The title’s not exactly accurate. I’ve never been to Mumbai, nor experienced terrorism outside of the US. But I very easily could’ve been there about five years ago.
It would’ve been my first overseas trip and only my second international one of any consequence, if you don’t count spending the summer solstice in Fairbanks, Alaska in ’01. It was the end of July ’03, the day before my son Noah was born, when my immediate boss proposed that we have our ’04 winter retreat at the World Social Forum in Mumbai. I was the assistant director for the New Voices Fellowship Program. It was a program that supported small social justice not-for-profit organizations and rising stars in the social justice field with two-year employment-based fellowships that covered salaries while individuals made an impact on various domestic and international social justice issues.
Sounds pretty good, except that the Ford Foundation’s Human Rights unit had been hinting at a reduced budget for the program for the past year, we had no long-term vision for the program, and my impending fatherhood hadn’t exactly gone over well with a couple of my higher ups. But it seemed all good at the time. The day before Noah was born, me and my immediate supervisor had gone to lunch with a New Voices Fellow who seemed to think that she was bigger than our program (there was a lot of that in my three years there). When we suggested that it wasn’t a good idea to skip the winter retreat then scheduled in San Francisco, she responded that she wanted to go to the World Social Forum in India.
The World Social Forum is an annual or biennial (depending on the years) gathering of 100,000 or more social justice activists from around the world. It’s mostly a loose conglomeration of organizations and individuals staging protests, delivering speeches, doing sing-a-longs and otherwise responding rabidly to any and all forms of inequality and -isms that hold billions of the world’s powerless back. (I have no problems with social justice — just the World Social Forum and its disorganized methodology).
We had a ten-minute discussion of some of the pros and cons of doing our winter retreat in Mumbai before I left for the day. Within the next twenty-four hours, Noah was born, and I went on paternity leave (which was really my use of four weeks of vacation days) for almost all of August. Within twelve days of my leave, my immediate boss made the whimsical decision to have our meeting in Mumbai. We would have only about four months to prepare our staff and about 40 other folks for an international trip to one of the largest cities in the world during a major gathering.
It wasn’t the unilateralness of the decision that shocked me as much as the stupidity of it. Few of us knew anything about Mumbai, about getting passports and visa, the cost of such a trip, getting the proper shots, and so many other things that would go into the planning of this thing. Plus, there was the issue of the existing contract with the hotel in San Francisco for our winter retreat. Changing that would be a bear as well.
I came back from paternity leave at the end of August ’03 to this mess. I had sent an email just before I return outlining my concerns about logistics and what, in the end, would be the point of having a winter retreat if the New Voices Fellows were to spend all of their time at the World Social Forum events. No response from the higher ups. I began the task of putting this potentially nightmarish trip together. For nearly a month, I negotiated hotel contracts with folks nine and a half hours ahead and three hours behind before coming up with something that fit our budget. The winter retreat in San Francisco would now be our summer conference in August ’04.
It turned out that this was the easy part. It seemed like all I kept hearing from the State Department and in the news was bad news about Mumbai. There had been several terrorist attacks of the home-grown or Pakistani variety over the years, including ones in ’93 and ’02. The main railway station was apparently a favorite target. The State Department and the CDC recommended Hepatitis A-C shots prior to traveling to India. And for weak stomachs and colons like mine, there was little to look forward to in terms of maintaining a certain standard of gastrointestinal health while in Mumbai.
But as the calls from the New Voices Fellows began coming in throughout September and October ’03, there was another serious issue. One in six of the Fellows were foreign nationals, and in the post-9/11 era, that meant that there would be the possibility that they couldn’t get out of or get back in the US if their paperwork and travel wasn’t on the up-and-up. I brought my concerns to my immediate supervisor as the evidence mounted that — surprise! — four months isn’t much time to plan an international trip and gathering for 40 to 50 people. For all of my troubles, I was accused of disloyalty and that I was after his job. “I will never help promote you to senior program officer!,” he yelled.
I knew even before Noah’s birth that I needed work that was more of a mesh between my interests in education reform and social justice, as well as with my teaching and writing outside of my full-time work. The problems with putting together this Mumbai gathering-within-a-gathering aggravated latent tensions about my future and the future of the program. I gave my immediate boss my verbal notice in November ’03, and also made it known that I couldn’t on the trip to Mumbai, not with limited childcare options and my health issues at the time.
The story should end here, but it gets more bizarre. A week into the new year, and only ten days before the Mumbai trip, my immediate supervisor had a bipolar-disorder induced nervous breakdown — in the middle of a staff meeting about the trip. He had apparently flipped out the day before in a meeting about the state of the program with the CEO of our organization. Within days of him leaving our meeting flushed and with tears streaming down his cheeks, he left a weird voicemail message for me at work apologizing for the previous four months of stress and telling me that he “loved me.” In tracing the number, I knew that he had called me from the psychiatric ward of a local hospital.
This was all occurring while I was interviewing for a number of jobs, and really close to getting offered two of them. My boss’s boss’s boss (the middle boss had retired in June) now needed to find someone to go to Mumbai to handle the gathering. Since she had stopped talking to me in November, she obviously decided to not ask me about going on the trip at the last minute. She sent someone from another project, one wholly unfamiliar with New Voices or the particulars of this meeting and the World Social Forum. Our two junior staff members also went on the trip, both saddened by recent events with our immediate boss, my impending departure, and angry with me because I couldn’t tell them everything that was going on at the time.
As it turned out, the trip wasn’t a complete disaster. But it was a partial one in many ways. The staff at the hotel in Mumbai, with obvious disdain for the women of New Voices, kept changing the nature of the services agreed to in the original contract while attempting to charge them more for those services. The New Voices Fellows, as expected, didn’t really gather as a group at any point during the ten-day period in Mumbai. They were on their own at the World Social Forum, with many of them overwhelmed by the sheer volume of people and activities and with no specific agenda related to their work in mind.
The worst thing of all was that at least two Fellows couldn’t get back into the US after the Mumbai trip. Both had decided to tack on additional international travel post-Mumbai, to countries on the State Department’s terrorist watch list. One made it in within a week, the other after Sens. Kennedy and Kerry wrote to the State Department about her case, a full four months later.
By then, I was happily at work on publishing Fear of a “Black” America and in my job duties working on college access and success issues. There was a part of me that wished things had worked out better, for me and for the rest of the New Voices staff. There was another part of me that realized that everything happens for a reason, even the most senseless of things. It just wasn’t the right time, place or planning for a trip to Mumbai. With more time to prepare and with more resources, it could’ve been a great trip with lots of good memories. I’m also sure, though, that even with the best planning and knowledge, incidents like the multiple terror attacks last week would’ve been unavoidable if they had occurred during the World Social Forum five years ago.