Interview with Mallika Dutt

By admin
Published: Friday, August 22nd, 2008

By Dinah Chung, Grace Lee, and Dawn Philip


Mallika Dutt is the Founder and Executive Director of Breakthrough, an international human rights organization using innovative high impact education, media and popular culture to transform communities and bring about social change. Mallika has authored several articles and essays and is the recipient of numerous awards including The Spirit of Asian America Award from the Asian American Federation of New York in 2003 and the Phoenix Service Award from the New York Asian Women’s Center in 2002.

NAPAWF: Hi Mallika, thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview! Could you start off by talking a little bit about your organization, Breakthrough?

MD: Breakthrough is a human rights organization that uses innovative, high impact strategies through media and popular culture to talk about issues like immigrant rights, womens rights, sexuality, and HIV/AIDS. We currently work in India and in the United Statestwo of the worlds largest democracies. Our tagline, our motto if you will is We seek to build a culture of human rights.

NAPAWF: Breakthrough has been really successful in using popular culture to educate the public. However, you received criticism from parts of the womens movement for trying to use popular culture and going mainstream. Could you talk about your reactions to that?

MD: Ive been part of the womens movement for a very long timefor almost 25 years now. Weve gone through various evolutions including a critique of looking at how mainstream media and popular culture has really objectified, trivialized, and undermined women in all these different waysthat critique has been a very important part of how our understanding of women and media has evolved. At the same time weve also had a strand within the womens moment of seeking to mainstream our issues and make the work that we do resonate with larger audiences and reach larger numbers of people because ultimately gender based discrimination is only going to end if we are able to widen and deepen the base of constituencies that believe in womens rights. I think of it as two parallel streams of feminist discourse if you will.

About ten years ago, I really began to question how we could use more mainstream strategies to reach larger audiences and how we can move out of a paradigm where we just talked to one another and engage different people in conversation. I started to explore the use of pop culture with the production of the first music album I ever did on violence against women along with a music video on domestic violence when I was living in India. The album and video ended up on the Top 10 and ended up on MTV and generated huge amounts of media coverage. In producing that album and video, I worked with many menI had a male lyricist, I worked with a male music director and I also worked with a male music video director. Those were some of the pieces that some of my colleagues in the movement raised questions about. There was a sense among some of them that we should only work with women in doing this kind of work. Other people thought that using MTV and other mainstream media undermined women and because of that, we were selling out.

I took the position and continue to take the position that all human rights issues in order to be advanced need to have the constituency that is affected and impacted by these issues speak up and be empowered. But we will not see true change until a much wider constituency buys into that issue so for example lesbian and gay communities of course need to be mobilized and speak out but we need straight allies as well. Similarly, when were talking about violence against women or gender based discrimination, we have to mobilize men to really understand the limitations of patriarchy and how we can build a culture of human rights for everybody. So that is Breakthroughs philosophy. When we say we want to build a culture of human rights, the vision is figuring out how to create a society where everybody who lives in it can enjoy a life of dignity. Part of this is looking at how we reframe our work and get the media to pay more to attention to our issues but I also think its important for us to be reflecting on how we can get more strategic and proactive in advancing a progressive agenda.

NAPAWF: Being proactive about creating and advancing a progressive agenda relates on some level to this idea of leadership. One thing NAPAWF talks a lot about is empowering young women, specifically API women & girls, to be leaders in the community and advance a progressive agenda. As someone who founded two successful organizationsSakhi and now Breakthrough, whats your understanding of leadership?

MD: I dont know that Ive really spent enough time thinking about leadership per se. I think whats more important to me is how you locate your voice in advancing a progressive or human rights agenda. Locating yourself in advancing a struggle means that you understand that you are not only speaking as a victimyou have a responsibility to challenge the parts of societal oppression that do victimize youbut you also have a responsibility for speaking up and addressing other forms of victimization that may or may not speak to your reality. You need to understand that you may be a victim in one aspect of your life but you may have a lot of privilege in other aspects of your life. So for example to make this more concrete, if I look at myself and how I place myself as a leader in the progressive movement: I am Indian, Im a women, I am from the global South, I am a lawyer, I went to extremely privileged educational institutions in this country.

So when I place myself in the movement, I cant only talk about myself as a victimized women of color. I dont think that if you only frame yourself as a victim, that you are able then to make the kinds of connections you need to make to other forms of oppression and also then to have a vision of what kind of world you want to inhabit where everybody has a place, everybody has a part. So for me leadership is about spotlighting oppression and articulating realities that may not be apparent. Most importantly, leadership is having a vision that really brings everybody along with you.

NAPAWF: Breakthrough does a lot of work around the stripping of due process rights in the criminal justice system and the immigrant raids that have been occurring. With the current state of affairs, both domestically and globally, how can we use the concept of human rights to combat whats going on with respect to the increasing deportations, the war, and so many other important issues?

MD: I think one of the challenges that weve always faced in this country is that weve never really applied a human rights paradigm to what is happening domestically. Its always civil rights on the one hand in the U.S. and human rights in the rest of the world. And we havent really developed the kind of power and organizing around what it means to have human rights in the U.S. Some of the challenges that we are facing today, particularly around whats happening with Katrina and whats happening with immigration now and poverty and other related issues, is paying the price for being focused on the civil and political rights paradigm and not constructing a more holistic human rights paradigm. Of course there are historical reasons for why that happenedthe cold war, the place of slavery in our history, etc.

Its only been in very recent years that youve seen the burgeoning of a human rights movementall human rights movements evolve over a period of time. Weve only started talking about immigrant human rights in the last three years or so and even then we focused so much of our attention on undocumented people coming over the border and not on the due process and the systematic stripping of all constitutional rights of communities in the U.S. So this framework is relatively new and weve already seen it getting more traction with communities in the general public. So I think that its an evolving movement. I hope we get stronger and better at articulating it especially because in a few months we will have a new president who will be held accountable for changing some of these positions.

NAPAWF: What would you say are some of the biggest lessons learned or some of the biggest challenges you have had?

MD: I see the production of Mann Ke Manjeeree (Rhythm of the Mind) and the music video as defining moment in my life for the following reasons. One is that it made me realize that if you put your mind to something, you can really do whatever the hell it is that you want. Were taught all these thingsthat you if you get a degree in something and you follow a particular path, you can then do this or that and thats the journey you follow. I think I can say with all confidence to everybody out there that you really should follow your dreamand it doesnt matter what your background is or what your skills are because for me learning the process of making a music video was as alien as trying to get to the moon. There was nothing in my background or skill set that would have enabled me to do something like that but I really believed in the importance of looking at new tools and new ways of advancing womens rights and I was determined to explore how pop culture could play a role in that. I met with enormous resistance to itsome in the music industry thought I was insane because it was a new idea and people didnt really understand what I was talking aboutwanting to do something about women and domestic violence.

The excitement and gratification came from it not just happening but that it happened and became a huge success winning several awards and I still run into people seven years later telling me they still use it as an educational tool. So for me it was a lesson around dreaming and believing and as jaded and as cynical and as down as one can get doing political work in this country and around the worldits really important to always hold on to that idea of finding a pathway to making the impossible real.

NAPAWF: And finally, a very serious question: If you could have one superhero power, what would it be?

MD: Hmm, Ive never really thought about that. The person who I loved and watched growing up was Samantha the witch but she wasnt really a superhero. There werent that many women superheros out there. I think if there was one thing I could do more easily and quickly, it would be to move from one geographic part of the world to another so I guess it would be the ability to teleport myself from point A to point B. Especially because increasingly air travel has become the biggest nightmare!

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