Breathing Life into Public Policy

News & Politics

As the founder and executive director of Breakthrough: Building a Human Rights Culture, Mallika Dutt thinks hard about how to bridge policymaking and popular culture.

Dutt has been working on human rights organizing and policy for 20 years. She was a founding member of Sakhi for South Asian women, and later associate director of the Center for Women's Global Leadership, which was instrumental in the campaign to redefine international human rights law to include violations that affect women, such as rape, as a war crime. She was then the Ford Foundation program officer for human rights in India.

Breakthrough's first effort, which Dutt produced on her spare time from the Ford Foundation, was an album of songs about women's rights. The album’s title track music video became a hit, winning India's MTV Screen Award. The group also participated in a campaign to pass India's first national domestic violence law. The organization continues to work on violence and HIV/AIDS issues there. Breakthrough's major U.S. effort was to host a series of town hall discussions about immigration policy in major cities featuring performances by the writer and actor Sarah Jones. This was followed by Speak UP Act UP for New America, which encouraged young immigrants to get involved in civic affairs. As Dutt prepares to launch a major popular culture campaign on human rights in the U.S. with a focus on immigration and criminal justice issues to rival her work in India, she discusses her transformation from policy wonk to music producer.

How did you get the idea of doing a song and video?

After 20 years, I was frustrated with the rarified world in which human rights work existed. The language of human rights was extremely legalese-oriented. We used words like "state action" and "public and private spheres" and "accountability" -- very important words but when you tried to use them in a context outside of your little group, people looked at you with blurred eyes.

I wanted to find a vocabulary and a language that resonated with the public, particularly young people. So, while I was in India, I started to go and meet people in the entertainment business on my own time. I began with talking about women's rights, violence against women was a critical issue, blah blah, and they all laughed at me. Across the board, whether it was Sony or Virgin or BMG, the idea of trying to do something popular around domestic violence or dowry deaths was a no-flier. But they gave me lots of advice.

They said it can't be didactic, you can't beat people over the head, the music's got to be so kick-ass that people are going to want to play it.

I bought all the indy pop music that had come out lately. I listened to I don't know how much horrible stuff until I heard one album that I loved called Ab Ke Sawan. I said okay, this is my team. Then I had to find these people, they were just names on the back of an album cover -- so I pulled strings to get phone numbers, and I set up meetings and pitched this idea of doing an album on women's rights. The music video was inspired by a true story of a woman I had heard testify at a hearing around violence against women in the Muslim community. This notion of crafting music that spoke of emotion and hopes and desires rather than issues came together magically.

How are you picking your issues?

I believe that we have to find ways to do multi-issue, multi-identity organizing. I haven't found a paradigm other than human rights that enables that kind of coalition. People don't live their lives in these narrow, segmented ways we do our organizing in. Our issues have emerged quite organically. For example, if we are working on women and HIV/AIDS, we locate our work in the broader context of gender relations. If we talk about detentions and deporations, we try to draw parallels to the over-incarceration of African Americans.

People say that politics don't make for good art. At the same time, funders are obsessed with concrete policy outcomes that cultural work can't generally claim. What's your take on that?

Art and music are tools, but they are also the way in which one creates the fabric of values. I think the notion of culture is a much bigger concept than art and politics being said in the same breath. I also believe that we have to talk about values and culture in the context of human rights and social justice. The words that we use on a daily basis -- like justice, compassion, nondiscrimination, equality -- are all about values, so why should we allow the Right to claim that term? That's why at Breakthrough we talk about building a culture of human rights.

It's clear from the way in which the Right organizes that they understand that it's all about everything. It's about religion, it's about culture, it's about media, it's about advocacy, it's about organizing, it's about policy, it's about electoral politics. And it's about a vision and an ideology. Policies cannot be implemented if the enabling environment is not created. I see our work as a way of creating that enabling environment. If people can't find ways to deal with one another on the basis of respect and humanity and compassion and dignity then all the legislation in the world isn't going to transform us.

What's different working in India and the U.S.?

India as a population and as a country is much larger. You're talking about a billion people, all these different languages. With all the challenges of lack of electricity and lack of water and phone lines being down and travel problems and the heat and the size, we are able to work at a scale that is much harder to replicate in the U.S. When you think about the U.S. in terms of the resources, the technologies and the ease of communication, one would imagine that it would be the other way around.

Funders in India get the importance of media and communications. People get that putting a music video on air and reaching X number of millions is a good thing, a useful thing. Whereas progressive funders over here always look at you and say, "You want 50k for a music video?"

There is still an understanding in India that things take time, that behavior change or social change is not a one-year outcome, that it takes years of organizing or education before you can claim anything. Even though history here has shown us that social justice organizations have an extremely short-term memory. There's no historic location of where we sit and where we've come from and everything has become very, you know, what are the outcomes in six months.

When you started doing this work, you must have been one of very few South Asian women. Now the progressive world is overrun by our sort. What's up with that?

South Asians are a very interesting color in this country. We're not black. We're not white. White people are not uncomfortable with you, other people of color are not uncomfortable with you. Because of our histories and our locations many of us have had access to privileged educations, even if we didn't come from privileged backgrounds. We have a cultural fluency that enables us to navigate a lot of different spaces. This is not something that many of us like to articulate in public. By the time I was at the Global Center, if I looked around at mainstream women's organizations, the majority of the women of color who were in leadership positions, not necessarily the executive directors, but those in the second position, were South Asian women.

South Asians have a culture that simultaneously oppresses women and provides them with a lot of educational opportunities. The experience of gender for South Asian women isn't just one of victimhood. It isn't that for anybody, but we have a particularly complicated situation where we've come from cultures where we have loud voices, we get sent to study, but the blend of that with the kind of gender oppression that women still face politicizes them. So a lot of women who could be doing the lawyer, doctor, engineer routine are doing the organizer, advocate, human rights trainer routine instead. I think it's fabulous. I remember a time when the only other South Asian woman I often met at progressive gatherings was you -- and people would call me Rinku because they couldn't tell two small Indian women apart. And today, there are hundreds of us fighting for social change. We rock!

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