Health Communications Specialist & Choreographer
You work in such an intense field. What role do you play in adolescent sexual health?
I advocate for the human right to bodily integrity, sexual and reproductive autonomy, and gender equity for young people. I am an anti-violence educator working to change attitudes around gender and sexuality. Adolescents are engaging with so many different physiological, psychological, mental and emotional developments - but their resources are often limited with poor information at their disposal and gendered inequities in access to services and care. That’s what inspired me to get into this work - to champion an adolescent’s right to confidential, trusted information. I definitely didn’t grow up having that.
So your own life experience made this work important to you.
Our sexual health education courses in school were laughable. I remember growing up in California, we had to watch a video of a live birth and then they gave each of us a bag with a pad and a deodorant in it. That was the whole course for the year.
How are we supposed to develop an understanding of consent and learn how to explore ourselves and others respectfully, when we don’t learn about ourselves as sexual beings in open, transparent environments?
Do you feel Indians in America especially avoid talking about these things?
As an Indian-American woman, I knew there were incredible movements in India around feminism, anti-violence and LGBTQ rights. When the Nirbhaya case in Delhi happened, many Indian-Americans here were enraged. But what happened when Purvi Patel was the first woman to be imprisoned for feticide in Indiana? There were Latina and Black women in the streets advocating for her release, but there was hardly any unified activism in the South Asian-American community. With the present political climate, some communities are asking, “Why are you so worried? Indians aren’t going to be targeted.” That is such a narrow lens on the anti-brown, anti-black sentiment that pervades our world. What does solidarity look like? At what point do we actually join together with communities that have experienced harm and oppression for generations and do something about it?
What makes you a perfect fit for the work that you do?
I have an unabashed conviction about me, for better or for worse. I am viscerally affected by injustice, thoroughly bored with convention, and idealistically yearning for revolution in all forms. To me, "perfect fit" is being as effective and authentic in every relationship and space I engage with as humanly possible.
This kind of work must be very hard on you personally.
The more involved you are and the more you know - the harder it is to look away. I am trying to be engaged on multiple issues at multiple levels 150% of the time and that can lead to burnout. Can I go at this pace for the rest of my life? Hopefully.
How do you cope?
In the social justice field, we sometimes lose sight of what we are working towards - a life where people are able to flourish in the ways that make them happy. Working on that in my own life should not make me feel guilty. I cannot be in it all the time because I won’t be able to refuel to do the work.
Balance has been really important. I am trying to curate the life that I want and love to live. Finding time to cook, send snail mail to friends and family, and being in the studio creating art are my personal acts of resistance. It refuels me. Making a refuge out of the small apartment that I share with my partner - that is deeply important.
How does being a dancer enable your life?
The relationship I have with my dance communities is symbiotic - I can't live without it, but when I'm IN it, the intensity is overwhelming. I feel grateful to have had the ability to pursue dance from a really young age. It gives me life in times when I feel that this world is so dark. Having that community is so valuable and essential to me. I’ve found it all over the world, too - I marvel at that.
Where were you surprised to find it?
When I worked in Nicaragua I went to this yoga studio and asked if anyone wanted to take Bollywood dance classes. I ended up becoming the first-ever Bollywood dance teacher in Nicaragua. They even did this TV segment on me! (I've never seen it, 'til date.) I ended up teaching at the National Academy of Dance in Managua.
You studied in thirteen schools as a child. You moved a lot! What was that like?
I was born in California and then moved to the Philippines and Japan, traveling throughout Southeast Asia and spending many long summers in India. In the Philippines, we got caught in the 1989 coup and our building was taken hostage. One day when we were in the den, two bullets came through our window. They ricocheted off the door and fell into my mom’s lap which was very ironic because I was in the line of fire and someone pulled me down. I was four so I thought the whole thing was such a fun adventure.
Where would you say you are from?
My travel around the world is one of the greatest gifts of my life. But it’s also led me to not knowing where I’m from. I feel like I have all these little homes all over the world. People, places and things and songs are home for me. Not necessarily an address.
How did you find your way into your career?
I’ve always had two parallel passions - dance and public health. Whether it is choreographing an emotionally gripping lyrical piece exploring political freedom or designing an educational dialogue that explores consent outside of a legal or legislative framework, the beautiful mess of identity development, expression, and autonomy is what moves me.
After college, I worked in HIV prevention education for middle schoolers using art as the medium. I also started dancing and choreographing for the Mona Khan Company (previously, NAACH.) Then I got restless and moved to India on a fellowship with the Rockefeller Foundation to assess neonatal nurse training programs. I knew I was going to Johns Hopkins in the fall to pursue my Masters of Science in Public Health, and needed to occupy myself. So I took a consultant position with the World Bank in Nicaragua working to improve their national vital statistics program. After grad school, I got engaged and moved to Atlanta to be with my fiancé. I saw this job announcement for a survivor advocate at Emory University and decided to take a chance and apply. I had no idea if I had the qualifications, but I got the job. I’ve been working at that intersection - of sexual health promotion and gender-based violence prevention - ever since.
Your life sounds like a life filled with chance opportunities!
I have wishes, big and small, stored away in my heart. If I can curate my life - with hope, curiosity, and some magic - maybe these dreams will come true. Probably not in the ways I imagine, but in strange moments of serendipity, the story will unfold as it's meant to.
Do you believe that you’ve always made good choices?
I’ve made bad choices. I’ve been impulsive and spontaneous and indulgent. But it has been so meaningful to acknowledge where I messed up and envision where I want to be.
My sense of conviction and that I intensely, wholly feel things have made decisions much easier. I know that this is absolutely the right thing that I have to do. I don’t waiver, I don’t make pros and cons lists. I just know.
Where does your confidence come from?
I wouldn’t say that it was the easiest childhood having moved so much, feeling lonely and having to play make-believe. But that also built resilience in me. When two people go through similar challenges with similar identities, what empowers one person to flourish while the other is unable to cope? This has also fueled my passion for public health - creating more just, equitable environments and systems that honor multiple identities and help people move through challenges with resilience. I think that’s what also makes me feel like my life is this rich, complex, sometimes ridiculous journey in which I don’t regret anything.
Do you feel that your work is risky at all?
I feel immense privilege to be able to do exactly what I want. I think my family is still trying to understand what I do. I regularly get messages from them saying: “You write so boldly. Are you sure no one is going to be upset?” But they also give me incredible support to be exactly who I am. The value for education and for pursuing your own dreams without putting anyone else first was a very important conversation in our family, especially from my father. So when I think about whether it is risky, I think “no,” because I have to do this.
Who else inspires you?
People who approach their lives filled with conviction, acting in line with their values and being true to what moves them. People whom I've met along the way who have become my mentors because there were little parts of me waiting for them to arrive and inspire a thought, vision, or emotion in me.
Astrology inspires me. I remember reading this passage about Aquarians that if you put all of their friends and mentors together, it will feel like walking through Times Square. No two people alike.
Is there anyone particularly special who comes to mind?
My grandmother is a beacon of hope and light; she moves through life with a grace, calm, and fortitude. I have a fire raging inside all the time. I wear all my emotions on my face and in my person. The example she sets with her relentless compassion helps me harness my emotion into action.
How do you know what you are doing today is worth it?
I am trying to live my best life, knowing that my capacity and environment and resources change every day. Some days, I want to run away to a rocky, disastrously beautiful beach town and open a bed and breakfast. But, I couldn’t live with myself if I did that. There is too much to do.
Angela Davis' words fuel me: “You have to live as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” I am trying to live that value - not always succeeding. Fatalism alarms me: “You’re born, you live, you die.” Instead, I ask, “Why live an existence that doesn’t hope for and work toward something better?”