singapore, based on the idea that these infrastructures will enable hitherto erased narratives to emerge. A number of CARE team members, Daniel, Sarah, Naomi, Asha, and undergraduate students Ling Yang and Jonathan, have worked on the different stages of what has grown to be a widely networked project with many different components. Our advisory board, comprising of uncle Willie, uncle Daniel, auntie Lily, auntie June, worked together to develop a communication advocacy intervention, carrying it all the way from developing communication strategy to designing the intervention materials to developing tactical elements of the intervention.
When the campaign was released in digital spaces, it reached approximately 1.3 million Singaporeans. The video stories, crafted by advisory group members, and featuring them, introduced into the discursive spaces of Singapore, conversations on hunger, poverty, and inaccess. Moreover, the stories found entry into mainstream and digital media, with feature length stories anchored in the voices of our advisory group members. This project stands out to me, like many of our other projects here, because it created a space for voices that discussed experiences of poverty, hunger, and inaccess. Stories of struggle, community, and change challenge the neoliberal narratives of resilience, individual behavior change, and privatization constructed around poverty.
The project was truly transformative because it created multiple sustainable infrastructures, including building a foundation for a series of sustainable projects that are driven by advisory group members. Material interventions such as running a mobile food delivery infrastructures transformed our research and pedagogical anchors, as well as generated tangible solutions for the communities we were working with. Collaborations with partners such as “Food from the Heart” on food insecurity offered strategic insights on developing material solutions to food insecurity in Singapore.
Moreover, one of the vital indicators of the strength of the project was in how it made various structures respond, seeking to have control over the narratives. Although this became a real challenge for the sustainability of the project, it also demonstrated one of the key indicators of success of the CCA, intervening into the dominant structures.
6. What are some of the major barriers you have faced in trying to realise these projects? Have you managed to overcome them? How?
Let’s take the example I just shared with you. One of the key barriers to social change communication grounded in the habits of everyday democracy is the absence of communicative infrastructures, and the structural responses to these infrastructures. So the system, as a collection of institutions in Singapore, responded critically to the “Singaporeans Left behind” project. The barriers ranged from asking for explanations for why social change, to asking for explanations for the model of the CCA, to asking for modifications to the elements of the campaign. The requests for change that came top-down ranged all the way from requesting process-based changes (such as how the CCA is conducted, who is involved, how the advocacy and publication work is handled) to requests for content-based changes.
I don’t know we really overcame these challenges per se. We found ways of negotiating and carry forward. In some places, we, with the advisory board involved in that decision as a team, made some modifications. In other parts, we didn’t. It was really much like a choreography, with a clear commitment to transformative possibilities grounded in the voices of the margins. This project presents ongoing opportunities for such conversations because poverty is such a taboo topic in Singapore, with invisible out-of-bound (OB) markers.
Broadly, I believe there are two issues here. One is the unfamiliarity with academic work on social change communication which is a major barrier. The hegemonic idea that academics should somehow sit in the ivory tower and theorize from a distance translates into suspicion of an entire body of well-established academic work that traverses the boundaries between the theorizing and the practice of social change. To overcome this, I worked continually on educating the systems, bringing in the literature, drawing from the published literature. Although this is something I had made very clear in conversations I had before taking up the job in Singapore, I realize now that this work of educating the structures and advocating for social change communication is a continuous journey.
The second is built around the suspicion of the foreigner, marked as the outsider. For social scientists broadly conducting field-based work, this challenge has to be negotiated. The “foreigner” tag is often deployed by systems to shut out inconvenient empirical observations. So when I am asked, “As a foreigner, why are you studying Singapore’s poverty?” this is an excellent opportunity for me to educate the relevant stakeholders and to build the spaces for doing the work that needs to be done. That my studies are always local, intricately weaved in with the threads of the global, is a point that I often have to make to resist the xenophobic responses from the system.
7. You have studied social change communication over the last two decades. Most recently, you have worked in Singapore. What do you think about strategies for communication for social change in Singapore?
As one of my favourite authors and colleagues, Professor Cherian George, shares how Singapore’s soft authoritarian model of governance puts in places a variety of strategies of calibrated control. Communication for social change in Singapore creatively negotiates these structures of power and control, deploying a wide range of communication strategies from dialogue to resistance. While on one hand these communicative strategies depict the range of possibilities for how communication is conceptualized, they also foreground the vitality of advocating for communicative spaces itself. I disagree with the body of literature that paints the diverse array of communicative practices under the broad stroke of “accommodation” “pragmatism” or “dialogue” that erases the stories of resistance that community members and activists participate in every day, and in doing so, upholds the status quo. The richness of resistive strategies that you witness in the everyday life of Singapore offer critical anchors for how we theorize social change communication in Singapore. The work I am doing with the veteran Singaporean activist Braema Mathi seeks to address this diversity of communication for social change in Singapore. Braema has been a guiding post in fostering conversations on social change, and we are currently working on a book on social change communication. The white papers she created while at CARE have been powerful interventions in different aspects of social change communication.
8. What advice do you have for students of CNM?
As I shared earlier Raksha, I am inspired by our students. They are our hope, our seeds for imagining tomorrow. I have therefore very little to offer as advice. Instead, I am enthused about learning from them about how they see themselves intervening into the world, and seeing them make a difference through the participation in the everyday life of communication. Given that so much of what we do in communication has been largely colonized by the few that own most of the global resources, the work of social impact is fundamentally about transforming these communicative inequalities. Now this work is not going to be easy because the power elite control most of the global communicative resources. Yet, how you co-create room for designing communication that is democratic and imaginative will be central to the world we will inhabit. How you pursue the path of truth even as communication is deployed toward generating and reproducing falsehoods will be central to the world we have for ourselves in the future. For some of you, you will directly will directly work in civil society, in activist projects, in advocacy interventions. For many others of you, you will go to work in various disciplines and organisations – in civil services and in the corporate sectors. Remember this, no matter where you go and what you do, how you make a difference while pursuing the path of truth is going to be at the heart of your everyday practice. Raksha reminded me of this beautiful Toni Morrison advice, “I tell my students, 'When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.”
9. What thoughts you have for your colleagues in CNM?
I am so very proud of you, and proud of CNM. Keep doing the amazing work you are doing, pushing the boundaries of thought and practice through the imagination of communication and digital infrastructures of tomorrow. Inhabit with pride the spaces of radical difference you have created. Your creativity, brilliance, experiments with new thoughts, and commitment to making a difference inspire me. With this spirit, you will create a world that is socially just, transformative, grounded in theory, and embedded in deep empiricism. The CNM spirit, one of pushing the established boundaries, will carry on through your work and teachings in the classroom. I look forward to your ongoing experiments with communication and digital futures.