John Hoffmire: I’m always interested to hear how someone’s career evolves and, in some ways, changes direction. I often refer to such a career path as “following the current” as in the current of a river. It seems like your career has been a bit like that, would you agree?
Amita: Yes, I think I would agree that there has been something like a force that has propelled me to change and move forward with my situations, interests, and passions. At the same time, just as a current is always still a part of the river, there are significant parts of my work that have remained unchanged, such as my dedication to women empowerment, education, water conservation, conflict resolution, environment sustainability, climate change, and nature-based solutions.
John: You’ve worked for several years with The Peace Gong Institute for Skill Development and Research. Tell me more about that, if you will.
Amita: It’s a wonderful organization and I’ve been working with it on a voluntary basis since its inception in 2016. Its mission is to promote skill development among youth and the advancement of education amongst the disadvantaged. We offer a variety of training programmes and sessions on different competencies including skill development communication, education, peace and conflict resolution, volunteering, rural development and so on. In the future, we aspire to publish and conduct research on socio-economic, environmental, and educational-related issues.
Actually, my work with them goes back to the inception of the Peace Gong children’s newspaper that we started in 2012 to empower underprivileged youth in India to contribute toward peace and social change through media literacy. The Peace Gong is a media and information literacy initiative of the Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore Foundation to contribute towards the culture of peace and non-violence through media literacy. Over the years The Peace Gong has connected children from Kargil to Kerala, Agartala to Andaman and across the Asia Pacific region. It has expanded into Peace Gong Bureaus in five different countries, as well as 12 states across India. Peace Gong has evolved into a powerful volunteer movement with neither an office nor staff nor any funds. Its strength is its youth volunteers who work closely with child reporters to bring social change. Children with little access to quality education now produce reports on diverse social issues.
John: That is truly impressive! I can imagine what a positive impact The Peace Gong has had on all the youth that have participated.
As I recall, while you were in Oxford as a Chevening Fellow, you wrote a grant for a foundation that provided some similar values and opportunities to women in the textile industry. Will you please tell me more about that?
Amita: I did. I wrote a grant proposal for the consideration of the Navjyoti India Foundation, an organisation that has been generating livelihood opportunities for rural women, reviving handicraft practices, and making efforts to reduce the impact of the textile sector on the environment through its project Unnati. The organisation has trained more than 1200 women to become entrepreneurs. These women now take orders to make various textile products. Some of them have even started their own centralised production units. Fabric scraps from the production are repurposed and up-cycled to make handcrafted comforters, bags, and even traditional toys to promote a circular economy and reduce the group’s carbon footprint.
John: And now you have started your own fashion company that promotes eco-friendly clothing.
Amita: Yes, in 2020 I co-founded Shefam Crafts Garments Llp, along with a fashion designer based in Sri Lanka, with an aim to preserve and promote traditional handicraft practices, conscious consumers, environment sustainability, green sourcing, and a better circular economy in the fashion industry.
We work to promote the concept of circular economy in the textile sector and work with women weavers in Sri Lanka. The preservation of our traditional crafts is important as it provides livelihood, dignity, and respect to the communities and keeps the traditional skills alive. Handcrafted products rarely land in a landfill or incineration until they outlive their intended usage as they are not mass-produced and have an emotional value proposition for the user. Due to lower production, they are easier to trace in the textile value chain.
John: The textile industry is built on such an outdated linear, take-make-dispose model and is hugely wasteful and polluting. It’s great that you are working to create more sustainable practices where clothes are designed differently, worn longer, and recycled and reused much more often.
Next, would you mind, telling me how you came to be an Chevening Fellow and about your time in Oxford when you were part of the CRISP programme?
Amita: I came to know about the CRISP fellowship in 2019 when I was working with Earthwatch Institute, a research-based organization working on environmental issues. The fellowship offered the opportunity to deepen my understanding of global scientific research and innovation technology from the experts. When I got selected for the fellowship, I felt on top of the world as this is a rare opportunity only a selected few get. I had never imagined that one day I would have a chance to be part of Oxford considering that during my growing years, there were self-limiting social and cultural biases and limited opportunities for girls in my community.
The Fellowship has opened up new avenues for me. Coming from the non-profit field, I work very closely with the corporate sector, educational institutions, government agencies, and local communities. The fellowship offered an in-depth learning experience, improved my skills and knowledge, and increased my understanding of how all the diverse sectors were trying to reverse the impact of climate change. Another key takeaway from the course was that technology will play an important part in our lives as the world moves toward artificial intelligence. Some sectors have already made a huge leap and are advancing rapidly in that direction. But, more generally, it was very helpful for me to study these topics, especially as we work in the space of skill development for rural and marginalized communities.
One of the aspects of CRISP that I greatly appreciated was that gender mainstreaming was ensured in creating my cohort. And this reflected the commitment on the part of Oxford and the Chevening programme to gender equality. Balancing acts, like these, help more women enhance their leadership qualities and learn to manage group dynamics and collaborations. This is most significant in the Indian context as more women are joining the workforce and changing the social and economic narrative, altering the unequal landscape and an ecosystem traditionally structured for men to succeed.
John: It’s been delightful talking with you, learning more about your experiences, and seeing the common thread that connects your various passions, values, skills, and the work you’ve been doing. Clearly, you’re following and trusting your current and it is leading you to interesting places and good work. I wish you all the best for continued success.
Amita: Thank you, John. It has been my great pleasure. I’m grateful my current led me to the CRISP programme and the chance to work with and learn from you and Richard Briant and the rest of my CRISP colleagues.
Amita Dahiya is the Project Lead (Entrepreneurship) for the Centre for Gender Equality and Inclusive Leadership, XLRI Consultant and co-founder of Shefam Crafts Garments Llp. She is also an alum of the Chevening Research, Science and Innovation Leadership Fellowship (CRISP) program at Oxford (2022)
Interviewer: Dr. John Hoffmire is the Carmen Porco Chair for Sustainable Business at the Center on Business and Poverty, and Research Associate at the Oxford Centre for Mutual and Co-owned Business