June 10, 2013

Mindfully Stepping on Ants

by Florian Schalliol

Florian Schalliol '14.5 is a Starr Fellow living in India working on GOOD/CORPS India.

Here in India, there’s a lot to notice on the streets, but there’s a lot on the streets that notices you back.  Even a simple walk to the store down the block can feature children playing cricket in the middle of the street, groups of adolescents loitering and teasing one another, swaths of adults going about their business, jams of cars, motorcycles and rickshaws, and a mélange of stray dogs, cats, and occasional monkeys.  But being identified as a foreigner—a privilege that white skin immediately nets me—makes many of the surroundings that fascinate me return the favor.  Whether it is a simple glance, an elongated stare, an approach and questioning of “Which country?” or an insistence that I need to buy these sunglasses, or hire this rickshaw, or give to these beggars, I seem to constantly be in the spotlight.

This is a daunting reality for several reasons: first, because this type of unbalanced attention sends a dangerous message—that I or any other foreigner deserves more attention than any local.  But second, and more importantly, it is daunting because my impact, whether positive or negative, is magnified.

The cliché goes that something as simple as a butterfly flapping its wings or someone stepping on an ant can change the course of history.  Even in my two days so far in Bangalore (which I’ve spent largely just recovering from jetlag) I’ve not only literally stepped on an uncountable number of ants or turned countless heads, but arranged meetings with the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) departments of some of the largest companies in India to the end of outlining a strategy for enhancing their business’ social impact. At a high level, I hope to change the way business decisions are made by making social factors an important consideration.  Because of the size, quantity, and reach of the corporate sphere here in India, their ant-squishing power is almost unrivaled; through their powerful influence, they have the potential to be either great vehicles for social change or perpetuators of rampant injustice.

Thus my journey and that of my clients begins in the same place: in understanding—or at least in constantly questioning—who we are, which actions we take, and what impact we are having, even with our smallest decisions.  Just as I, under the enhanced scrutiny of a foreigner in the common streets of Bangalore, must be aware of how I interact with and impact the community, so too do I hope to urge for-profit companies to do the same.  And while we may not know the exact impact of every step we take, being aware of every ant we step on can help us construct a greater understanding of our actions and perhaps chart us on a path to only stepping on the right ants.  Because, after all, the spotlight is on us, whether we like it or not.



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