Alternative Identity Project was a 4-day gathering that invited 8 young people from the margins to come together and engage in conversations that reject the idea of personal failure and place failure in the unequal systems and unjust structures around us. Through externalization and reauthoring over rainy July afternoons, the young people journeyed together to reclaim their preferred identities that are alternative to the identities defined and privileged by the systems around them.
This was not a space for teaching how to overcome failure or learning how to meet expectations. This was a space for questioning what “failure” means and who gets to decide that. It was a space to collectively take a second look at these systems, instead of accepting their norms as the truth. To identify the cracks in them where our voices of resistance can seep in, and to shine a light on our alternative knowledges and ways of living and bring them out of the shadows of failure.
How do we commonly make meaning of failure?
Failure is commonly understood as a problem inside of us. As young people, we are often met with expectations of what it means to be productive, adequate, successful, smart, confident, strong, independent. When we do not meet these expectations, when we do not fit in or feel left out in the world, when we do not match up to what is considered ideal, or when we do not conform to certain norms – a feeling creeps in that something is wrong with us. ‘Feeling inadequate’, ‘incapable’, ‘falling short’, ‘unworthy’ are few of the ways in which people may describe this feeling of failure.
Essentially, failure is something that gets located inside us when we do not live the life we are assigned to live or be the person we are required to be.
Failure is not inside us. It is in systems of power and what they ask of us.
While thinking about and creating this gathering, I wanted to find a name that mirrored Michael’s words and I found the following paragraph in his paper Addressing Personal Failure (2012, International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work):
“I have proposed that it is possible to engage with a sense of personal failure in a way that provides for a reading of this as a refusal of modern power. I have also proposed that, in the shadows of this failure, other knowledges of life and practices of living might be identified and richly described. Further, I have suggested that such an inquiry might provide a foundation for people to more significantly pursue identity projects that do not so completely reproduce the favoured individualities of contemporary western culture.”
“These inquiries provide a foundation for people to more significantly familiarise themselves with and to pursue alternative identity projects that do not so completely reproduce these norms for personhood.”
Narrative practices is founded on the belief that the person is never the problem, the problem is the problem. It would then be accurate to declare that failure is not inside us – failure is in the unequal systems, unjust structures, and biased norms around us that dictate the kind of lives we should and should not live, that subjugate certain identities and privilege certain other identities. They are incomplete stories about what counts as “a good life”, what “making it in life” means, and what it means to be a person of worth. This kind of failure feeling is constructed by not matching up to a definition of identity favoured by those in power. Not fitting in should get us to question the systems that require us to fit in, not our own capabilities and identities.
In his paper Addressing Personal Failure (2012, International Journey of Narrative Therapy and Community Work), Michael White highlights one of the key ideas of narrative practices that people are always responding to what is not okay for them. He speaks about considering these “acts of failing” as a refusal of the requirements of modern power. He convinces us to understand these failure acts as a person’s refusal to live a life dictated by dominant discourses of identity. To view these acts as a representation of a different life, an alternative identity project, that does not comprehensively reproduce the norms of favoured identities.
For me, his words brought home the idea that people’s identities in and of themselves do not have to represent failure, but a refusal of normative power and a rich story of diversity.
Queer identities are not failures, they exist as a refusal to the norms of heteronormativity.
Trans and non-binary identities are not failure, they exist as a refusal to the norms of the gender binary.
Neurodiverse people are not failure, they exist as a refusal to the norms of neurotypicality and ableism.
In my conversations with young people in therapy and community work, I came to understand that it is not only our actions of failing to meet norms or expectations, but whole identities in themselves that have represented a sense of failure for people. People who do not fit within the privileges of being heteronormative, able-bodied, cis-gendered, neurotypical, Savarna, and any other dominant identity marker, experience a systemic marginalization that may often get amplified by an internalized conclusion of failure.
Our existence is a resistance to power and a testimony to diversity, not a failure.
The Alternative Identity Project, thus, intended to be a celebration of this resistance and diversity, a declaration of rejecting personal failure, and locating failure in systems, structures and norms.
Our Intentions and Hopes from The Gathering
To call out problems as big as systems of power within a limited time period of 4 days, I imagine it takes a clear and firm belief in and commitment to the stance that the problem lies in these systems and not inside people. With this in mind, we decided to invite young people who experience marginalization related to their identities, and who hold some belief in the idea of rejecting personal failure and questioning systems of power. It was this collective stance of protesting what is dominant and the histories of resistance that each of us carried into the room that I believe really catalysed the rich storying of our alternative identity projects.
We hoped for the gathering to make these experiences possible:
(1) Identifying and calling out systems of power in our lives and the ways in which they operate to locate failure within us.
(2) Making visible young people’s acts of refusal and resistance towards personal failure.
(3) Co-researching their “alternative” identities through their knowledges of life, practices of living, values, rights, and principles that continue to thrive, have a history, and hold meaning, even in the context of systemic marginalization.
(4) Reimagining a preferred world that places failure in systems and invites inclusion of all identities, respect for contexts, agency for people, and community care.
(5) Talking back to failure by sharing letters that inform the world of what is not okay about these systems, and the values, hopes, and knowledges that the young people hold close to them.
What was made possible from the gathering?
1) The young people spoke about their hopes for a preferred world that prioritizes these values and commitments, that make their acts of refusal towards norms possible:
Freedom / आज़ादी
Respect / सम्मान
Unity / एकता
Education / शिक्षा
Hope / उम्मीद
Justice / न्याय
Agency / अपने फैसले और विचार चुनने की क्षमता
Dignity / गरिमा
Consent / सहमति
Equity / न्यायनीति
Context / प्रसंग
Community / समुदाय
Inclusion / सम्मिलन
Love / प्यार
Solidarity / एकजुट होना
2) Using externalization, we unpacked the systems that we are born into and the ones that influence us on a day to day basis. We discussed the operations and effects of systems like patriarchy, casteism, ableism, neurotypicality, gender roles, classism, ageism, and the English language, norms related to productivity, success, career choice, city life, and independence. The telling and re-telling of each young person’s stories played a paramount role in calling out how these systems operate in sneaky ways to place failure inside us and get us to second-guess our sense of self when we do not conform. The stories helped the group externalize the idea of failure and place it in systems, and to question these systems rather than ourselves.
3) Where there is power, there is always resistance. We spent a whole day richly storying the little and big actions these young people take to stand up to systems, question or protest them, and uphold their hopes, values and principles for the kind of world they want. This was an important day for us to realize that each of us is continually fighting these systems and we are never passive receivers of the systems’ ways of operating. This solidified the ground for the conviction that failure is not inside of us.
Some ways in which the young people have resisted:
- Dreaming of a world where….
- Saying NO
- Ignoring the system’s tactics
- Fighting it out
- Asserting my identity
- Talking and sharing with friends
- Standing my ground
- Asking for what we want
- ज़िद / Being stubborn about our rights
- गुस्सा / Anger
- Observing the systems around me
- Vowing to fulfil my dreams
- Never agreeing to the failure inside us
- Trying to gain perspective on the situation
- Questioning bias / “फरक क्यों?”
- Believing that there is no “one” and “only” way to be
- If we listen to everyone’s stories, the change in system could be quicker than we think.
- Just because I speak differently, does not mean I don’t have anything to say.
4) My favourite thing that became possible from this gathering was a collection of letters to the world that these young people penned down. Our hope with these letters was to talk back to failure by informing the world of what is not okay about these systems and revealing the ways in which they locate failure within us when we do not fit within the definitions of “normal”, “acceptable” or “socially sanctioned” identities. These letters centre the know-hows of the 8 young people by documenting their ways of existing, resisting, and the values, hopes, and knowledges that continue to breathe life into their ways of living.
Out of all the words from the young people that we are carrying with us, I am sharing some words here from Babli, a young person from the gathering, who wrote in their letter to the world:
सुनो मेरी बात, मुझे कुछ कहना है, सुन लो अलफ़ाज़
बुरे नही हो तुम, हां लेकिन मतलबी हो
सिर्फ़ शिकायत नही है, पर हां बहुत शिकायत है
तुमने जो सिस्टम बनाए हैं, शायद अच्छे हैं, लेकिन सिर्फ अच्छे हैं – ऐसा नहीं।
तुम्हारे सिस्टम ने मुझे बहुत रुलाया, लेकिन रोना मेरी कमजोरी या मजबूरी नहीं –
रोना मेरा तुम्हारे खिलाफ आवाज है।
हां बहुत गुस्सा है तुम्हारे लिए, लेकिन एक बार शुक्रिया कहना चाहूंगी।
तुमको बदल डालूंगी क्योंकि मैं अपने सपने पूरे करूंगी।
डांस (Dance) करती हूं , अंधेरों से प्यार करती हूं, गाने सुनती हूं, एक्टिंग (acting) करती हूं, खुद से बात करती हूं, रोती हूं
लेकिन तुम्हारी सहमति नहीं करती।
सिर्फ तुम नहीं, मैं भी तुम्हें ऑब्जर्व (observe) करती हूं।
एक ऐसी दुनिया चाहती हूं जहां पर कोई जजमेंट (judgement) ना हो, कोई विलन (villain) ना हो, कोई भेदभाव ना हो, कोई bias ना हो, कोई रिस्ट्रिक्शन (restriction) ना हो, कोई छोटी सोच ना हो, कोई नाइंसाफी ना हो
बस इंसान, समानता और प्यार हो ।
Listen to me, I have something to say.
You are not all bad. But yes, you can be selfish.
It is not that I only have complaints with you. But yes, the complaints are many.
The systems that you have made for us might be good. But one cannot say that they are only good.
Your systems have made me cry immensely. But my tears were not my weakness or by force.
My tears were my voice against you.
Yes, there is a lot of anger towards you, but I want to thank you too.
I will change you some day because I want to fulfil my dreams.
I dance, I love the dark, I listen to music, I act, I talk to myself, I cry – But I do not express my agreement of you.
It’s not only you observing me. I’m observing you too.
I wish for a world where there is no judgment, there is no villain, no discrimination, no bias, no restriction, no injustice.
Only us, connection, and love.
A note of gratitude and remembering
This gathering was made possible because of the 8 young people who exist, resist, persist and have taught me to never stop holding on to hope. Amit, Babli, Jai, Kavya, Rohan, Rahim, Sneha, Pranali, I think of you every day.
My colleague and best friend, Yashna Vishwanathan, who co-facilitated this gathering with me every single day. Her belief in this and her brilliance shaped this gathering in the most beautiful ways.
My preferred mentors, Raviraj Shetty and Jehanzeb Baldiwala, whose guidance, kindness, and undying support influenced me to keep believing in the magic of this work.
My friend and illustrator, Jaya Iyer, who has put together the lovely digital illustrations above, that captured our ideas and experience of the gathering in the most wholesome and heart-warming way.
This piece is written by Shweta Srinivasan. Shweta Srinivasan is a therapist and the co-founder of TheMindClan.com, an online community platform for mental health care. She works with young adults in therapy is client-centred, rights-based, and informed by narrative practices and intersectionality in mental health. Her heart lies in storying people’s values and hopes, and the magic of how they hold on to them even amidst the problem stories. She loves naps, chai, big old trees, and staring at the sky.