Woman of the Month – October: Khushi Patel

As one of the current Co-Presidents for Women Organizing Against Harassment (WOAH), Khushi Patel, a Cell Biology and Neuroscience major on a pre-med track, dedicates her time outside of her studies toward managing the student organization along with her three executive board members. Collectively, WOAH’s officers plan the annual Take Back the Night March months in advance, which will be held next spring on Wednesday, April 22nd for the entire Rutgers community. While Khushi’s activism spans across a variety of issues such as women’s rights, sexual harassment and student involvement, her passion for creating an awareness of personal rights and validating the experiences of others runs clear throughout each of them. Oh, and she’s only a sophomore.

 

CS: What are some events that WOAH has coming up for the fall semester?

KP: We already had one event last week,  Write Your Reps. And it was very important - it wasn't a specific topic that you wanted to cover, but people come and we give them a template and instructions on how to write to their legislative representatives and Senators about whatever issues that they see as prevalent right now that they believe should be addressed. We gave them a list of topics that are happening currently, but it was very open. It was just to encourage people to take those steps, because I think in our generation, I don't want to make 'we' statements, but there’s this idea of ‘we don't have much of a say’ when we really do, and it's as easy as writing a letter and calling a representative. The whole point of the event was to invite people to learn how to be an activist individually and take those steps. And then one more event that we have coming up on November 1st is a Feminist Game Night, and that's really exciting. We're going to be taking popular games like Jenga and putting a feminist spin on it. It's going to be a three hour-long event, and the first half includes coming up with the idea.

 

Something very foundational for our organization is that we don't want to take charge of the events and decide everything for the participants. The whole point of our organization is to get everyone involved and working together. Standing on that basis, we're going to have everyone come together and then we're going to all collectively try to think of ways that we can make feminist versions of popular games. We have all these supplies, so hopefully we're going to actually make the game and then play it if we have the time, which most likely we should. So that's very exciting, because I think that just allows people to look at something they're so used to and kind of see it in a different perspective. Another foundational thing about our organization is that we are always analyzing, we always talk about all these little things that we do and the impact behind it and why things are important. I hope to have that conversation too about why isn't there a feminist version of a certain game when there's so many other versions. Or how do people define feminism? That's always a big question that is brought up. That was something that we talked about in our first meeting of the semester too, and it's just to keep the ball rolling and to keep people engaged. Those are our two main events for the fall semester, and then planning for everything for the spring semester.

 

CS: I know that another one of the big events that WOAH hosts is the Take Back The Night March for both Rutgers and Middlesex County, so how did this march come together for this entire community?

KP: From my knowledge, the march has actually been happening since the 70s. WOAH started about seven years ago and the march itself had been happening for such a long time, but then we decided to take charge into organizing it for all of the New Brunswick community and Rutgers, because I think it stands on a lot of the morals that WOAH does.

 

CS: Have any plans been made so far for this upcoming spring's march?

KP: We always start planning in the fall, because so many things need to be done. There's a lot of administrative stuff that goes into it. We have to get permits to shut down certain streets and roads to make sure it's safe for the marchers, and so people know about any traffic or detours. We speak with RUPD when it comes to things like that, so we get a lot of support from them. There's also planning in the sense that we have so many co-sponsors and we reach out to organizations that want to be a part of the march. And we also work very closely with the Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance (VPVA) department, because that's what they stand for too - they're there for victims of sexual violence and harassment. They help us put things together as well, but most of it is just us reaching out to different people, RUPD, and getting certain permits from Rutgers itself because we do a Speak Out at the end of the march. It ends at College Ave, and this year we're going to be speaking out by Brower, which is just an open platform for anyone who wants to share their stories, their opinions and thoughts about this matter in general, and we need to get permits to do that. So that's all the planning, and then buying stuff like the banner and the paint because we paint it ourselves, and then all of the other host organizations that are working with us get to put in their quotes.

(Khushi Patel)

CS: So then what made you want to get involved with WOAH?

KP: I've actually been very involved in feministic organizations, but in general equal rights for all genders. And besides that, in high school I was the president of an organization called Girls Learn International, which is a part of the Feminist Majority Foundation. Our main goal was to spread awareness throughout our entire high school and school district about feminism and equality in general. And we did that through a lot of fun events, which I miss so much. There was a human rights themed Haunted House, so that was one of my favorites. We had a whole hallway in a school dedicated that we could use and each room was a topic of domestic violence or lack of education for girls around the world. And there was a little spooky factors, but at the same time there were activities that people could do to learn about what's going on. We had made this giant positive body image polaroid poster for the girls locker room, and then we were going to make one for the boys locker room as well. The main goal of the organization was to raise as much money that we could, and then we would be partnered with a school overseas. I believe the school we were partnering with was in Africa, and all our money would be donated for supplies that they can buy for their school and for the girls in those schools that lack education and in general opportunities for the girls there. So I've been involved in these kind of organizations for a long time. 

 

I also had the honor of being selected to go to the U.N., I believe it was two years ago, for the annual Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations. That was an amazing experience because there were so many delegates there the week I was. I would go to the U.N. every day and hear all of these delegates speaking about these traumatic things going on in the world overseas or traumatic things going on here and it exposed me directly to what's going on, how oppressed people are in different ways, how it affects them, what's been done, and how countries are working collectively together. So that gave me such a cool overview of the situation. And then on top of that, when I got here, I knew from the start that I wanted to continue this passion I have for specifically working with the overview of sexual violence. That's why I decided to join WOAH. I wasn't really involved in my first fall semester because of classes, and in the spring semester I became involved more towards the end. I just knew that I more of a part in the organization, so that's when I decided to apply to be on the e-board and got the position, and now I'm just very excited to keep the club running.

 

CS: As someone who's been part of activist organizations, whether it be WOAH or Girls Learn International, as the ongoing #MeToo Movement has grown to lead national conversations about harassment, have you seen a change in how these issues have been approached on campuses?

KP: Well this month VPVA is having this whole Turn The Campus Purple event with the idea of spreading awareness of the issues that are going on. So I see in that sense, Rutgers as a whole doing a good job in keeping things active for the community and keeping that idea of like, hey this is going on. The resources are abundant and they are very broad in the sense that they cater to different people. It's not just that you have to be a victim of sexual violence in order to go to VPVA, or you don't have to have experienced something to be a part of WOAH. It's open to everyone – people who have gone through it, people who know people who have gone through it, people who have not gone through it and are very passionate about wanting to combat sexual violence. So I think Rutgers as a whole really provides those options for the students.

 

In the era of Me Too, being able to speak out is a great opportunity, and I also see it a lot. My favorite part of the march is the Speak Out because so many people share stories in this platform and it just makes everyone else feel empowered. And I think it's great that we're able to encourage people, and victims specifically, to not be ashamed or to not hide what they've been through. I'm so happy when I hear those stories because I know that what they went through is validating. That's another very important thing when it comes to sexual assault and victims. A lot of times many of the victims feel like, 'did I really go through this?' 'did it really happen to me', they start questioning themselves. I think that's another very important factor that needs to be worked with when it comes to sexual harassment - just validating the victim. That's why I love the speak out portion of our march, because it really just allows people to speak out about what they've gone through. And if they haven't, to speak about what they think is going wrong with the world, or what they think is going right here at Rutgers, and just be as loud and open and different, which is amazing.

 

And in regards to the distressing incident that took place a few weeks ago, I would like to emphasize the fact that sexual violence and assault on campus continues to be a growing issue despite the measurements that are being taken currently in regards to safety, activism, and empowerment platforms and movements. This goes to show that such measures need to be continued, and students need to be repeatedly made aware of all the different forms of sexual assault that their peers or they may face or have faced in order to ensure that everyone is knowledgeable on what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. It is important to recognize that on top of this unfortunate occurrence, there are many other stories and interactions that go unnoticed and unreported, and the conversation of sexual violence and harassment needs to continue in order to give a voice to all victims and shine a light on the current problems that educational institutions like Rutgers are currently tackling.

 

CS: Do you have any advice for someone who wants to get more involved with activism on campus?

KP: Oh my god, yes! Specifically, speaking about in a sense of Rutgers, something I did myself was use the Get Involved platform that Rutgers has. Once you login to it, they have a specific tab for organizations and you can select the different criteria that you're interested in. Like maybe you're interested in a cultural organization or something like women’s activism, and from there so many organizations pop up with descriptions. I think that's a great way of narrowing down what you're interested in and then finding those options straight from there. That's how I found certain other clubs that I'm a part of through that. And another thing to kind of get involved with activism is just to be aware of the different events that are going on and try to partake. If someone's not a part of WOAH, but you see our Take Back the Night flyer around, I would definitely suggest you come and join. You don't have to be part of an organization to be a part of such bigger movement. If someone wants to be active but they can't be committed to organizations, they can still go out to events that different clubs post, they can go to our march, and they're still such a big part of it. They're still being active and raising awareness without having to feel obligated to be a part of the club or anything else. I think that's a great way for people who just want to be active and be a part of that activism to join different events.

(Khushi Patel)

CS: Are you involved with any other activist organizations on campus or otherwise?

KP: Besides Women Organizing Against Harassment, another form of activism that is a big part of my life is student activism in general. On top of Girls Learn International I was the President of our Student Union when I was in high school, and when I came here I was also trying to find some sort of platform where I could be allowed to be a representative for students. I'm actually currently part of the Honors College, and I realized that the Honors College has a student advisory board which is very similar to what I used to work with in high school. I work with my other advisory board members but collectively we're the liaison between the Honors College student community and the administrative community, combining ideas and bringing one voice to the point of view of students. I'm also an Associate Editor for the Rutgers Journal of Bioethics. As a pre-med student and Cell Bio and Neuroscience major, I'm very invested in bioethics and the ethical means of knowing about things. When I meet with the Rutgers Bioethics Society and when I read the papers that are submitted for the journal, the complexity of certain situations really gets your mind thinking. And even though that is more bio-focused, we also have ethical conversations when we talk about other kinds of situation, and there's always this grey area. I'm also an RA, so I work very closely with students in that aspect too. That's a very big part of my life, but this idea of a grey area also seeps in there because it's always ethical decision-making, being there for your students and making sure that everything is enforced properly.

 

Something that I joined over the summer is a social innovation startup company called Merakhi (website launch pending), and I am currently the education outreach director. The company is also something that's based around combating sexual violence and personal safety, and currently we are in the works of building a bracelet. We're built around this idea of smart jewelry that can be activated and used whenever you are, for any individual. It has different features, like tracking,sending notifications to an emergency contact and calling the police. I'm just very invested in the entire idea of sexual violence and wanting to find different ways to end it and coming up with different solutions to different kinds of problems. My role in that company is to reach out to different organizations and high schools. We come up with different pilot programs and workshops that revolved around safety and the consciousness of being safe, consent and sexual violence awareness, and we are trying to bring it to a wide spectrum. So I think education is very important in the sense that that's where a lot of our thoughts come from and are circulated. I'm trying my best to reach out to different audiences and organizations that cater to young girls or to high school and college students, and we tailor our education programs to fit different audiences. Overall, it's the idea of making sure that everyone is always conscious about their safety and their rights, and the idea of validating yourself, again it really goes back to that as well.

 

CS: You definitely seem busy!

KP: I was actually just talking to someone about that, and I was like this is the busiest I think I've ever been in my entire life. But everything is for something that I'm passionate for, so it's never a 'why am I doing this', I know the answer to why I'm doing this. And I think that's also very important, going back to students getting involved. It's ok not to find what you're passionate about right away. That's why Rutgers is so amazing, it has so many organizations, and I'd just encourage you to take advantage of all of them. If you can only go to one meeting, then go to one meeting. Get a feel of what you think you can contribute and where you think you can make the most impact. And you know, that comes from seeing where you've been and taking different chances that you might not have necessarily expected of doing so earlier in your life.

 

CS: So as a student leader on campus for WOAH who is also involved in all of these other organizations and projects, how do you balance your time between all of your commitments and also your classes?

KP: For me, I've learned that balancing and time management is just such a skill that it's continuously something that you improve upon and it’s continuously changing. I'm not going to lie, I struggled a little in the beginning of the semester just because I was very overwhelmed with all of these different things coming at me, but overtime I really just sat down and I began to look at my schedule and see what I can change about how I approach my thinking, or things I cannot change like classes. The way I've learned to time manage and balance right now is to find all of the slots that are free in a day, and allocating them to what I'm going to work on. Currently I'm taking Organic Chemistry. Most of my classes start at 12 p.m., so I usually try to wake up at 8 and get ready, and then my mornings are focused on Organic Chemistry. During the day when I have time in between classes is when I take care of all of the administrative work for WOAH and the company that I'm a part of – sending emails, setting up meetings, and conference calls with professors or other professionals for other organizations. My nights are allocated to my other classwork that's not Orgo related. Then being an RA, that's always a constant, so that's something that I'm always improving upon. That's how I've approached it this semester because I feel like it could change next semester and that's where the whole evolvement of managing things comes in. But for someone who is trying to balance things, I feel that it's very good to just sit down and see what time of day you're productive the most, and during that time what you think you want to get done.

 

Iit's been a challenge, but I also use Calendar. I put all of my events and meetings and things like that on Calendar. I use the iPhone one, which people think I'm crazy because I don't like to use Google Calendar. I definitely suggest doing that for people who are flustered and then maybe tend to forget - write everything down, set reminders. And that's another thing – it's ok to use these tools. I feel like there tends to be pressure of having to know it all and having this amazing mindset where you should be able to tackle everything. That if you're so involved, you should be responsible for everything. Like no, you have these tools such as Calendars and Reminders, so you should really use them to your benefit because that's what technology is made for. That's another technical but very important thing to remember when it comes to balancing your life.

 

CS: Who is someone that empowers you?

KP: There are two people who I would say empower me, and one of them would be the typical answer which is my mother. She's a very strong, independent woman and she has been a great role model in my life with the idea that you can do whatever you want, and you can do it by yourself. She's always empowered me in the sense that she's always encouraging of the choices that I've made, and she's always supportive of the things that I'm involved in. She was the first of my immediate family to come to America, and then me and my dad and my brother all followed, so she's really been that strong woman figure in my life.

 

The next person that I would say empowers me is someone I met at the U.N. actually, Grizelda Grootboom. She's a girl from South Africa, and when I met her at the U.N. she talked about her story of human trafficking and how she was a victim of human trafficking for a good amount of her life. Her story and the things that she would talk about and the way she interacted with me has left such a big impact on my life with how I think about things. She was very motivational in the sense that I'll always remember this, and I actually spoke about this last year at the march, she said – even after such a horrific and traumatic thing to think about what she went through, I remember I was talking to her and she said that no act that is done without your consent is ok. Thinking about something like when someone is verbally harassing you, if it's not welcomed and wanted by you, it is just as not ok as being a victim of human trafficking. That really resonated with me, and I wanted to share that last year just because I see a lot of times that another thing that victims of sexual violence and harassment go through is feeling like what happened to them is not a big deal compared to what happens to others, and then they can tend to feel like their story isn't important. So what she taught me is that every single individual story is important. Every single act that is unwanted that happens to someone is validating. If you go through a traumatic event, even if it's such a small thing like someone verbally harassing you, and this is coming from someone who went through human trafficking for such a long period of her life, even the littlest things matter if it's something that you did not ask for. And so that's someone who has really resonated with me and empowered me a lot. That was a very impactful time of my life when I went to the U.N. because of such great women, like Grizelda, that I met.

 

This interview has been edited for clarity.