Here at Carpe Juvenis we live and breath Seizing Your Youth, and for that reason our community is filled with people who both chase their dreams and pursue other passions. Co-founder Catherine is currently a senior at the George Washington University where she focuses on Women’s Studies and Political Science. Last Spring she had the opportunity to take a Graduate class called “Gender & Violence” from Professor Chai Shenoy. An Attorney Advisor for Peace Corps, the Co-founder of Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS) in Washington, D.C., and an adjunct professor at GWU and WCL (WHEW!) this is one incredibly driven woman. As a creative activist, Professor Shenoy has worked for over ten years on national and local anti-violence initiatives through multiple platforms. She has represented survivors of gender-based violence and fought for their rights through policy creation and training of professionals and specialists in every field. As a professor she instills a sense of confidence in her students that they, too, can make a positive impact on their communities and help to end gender-based violence. It is a privilege to introduce to you Chai Shenoy.
Carpe Juvenis: How do you define “Seizing Your Youth”?
Chai Shenoy: I think that there are different definitions. For a lot of us, seizing your youth is about taking what is available to you and making use of all the tools that you’ve been brought up with, and that the community has given you. Then it’s about really going beyond your potential – seeing how you can go and actually address some of the issues that are coming up in the community. I think that young people are who can solve many of these issues that we are facing today. Without them we won’t be able to solve so many things that we hear about like dating violence, sexual assault, issues around power and privilege, issues around environmental concerns that are now causing so many wars and famines. I think that for me seizing your youth really means taking all of those resources and diving into what you’re here for.
CJ: What initially sparked your interest around women’s rights and activist work?
CS: I grew up in a family where my mother had a major role in my life and became my role model. She came from a culture where women aren’t necessarily given equal footing as men, and when she immigrated to the United States she continued with her passions, which are the sciences. She told me that you really have to fight for what you think is right in this world.
CJ: When and where did you discover your passion?
CS: It wasn’t until college that I figured out what I love doing. There are a lot of different things in this world happening to equalize women and children, but on my college campus I wasn’t really seeing that. There was so much unspoken violence; people weren’t talking about dating violence and sexual assault. Soon I became really vested in that work and in working with youth. While I considered myself at that time to also be a young person, I knew that I wanted to continue working with the population that tends to have the best ideas but who also have the worst advocates. You could definitely see that when it came to gender-based violence on campuses, and it was brushed off as an issue that was just part of youth culture and was accepted as the truth. Let’s say, for the sake of those critics, that gender-based violence is the truth – do we really want that to be part of our culture? That critical thinking came from how I was raised. I was told that I should be questioning right and wrong, and to have a strong moral ethic. Equality is important and we need to have it.
CJ: As the co-founder of Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS), how did you and your team transform CASS from a blog to a dynamic organization?
CS: To be quite frank, it happened very organically. It was really the community that utilized social media in a way that allowed voices and experiences to be heard. Sharing an experience of public sexual harassment by a stranger can happen once you’re at home, or in a safe environment. So our community in D.C. asked for us to start to do trainings on this, and it morphed into a lot of offline activism with an online presence, because that’s where community is.
CJ: You attended the Washington School of Law. In retrospect would you have made the same commitment now? What would you have done differently?
CS: Yes, absolutely. I would have been wiser about financial aid, looking for scholarships, and being more prepared about the fiscal responsibility that comes with any higher education. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I started to acknowledge that I have a fear of money and then needed to do something about it. I got a financial adviser and started to ask questions like “What are my fiscal goals in life?” That’s really the only thing I would be wiser about now – the fiscal impact. But with that said, law school for me opened up a variety of things. First it opened up my mind to critical thinking in a very focused way. I was critical thinking about applying legal structure to where I wanted the law to go, or making policy recommendations for youth rights, gender-based violence issues for teens, and education. All of those things were and are very important to me. Law school also opened up my eyes to the variety of jobs for people who have the skills of critical thinking. I would never replace going to law school. I think it was a magnificent choice, especially coming to the nation’s capital. It’s a beautiful place to be for people who are willing to push themselves and be challenged.
CJ: As an adjunct professor at the George Washington University and WCL, what do you hope your students take away from learning about gender-based violence?
CS: That they can be change makers. That you yourself can help stop the culture of violence. You don’t have to dedicate your entire life to it by becoming a lawyer or an advocate or a social worker, you – just as an average person – can stop somebody or question someone when they’re making a joke that is sexist or has an undertone of gender violence. Or when you raise your own family consider talking about the dynamic of how to raise a male, female, or transgendered child. How do you make sure that we continue to have conversations about ending gender-based violence? I hope that my students can walk away feeling empowered that they can do something. You yourself can make a difference.
CJ: Could you please tell me a bit more about your work with the Peace Corps?
CS: I should give the disclaimer that anything I talk about related to Peace Corps is from my own personal capacity and I’m not a Peace Corps representative. What attracts me about working at Peace Corps is the fact that it’s a federal agency organization that has a social justice mission to help people understand the United State’s culture, and for us to understand other countries’ cultures as well. One of the things I love about it – and this is going to sound odd – is that gender-based violence happens everywhere. It’s not unique to one region of this world. Sadly it’s a common thread amongst all of our cultures, and being at Peace Corps to work on sexual assault and gender-based violence issues has been such a privilege and an honor. Seeing how a federal agency can help a victim of sexual assault, and empower her or him to seek out services and make sure that they complete their goal of being a Peace Corps volunteer – that’s really our mission. We’ve spoken about gender-based violence as being an impediment, for example, to finishing college, it’s a reason why people leave their jobs, or potentially become isolated from their families. We don’t want the sexual assault or gender-based violence incident to be why anyone walks away from Peace Corps with. We don’t want that to be the defining moment, so it’s an honor to work on policies that hope create an empowering atmosphere for a victim of gender-based violence.
CJ: How do you maintain – or seek to maintain – a work-life balance?
CS: It’s an everyday struggle, but I also think that there’s a false narrative we build when talking about work-life balance. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has said that they’ve achieved that balance, male or female, with or without children. I think what you can do is acknowledge your limitations. Something that I’m learning about myself is that you don’t have to do everything all at once. You’ll be able to do everything that you want to do, it just won’t happen all at once. I think that in this fast passed social media world we see people doing things that we want to be doing, and we judge ourselves. I’m coming to realize that it’s us breeding our own notion of thinking we need to be doing things that we don’t need to be. You’re all right as long as you can live, and have a life, and be living out your passion or passions. So I don’t really think there is such a thing as work-life balance.
CJ: Do you think that the career advice to “Follow your passion” is good or bad?
CS: It’s very dependent on the person and what they need to be doing in his or her life. For someone who can follow his or her passion and have a day job that helps cultivate that passion, that’s great. But at the same time not everyone has the privilege to follow that passion and get paid or be reimbursed for it. But I think you have to do something that will make you feel vested in yourself. When you vest in yourself you vest in the community. That’s where so much local change and the ripple effects of change happen.
CJ: What advice would you give your 22-year-old self?
CS: I think I would say have faith in yourself more than anyone else in this world. I think we always question ourselves, especially in our twenties. And all of it is part of the normal developmental process, but you’re asking yourself a lot of deep questions. What am I doing with my life? Why am I here? How do I get to where I want to go? Those are all really deep and meaningful questions. Get to know yourself. You are your own best advocate.