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SAPP Blog Forum: Q&A with Mallika Dutt of Breakthrough

July 27, 2010

We at SAPP are very excited that our 2010 New Media Intern Nancy Gong had a chance to sit down with Mallika Dutt for an interview. Many of you probably know of Mallika, the president and CEO of Breakthrough – a human rights organization that uses pop culture, media,and technology to create awareness about human rights issues including HIV, women’s rights, racial justice, and immigration. Mallika has also served on the boards of our good friend AAPIP and Games for Change, and was a co-founder of Sakhi for South Asian Women. She is a great philanthropy role model for our community.

What is Breakthrough’s major focus and how does it do its work?

We’re about ten years old, and we work in two specific parts of the world: India and the United States. And in the fall, we’re really looking to go global, particularly with the issue of violence against women. While we work in these two specific countries, a lot of the products and initiatives we’ve created have large audiences in various parts of the world. So, in some ways, we really already see ourselves as a global organization.

Breakthrough’s methodology is to create cutting-edge media on human rights issues. This can take the form of multimedia campaigns, say on women and HIV/AIDSor calling on men and boys to take a stand against domestic violence. Or, it could take the form of a video game – which we did with ICED [I Can End Deportation], to get attention focused on deportation in the immigrant community. In addition to the multimedia pieces, we really look at mobilizing people at the community level to get involved and take action.

Where does Breakthrough receive its financial support?

The bulk of our support comes from organizations like the United Nations, bilateral agencies, the Dutch government, and others. But we’ve also been doing a gala in New York where we reach out to individuals to come out and support our work. The gala has been a very important outreach moment for the organization because it has given us an opportunity to showcase Breakthrough’s work directly with people of wealth. It’s been fantastic and also very challenging.

How engaged are South Asians in the United States with your mission and how do you perceive their philanthropy?

In the last decade or so, I think the South Asian community in the United States has started to become more philanthropically-oriented, but it’s still an uphill battle. There are particular kinds of causes and issues for which it is easier to mobilize the South Asian community in terms of giving. For example, there is an organization called Pratham, which works on literacy issues with children in India. Pratham raises millions of dollars from the South Asian community every year in the United States. They do a number of galas and they are very successful. I think they are so successful because Pratham is very specific and tangible – your money is putting 50 kids through school.

It’s far more challenging to get the South Asian community to support human rights or social justice or women’s rights issues compared to education and literacy. So, for example, I am one of the co-founders of an organization called Sakhi for South Asian Women, which is now about 20 years old. Sakhi works with battered women of South Asian origin in New York. There are a number of individuals who certainly give to Sakhi from within the South Asian community, but it is certainly not at the same scale and level at which they support Pratham.

There is another organization called SAYA!, which works with low income kids in the NYC area. It is far more challenging to raise resources to deal with discrimination and racial justice issues domestically, the kind of work SAYA! does. For us, it is far easier to get people to support our work on violence against women in India than it has been to get people to support immigration and racial justice work here in the U.S. That’s ironic to me because we are an immigrant community in the United States, and the challenges we’re facing in the immigration debate certainly affect the South Asian community. But, in terms of them seeing those issues as something to really invest in and get behind, it’s much more difficult.

What about South Asians and political giving?

I see much more South Asian giving not necessarily in the field of philanthropy, but in support of South Asians running for political office. There is a coming-of-age around political participation and political voice. This is something that people have started paying attention to, whether it was Bobby Jindal or Reshma Saujani or other people of South Asian origin who are beginning to run for office.

South Asians are supporting South Asians running for political office, regardless of their geographic location. And it’s not just South Asians that they are supporting. We’re getting more groups like South Asians for Kerry, South Asians for Obama – South Asians claiming a political space in this country.

Breakthrough uses a lot of popular culture and social media to aim at the younger generation – is that an intentional strategy or is it just to make your message more accessible to the masses?

It’s both. I think these kinds of messages are much more accessible to people generally. They reach wider audiences and younger audiences. If we continue the way that we are and if future generations don’t start trying to solve some of our big social problems, I don’t know how much of a planet they will have to inherit.

A couple of weeks ago, a group of billionaires met at Rockefeller University. They’re tentatively being called “The Good Club” and include some famous billionaires like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Oprah Winfrey. A couple of days ago there was a follow up article that said, “Only the rich can save us now.” What do you think about that?

I certainly don’t think only the rich can save us. I think, ultimately, we all have to realize that we all have to save ourselves. I certainly think it is important for people in the world to give back and support the community. We have a long tradition of that in the U.S. with the Rockefellers and the Fords and many families who, for generations, have had that kind of social conscience. It’s really great to see the Gates and the Buffets of the world also following in those footsteps.

What sometimes concerns me with the new generation of people of wealth is that their giving is very top-down. It’s very directive. So, if Bill Gates decides that the HIV vaccine is the most important thing in the world, then he is going to put $1 billion behind it – as opposed to a whole lot of other health issues that need attention too. While I think it’s fantastic that these resources are being given, I also hope that we find more collective ways of making decisions and channeling those resources around wealth. And I certainly hope the South Asian community emerges in that leadership. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the American India Foundation, but that certainly is a manifestation of Indians finding a way to give back in the context of our base here in the U.S.

Breakthrough is doing a lot of really innovative programming in India on issues like sexuality and sexually-transmitted diseases. I know that as an East Asian, my culture has a pretty significant taboo on talking about sex or sexuality. Does India have that mentality and if they do, how are they reacting to what you do at Breakthrough?

I think sexuality is a difficult issue to deal with anywhere in the world. I mean, look at us in the United States, wherewe’re still battling in the Supreme Court on the issue of abortion. So I don’t think any part of the world, whether it is East Asia or the U.S., is more “forward thinking” when it comes to sexuality. I think at the heart of it really lies the deeper question of the status of women and the kinds of ways women are able to have control over their own bodies. These are very deep issues of how men and women and boys and girls relate to one another. So in terms of dealing with issues of sexuality in India, I think that it is as difficult or as easy as it is in many parts of the world.

In the current climate, I think HIV/AIDS has opened the door to talking about sexuality in ways we were not able to before. And even though the point is to try and save everyone from HIV/AIDS, in the meantime, it has allowed people to open up and have conversations about protection, the rights to protection, and how men take responsibility or don’t, as far as condom use is concerned.

With humans rights work, you always deal with spaces that are supportive and spaces that are challenging. If we were dealing with issues of children’s education and literacy, we’d be able to raise a lot more money and have a lot more corporate sponsors. We’d be able to advance the agenda completely differently than working on women’s violence and against HIV/AIDS.

Breakthrough’s newest project is called “Ring the Bell.” Can you tell me a little bit about that campaign?

It’s called Bell Bajao, in Hindi. Bell Bajao is a campaign aimed at men and boys to tell them to really take a stand against violence against women. It’s a couple of years old. It’s a whole new platform to engage male leadership in new ways and to advance women’s rights. It is made up of a multimedia public awareness campaign with television, radio, and video spots. We use video vans to disseminate the campaign and do leadership training work at the community level with youth and among other marginalized groups. It’s been very successful. The Ministry of Women and Children came on-board and Ogilvy is our main nonprofit sponsor. We’re very excited because last weekend, we won a Silver Lion at the Cannes Film Festival Campaign. When you win awards like that for work that is new and exciting and cutting-edge, you create more exposure for your organization and more exposure for these issues. We are seeing a lot of success – for example, people are writing in about how they’ve interrupted violence and stopped it.

Thank you so much for your time, Mallika – this has been a fascinating learning experience for me and for our readers!

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