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UT alumna Vini Bhansali: Telling stories to change the world

Community organizer, social entrepreneur, poet and UT alumna Rajasvini Bhansali is playing a unique role in the global justice movement.

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Community organizer, social entrepreneur, poet and UT alumna Rajasvini (Vini) Bhansali is playing a unique role in the global justice movement.

As executive director of International Development Exchange (IDEX), Bhansali applies the philosophy of empowering people to participate in creating their own futures rather than orchestrating change from the top down. IDEX works to eradicate poverty by entering into long-term collaborations with local partners, supporting grassroots leadership within communities and stressing the importance of supporting initiatives led by those who have the trust of their community and a demonstrated know-how of addressing the needs their community faces.

Bhansali will return to campus on Thursday, Oct. 28, for National Young Women’s Day of Action, an event that celebrates and encourages the political activism of young women. Her talk, titled “We Are All Manorama: Stories of Young Women’s Creativity and Courage from India and South Africa,” will take place at noon in the Santa Rita Room of the Texas Union.

In both personality and experience, Bhansali presents a far-flung and colorful patchwork. A native to India, her childhood carried her across the country’s rich panorama of cultures. “My father worked for the Indian railroads,” she said. “I went to eight different schools — it made me a very adaptable person.”

In 1993, at 18, Bhansali arrived in California to study at the University of California, Berkeley. She earned a dual degree in astrophysics and interdisciplinary studies and worked with June Jordan’s Poetry for the People, a program that teaches poetry as a vehicle of empowerment. Though she had dabbled in poetry before, Bhansali said her experience with Poetry for the People broadened her horizons as a writer and was a great lesson in using stories as instruments of social change.

After finishing her undergraduate degree, Bhansali returned to India in 1997 to work on issues in rural education while considering her next tack. She had done an undergraduate internship in Austin, and the city struck a chord with her. The following year, Bhansali moved to Austin and began to work for the city’s Community Health Centers. It was in that work, running the front end of a city public health effort, that she began to feel she didn’t have as deep a knowledge of the public policy field as she would have liked. “I decided to go the LBJ School to learn the tools of public policy, which I could apply to the work I was doing,” Bhansali said.

Bhansali enrolled in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, where, during her time as a master’s student, she saw her proverbial toolbox expand in many directions. She had always had an interest in using technology as a social tool, she said, and decided to focus her studies on technology and telecommunications policy. In tandem with her coursework, she took a position as a funder at the State of Texas Telecommunications Infrastructure Firm, an experience she found rewarding and inspiring. She explained, “That was my first real job in the U.S. combining what I love — empowering communities to shape their own agenda and having the ability as a funder to support them.”

“I was 25 years old and running a $25 million dollar granting enterprise,” she said with a laugh. “I came to the LBJ School for opportunities and felt like those were created for me.”

Bhansali worked full time while pursuing her master’s degree, meanwhile managing to find time for her passions: civil society — particularly the women’s movement — and empowerment through telling stories. She served on the board of SAHELI, an Austin-based nonprofit that advocates for the rights of immigrant women, and worked with a community of writers engaged in social justice to help women find their voice, and use it. “My heart was in these women’s groups doing such amazing work,” she said.

In 2004, having finished her master’s degree, Bhansali’s path led her to the villages of rural Kenya where she worked with impoverished communities to foster grassroots development. “Most people there can’t access jobs in the formal sector, so they create jobs in the informal sector,” she said. “That’s what I was working to support.”

After a short time Bhansali landed in the San Francisco Bay Area and worked for the nonprofit Jumpa Ventures, and she then moved to IDEX.

“IDEX started as a response to large scale development aid that didn’t always make it to the local communities coming up with the most innovative solutions to entrenched poverty,” Bhansali said. IDEX asserts that it is turning that kind of ineffective, indirect international aid on its head.

While working with grassroots movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America to build economies and empower women, IDEX staff work in the U.S. to educate donors by engaging people in conversations about how to address fundamental power imbalances in the global north and south.

“Social media changed how social movements around the world communicate with each other,” Bhansali said. “We can always ask ‘Who’s being left out? Who’s in the margins?’ We can support not speaking for people, but rather ensuring that their own voices are being heard.”

With her background in communications technology, Bhansali is interested in the best framework for leveraging the voices of people working on a grassroots level. “The truth is that they are the ones coming up with the most incredible solutions. Their local priorities are what we need to hear.”

As an international grant-maker, stories are a powerful instrument for her work. “At IDEX, we don’t just tell stories of victimhood. We try to tell stories of resilience – the stories that are largely absent from our popular imagination.” And aside from the emotional clout they carry for the people who these stories reach, she added – the poet in her shining through – “it dignifies the struggles people go through to make change in their community.”

Bhansali pointed to the women’s movement as an illustration of the power of stories to unite and inspire people all over the world. “When a young woman goes through something horrible, we focus on her as if she was an aberration,” she said. But by telling that young woman’s story, Bhansali explained, we can say that what happens to her happens to us all, and author through our actions a new story for our communities. “It’s the stories that move us to see our common humanity, and move to action,” Bhansali said.

Young Women’s Day of Action is sponsored by the Women’s Programming Alliance of UT and the Gender and Sexuality Center, which is part of the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement. For more information about Young Women’s Day of Action, contact Ixchel Rosal at 512-232-4680.