Upon reflecting on the Exploring Powerlessness mission I recalled an uncomfortable situation I found myself in a few years back in remote regions of Kutch in western India. A foreign friend & I had caught a combined taxi – a sort of modern SUV that folks pile into and pay a pretty decent fare to get between a couple of larger towns. Our daylight trip there went smoothly but out return trip was at night & our driver was really careless. He drove at crazy speeds, all over the road and seemed to have no consideration for how his 10 passengers were coping. The pregnant woman next to me was grasping my arm so tightly it hurt and I could easily pick up on the tension in the back seat. (Please note that I'm fairly widely travelled and have experienced some pretty hazardous driving in my life – but this example constituted extreme carelessness and risk.)
In my stilted Hindi I asked the driver to take more care on behalf of his passengers. He laughed. I could tell I had the support of other passengers – yet it was not usual social conduct for them to confront the driver. I tried asking a few other times and eventually told him I wouldn't pay my fare if he didn't slow down and drive more carefully (no small cost in these kinds of taxis) . More laughter and if anything his driving got worse. We all felt powerless – even though we were paying customers – it was a horrendous journey for everyone.
When we got to our destination the driver came to collect our fares. Everyone handed their's over but I was furious and refused. He told me he would call the police and by now people at the busy taxi stand has started to gather round. I felt even more powerless as it was dark and a place a I didn't know. Then I remembered one thing which might help... "Sure," I said. "Please call the police and we can also talk to them about the cellphone calls you made while driving. We all saw and heard those and they'll be recorded on your phone." Suddenly his confidence waivered and the crowd cheered. The no mobile phone calls while driving was a fairly new law in India and was well known. This public awareness bolstered my confidence and transferred power to my argument. I didn't pay my fare and hopefully the driver learnt a lesson... he was certainly publicly shamed and realised that he couldn't just do what ever he wanted. The support I got from fellow passengers also indicated that they were keen to be able to make the same point but were unsure how voice their concerns.
Drawing from this personal insight and re-focusing on the challenge at hand: How might we raise awareness about issues surrounding unlawful detention – amongst the general public, detainees plus their friends and families – to empower their collective action? Awareness campaigns and tools may look different for various audiences in different contexts and locations. Let's think broadly about what kind of information requires clarification and amplification. And how might we empower folks to support each other once they are informed? Hopefully this humble recollection of overcoming powerlessness through group support might inspire a number of ideas in the upcoming Concepting phase.