January 13, 2021

Harnessing Networks For Good

harnessing relations 2
Written by Prerna Aswani
Project Lead, inHive (prerna@inhiveglobal.org)

Networks are inherently complex. And increasingly, I can’t help but think that like social media, networks are a tool that can be used both for good and bad: networks can catapult positive social change, but also have complex power dynamics embedded within them. On one hand, they are by definition exclusionary: they are usually based on members having a shared characteristic or history that others do not. These types of affiliation can grow out of all sorts of shared traits or experiences, whether it be profession, religion or educational experiences. Yet networks, as forms of social organising and mobilising also have the power of giving voice to those who are repeatedly and institutionally unheard and marginalised. The current social, economic and political climate requires us to increase our investment in harnessing the power of networks for positive social disruption and to think more deeply about networks and inclusion.

Networks for social change

By being part of a larger group, collective or network, those from historically and institutionally marginalised communities can find a safe space to express themselves and connect with a community with whom they can resist oppression. Organisations and movements that create and strengthen networks for women and minorities have enabled these marginalised voices to be taken seriously.

I have seen first-hand how these dynamics emerge through the Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Adalat (BMMA), a national mass organisation of Muslim women in India, who run centres to support women to resolve marital disputes. They provide members a sanctuary, as well as a route to tackle the multiple ways in which they have been oppressed.

Their oppressions are multifaceted and intertwined. As lower middle class women living in a highly patriarchal society, their marital grievances often go unheard both within the family and their wider communities. At the same time, as Muslim women, they belong to a minority religion in a country where family law is governed by religious tenets through Muslim Personal Law. This law enables matters of family and marriage to be legally governed by the Shariat.

Speaking to members in the Mumbai branch, they shared with me how on a personal level they felt empowered as a result of being part of this organisation, and that it has led to substantive change in their daily lives. By taking their marital disputes to the women’s centre run by BMMA, individual women have been able to negotiate a greater voice in their communities and families with the support of the collective. Furthermore, on a collective level, the BMMA has successfully advocated for women’s rights in national law by connecting with other organisations, movements and networks. They recently won a case in the Supreme Court of India to criminalise the practice of Triple Talak, where a Muslim man could legally divorce his wife by saying Talak (Divorce) three times.

The darker side of networks

The BMMA is just one example of where individuals who are marginalised along multiple identity lines come together not only to empower one another in navigate their personal challenges of marginalisation, but also effectively confront institutional discrimination.

Yet as we celebrate the power of networks that give rise to organisations, movements and other forms of collective action for their capacity to catalyse social and institutional change, we cannot ignore the ways in which networks can and have historically reinforced the unequal power structures that govern the world today. 'Old boys networks' are renowned for giving their members considerable advantages: job offers, business deals and other opportunities are unequally distributed within these networks, which by design exclude all but the upper echelons. These powerful networks are often affiliated with former pupils of elite schools and universities, hence the notorious reputation of alumni networks as elite and exclusionary.

My own work at inHive seeks in order to tackle this challenge, by democratising access to networks for young people who have traditionally not had access to them. Our work is one part of a much larger tradition of movements building and mobilising through networks. Yet it can’t be denied that on the whole, elite networks still wield the greatest social, economic and political capital. Networks of minorities and excluded groups absolutely develop a greater sense of empowerment for its members, but for the most part they tend to have lower levels of influence than established ‘old boys’ clubs’.

inHive networking Rwanda

inHive building Alumni Networks with Health Poverty Action in Rwanda

And even within networks, movements and other forms of organising of minorities and the oppressed, complex power dynamics exist. Consider for example various anti-imperial and anti-colonial movements, where often older elite men exercised their power to silence women. Despite their vital contributions to the joint efforts, women’s interests are often falsely presented as distracting in the fight against the main enemy, leading to their side-lining at best, and exploitation, abuse and violence at worst. These dynamics were present in the recent Rhodes Must Fall protests, when women, queer and trans people were leading the conceptualisations of the underlying tenets, but were pushed out of the organising roles and the protest frontline due to misogyny, and trans- and homophobia.

What Next?

The Black Lives Matter movement is a powerful show of how historically marginalised groups coming together to mobilise collective action can have a huge impact. The movement has actually served as an accelerator for alumni of hundreds of schools and universities campaigning to decolonise the curriculum, my own alma mater included. By creating networks across initiatives and causes, solidarities and synergies emerge to amplify calls for change.

The presence of minority networks is both an encouraging success and a sign that more work still needs to be done. Rather than separate networks of the elite and marginalised, we need to build connections and linkages that are based on equality, openness and active listening to enable social change. Unlike the old boys’ clubs that exist solely for the benefit of their members, we need to invest in more networks that commit to intersectional and social change.

Note: there are important distinctions between organisations advocating for social change, groups formed around certain causes and networks, and differing internal power dynamics within each. However, for the broad focus of this article around democratising these different types of structures for social change, I consider them in unison.

About the Author

Prerna is passionate about youth development, access and social mobility. She is a development consultant with a diverse set of experiences. Having spent her early career in economic consulting and then transitioned to the social sector, within the education and youth development space, she has experience of working with stakeholders across the private and third sectors.

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