Time and time again life has shown me that things also together in their right place when they have to. In the fall of 2016, when I first landed in the US, I came with the ambition of doing something remarkable for my project- My Voice Unheard.
Yes. I was excited about my degree but I really wanted to use my time to the fullest and come out the following year with sustainable connections. I had three aims. One to register with a social innovation hub, two to get a coffee table book published and three to register MVU as an organization in the US. As I was settling in, I started exploring opportunities in my college. Knowing I was going to be here for a year and a half, I impatiently looked up opportunities of an entrepreneurial hub. Sticking to my original plan, I contacted publishers at my earliest to get our stories published. The response from publishers was good because obviously self-publication is not that big of a deal. But the question was, did I need self-publication? If so, what was the cost and how much input was required from my side. First semester gone, and I discarded the idea of self-publishing. I started thinking that were not at a stage where we could publish these books because we needed delicacy in our stories that made them unique. Having just the title of Muslim narratives was not enough. And so, I decided that I needed to know more about storytelling techniques and polish the writing style before going for publishing.
After this my next step was to look at how to get MVU registered in the US.
During the fall of 2016, I not only reached publishers but also started reaching out to people at The New school. With Trump’s election, I had all the more reason to highlight Muslim narratives. Being at The New school which is well known for its progressive, inter-disciplinary and rebellious philosophy, I thought MVU was the perfect project to pitch in. It was perfect timing; it was a perfect project. Thinking this, I reached out to the president of my university as well as the Dean of NSSR. I really appreciate the time these people took to know more about MVU but nothing significant came out of it. I was encouraged, yes. But that was not enough. I needed real action and real support. I was looking for a place where I could incubate my idea. So I started reaching out to non-profits who potentially could have been interested in what I was doing. I got in touch with one of those who were willing to incubate an international project, but because I did not have a team here, I could not participate. My idea of incubating MVU was falling apart. Because we did not have a business model and because we were not making any money, I thought it was really important to be under the roof of an expert who could help me with the business model. I knew deep down that all the people engaged in this initiative were giving their time without money and I wanted to be extremely fair with them. I was also very keen on developing a sustainable business model because of my own ambition to take this initiative to the next stage. I had even thought of dedicating it a 100% of my time upon my return to Pakistan. But this was only possible if I could design a sustainable business model.
While I was meddling with this, I was also concerned about my own presence as an individual on social media. So I also reached out to social media strategists at the new school to gain insight on how to operate my own and MVU account. Spring 2017 had begun and there was nothing concrete in my hand. Business wise, publishing, registration, incubation. I had nothing. I was so exhausted and disappointed with myself that I had started self-doubting. I thought I wasn’t capable enough to pull anything for MVU. I wasn’t capable enough to talk to people to take them onboard. Since my degree had no internship or thesis requirements, I was a free bird, but the thought of finding a good job upon my return would haunt me. Yes I have a profile, but academics is competitive like any other discipline and you have to be really distinct to land a good job. This semester I decided to join psychology labs and give my research skills a try. This was also the opportunity for me to see whether all my effort for MVU was worth it. Were these stories making a difference? Was this project based on assumptions that violate human behavioral trends? Were we targeting the right thing in the right way?
Since all my other aims with MVU had almost shattered, I thought it was time I reconciled the academics and the practical world by figuring out whether these stories actually reduced a person’s prejudice. Hence, I decided to begin my research on whether these stories were reducing somebody’s prejudice against Muslims. That semester I could not even begin it. Perhaps I was slow. Perhaps I was undecided. Perhaps I did not trust the project enough. Summer came and I got extremely busy with my schedule.
By this time although I had settled well enough in the city, I had lost my interest in pursuing all the goals I had thought of for MVU.
Fall, Spring, Summer. These three semesters or say, this one year. I had hit on numerous avenues that I could explore. Be it academic, incubation, social media, research, story-telling. I had written numerous emails and subscribed to a million newsletters. I knew that in some way I wasn’t targeting the right people. But by this time, we had launched the US chapter and reached out to many people in US as well as UK. Now we called ourselves an international journalism project. There was progress. We had launched a few documentaries and campaigns. We applied to a couple of grants which were rejected so we were now exhausting our own resources. In any case, there was work, there was progress but nothing concretes in my view.
As Fall, 2017 started, I knew it was my last semester here and I would be going back with something. Maybe not the way I had planned, but something at least. Some sort of presence I believe. During this time, I received an email from Columbia Oral History Master Program to participate in their internship program. Under this, My Voice Unheard was recognized as a US based Oral history project and they wanted their master students to intern with us.
This one thing, restored my self-confidence. Because of no progress, I internalized it as a failure of the self. Although nothing was a failure. I thought I was incapable of partnerships.
With this project however, I restored faith in myself. I never doubted the worth of MVU, but in this process I doubted my own worth.
After a whole year of disappointment, here I had this great opportunity with Columbia, the finest institute with the most substantial and widespread program in oral history. It taught me so many things. It taught me that I don’t have the right to blame myself for things I can’t control. And that I am a person separate from my work. My work should not be the only thing that defines my worth. This also reinforced my belief that hard work will always pay off. Yes, I had a really hard time for a whole year. But I knew I had worked hard. Perhaps this bothered me more than the failures. The fact that I knew I had worked hard with my truest intentions but I could not see the result. I was frustrated. This also reinforced another belief- that is- things will happen when the time is right. I don’t know what to call this phenomenon, but it has been true for me. Maybe it’s the Murphy’s law. If it can happen, it will happen.
My experience as a co-founder of a small ambitious initiative in a very competitive market taught me so many things. It taught me that just because I was the co-founder of MVU and I came to NY, did not mean that a USA chapter has begun. And starting the US chapter did not mean that I had to get it registered. It could exist without registration. Getting a coffee table book published did not mean we had substance. Incubation is not the only way we could proceed with new ideas.
Things fall apart but they also fall together. Just because people were voluntarily involved with MVU did not mean we were unfair. It only meant that there was a non-monetary benefit that this platform was giving to all these people and that I didn’t need to feel bad about it. I was not depriving anyone of any choice that they could make and that volunteering was a choice that people had actively made because they thought there was substance in this idea. Having a sustainable source of income is good, but is not the only way in which activism should exist. Having a sustainable business model is important, but not necessary for an initiative to exist. Progress doesn’t have to be in exactly the same way that we think it should be. There is progress always. Just in different ways and its important to be open minded.