Carving a World of her Own -Ratnaboli Ray – Founder Trustee: Anjali Mental Health Rights Organization, Kolkata, India

Ratnaboli Ray was born into a family of committed social activists. Her mother and grandmother were active in several of Calcutta's charitable institutions. Ratnaboli pioneered the first daycare center and short-stay home for the children of sex workers in Calcutta - today a thriving enterprise that has drawn much media and developmental attention. When Ratnaboli joined Paripurnata, the first half-way home for persons with mental illness in West Bengal, it was a fledgling organization. She trained a team and designed a new program of "planned stay" and rehabilitation.

She has worked tirelessly with local youth clubs and the political and religious leaders of a poor neighborhood to spread awareness and build a positive public opinion about persons with mental illness. She has also been a full-time volunteer coordinator for the Forum for Mental Health Movement, which under her leadership has attracted several key organizations and activists. In 2005 she founded NAAJMI a national alliance for access to justice for persons with mental illness. This alliance is a strong collective voice around the country demanding justice and access to justice for persons living with mental illness based on the values of honor, respect and autonomy.

This changemaker draws her inspiration from her mother who she says has been significant in molding her to the person she is now, by just accepting her daughter the way she was. “My mother gave me the autonomy and freedom to be able to make my own choices, make mistakes, and the ability to learn from these mistakes and move on. She respected my point of view even though she might not always identify with it. I was not stereotyped...I did not have any dolls as a child. Instead I had a mini carrom board!

“Growing up during the Beatles movement on one hand and a politically charged scenario on the other with the Bangladesh independence movement in full swing closer to home, the political context was also very important in shaping my thoughts. The context I grew up in inspired me more than historical figures. In such circumstances, before the onset of globalization, I was given the freedom by my mother to make my own path. This has shaped me to be the person I am today...a more confident one.

“Another thing my mom tolerated were my innumerable 'why' questions. We had gone to the Taj Mahal when I was 10, and while everyone was enthralled at its beauty, I asked her how many laborers worked on it! She tried her best to answer me despite being baffled by the question.”

According to Ratnaboli, the fundamental qualities that any changemaker should have are:

Ability to think out of the box. One way to check if your thought is out of the box is to bounce the idea within a group of 10 people, and if 8 of them crush it saying it will never happen then you know you are on the right track. Only two people might listen to your ideas and understand their potential that is because changemakers are way ahead of their time.

Be strategic. This doesn't mean politically but knowing when to strike when the iron is hot. Knowing the exact time to act is very critical to a changemaker. This knowledge is largely intuitive. Changemakers are those who make many of their decisions based on their intuition...this is what sets them apart.

Perseverance. You have to be grounded with grit and determination. You cannot let anything get between you and your goals.

She also points out that the decision to collaborate with government helped make a bigger impact in all her programs. “Collaborating with the government does not mean being subservient to them, but make yourself heard. We have leveraged the government's infrastructure and resources in all our programs as a very conscious approach. It is a 2-pronged approach where we help build the capacity of the existing government programs in return. We supplement their work and also ask the government to be more sensitive to the needs of persons with mental illness / mental health problems.

“Mental health is at very nascent stage in India. We are trying to establish an interconnection between mental health and other developmental issues, for example sexuality, gender, livelihood all have to be looked at through mental health lens otherwise there is a chance of these programs crumbling down.”

Knowing what she does now, she says she wouldn't really do anything differently but it would be more of a course correction. “I would have liked to become more aware politically 10 years ago – I am talking about the politics involved in the issues I espouse. I had to learn everything on the job; if I had known how to handle it, I would have strategized my approach much more efficiently. In India, this knowledge is very important - how to get things done in a bureaucracy and cross the red tapes. I noticed that because of the pressures of globalization, the government budget on mental health is shrinking; I had to come up with immediate plans to get people to listen and not ignore the issue.”

She says that although she didn't have a particular focus when she was younger, she had always been inquisitive. “I think it is the best thing the way I have evolved; the process was very interesting. That is why I have never told my son who is now 23 years old to live his life in a particular way. Stay with whatever is happening, question it, and enjoy the moment.”

When asked what she considers to be her superpower, she laughs and says, “People tell me that they are my charisma, collaborative spirit and complete loyalty to my mission and goals. I stand firm and loyal to mine. I take money on my own terms, not to suit someone else's ideas.”

She wishes though that she was a little less ‘mad’. “I do not or have not fitted in any box so I am often called fruit and nut,” she says as a matter of fact.

According to her, women in another 50 years will be working on pretty much the same issues - human rights, violence against women, child’s right, global peace etc – but the form and context might change, and the focus would change. “We have been working on providing human rights for over a century now, and will continue to do so in the future as the definition of the term evolves. The woman of the future will surely be more in control of her life. Empowerment entails economic and social aspects. She will negotiate her life on her own terms. We keep so many things on hold in our lives now. Some other mechanism might come in place where women can negotiate what she wants – she will think in terms of 'I' and 'ME'.”