Rituparna Neog, a catalyst for change and a fervent advocate for LGBTQIA+ rights in Assam, stands at the forefront of grassroots initiatives, fostering transformation in small towns and villages. Her multifaceted role, ranging from founding the Akam Foundation to serving as the Associate Vice Chairperson of Assam’s State Transgender Welfare Board, reflects a commitment to bridging gaps in gender justice, educational interventions, and societal acceptance.

In a brief personal reflection, before we dived into questions about her work, Rituparna told us that she never came out. In fact, she challenged the conventional notion of coming out altogether, questioning the need for such a narrative when her straight and cisgender friends never feel compelled to do the same. The conversation that followed was full of such important insights and beliefs.

Empowering Communities through Grassroots Initiatives

Rituparna's commitment to grassroots work is evident in her efforts to bridge the gap between urban and rural spaces. Recognizing the significance of reaching communities at their core, she emphasizes the need to bring about change from the ground up. In her view, grassroots initiatives are vital to shaping larger social narratives and influencing policy changes, creating a more holistic society.

She envisions a future where the voices emerging from grassroots efforts permeate policy discussions, leading to structural changes that reflect the diverse needs of the people. Rituparna's work, including Kitape Katha and Drishti Queer Collective, exemplifies her dedication to fostering inclusive spaces that empower children and the LGBTQIA+ community.

Evolving Landscape of LGBTQIA+ Acceptance in Assam

As a queer activist in Assam, Rituparna’s journey began by questioning the concentration of efforts in urban spaces and realizing the need to extend advocacy to rural areas. She remarks how, over the past decade, Assam has witnessed a significant shift, marked by the emergence of films like Fireflies: Jonaki Porua; books in the Assamese language; and collectives and organizations like Xobdo Foundation, Anaajoree, Xomonnoy, and her own initiatives like the Akam Foundation and Drishti Queer Collective that contribute to a more inclusive narrative.

She also highlights achievements such as policy shifts and increased acceptance in educational institutions while acknowledging that there is still a long road ahead for full societal inclusion.

As the Associate Vice Chairperson of Assam's State Transgender Welfare Board, Rituparna shares her experiences working with the government. While recognizing the challenges inherent in navigating bureaucratic systems, she remains optimistic about the cooperative approach adopted by the Department of Social Justice and Empowerment. She stresses the importance of issuing transgender identity cards promptly, ensuring sustainable livelihood solutions, and promoting queer-affirmative healthcare provisions.

Rituparna emphasizes the need for policy-level changes to address the multifaceted challenges faced by the transgender community, ranging from education to social protection programs. Despite being in an advisory role, she remains hopeful about the collaborative efforts between the government and the board in fostering positive change.

Promoting Collaboration and Co-Creation

Rituparna advocates for collaboration, co-creation, and solidarity building in the LGBTQIA+ space. “Rather than networking, I like to use the word solidarity and allyship building,” she remarks. Acknowledging the importance of allyship, she emphasizes that working together with various stakeholders, including educational institutions and communities, is essential for meaningful change.

Her work with the Akam Foundation exemplifies this approach, as she collaborates with academic institutions, building allyships to mobilize youth for queer rights. Rituparna believes that co-creating and collaborating with diverse stakeholders, including philanthropists, is essential for accelerating outcomes and creating lasting social change.

Leadership Lessons from the Akam Foundation

As the founder of the Akam Foundation, Rituparna shares invaluable lessons drawn from her experiences in research, nonprofit organization management, and community mobilization. She underscores the importance of listening to the community, co-creating solutions, and recognizing that leaders are merely part of the process, not its sole architects.

Rituparna's advice to other organizations working toward gender justice and educational intervention is also rooted in empathy and collaboration. Organizations can create sustainable and impactful change by putting the community at the center of decision-making. She says, “When you start co-creating, the community automatically starts taking ownership.”

She also acknowledges the challenges in accessing institutional support and funding issues for her organization. However, despite the hurdles, the organization has persevered through crowdfunding and community support.

Addressing Funding Gaps and Philanthropy Challenges

Regarding the persistent funding gaps and the critical need for financial support, Rituparna emphasizes the responsibility of those with resources to share. She advocates for a feminist approach to grant-making, urging funders to understand and support grassroots organizations with empathy. Rituparna's experiences underscore the need for a more accessible and collaborative philanthropic landscape, fostering a genuine partnership between donors and grassroots organizations. “Listen to what your community wants, not what you think they want,” she points out.

She also highlights the geographical marginalization in CSR grants, urging corporate spaces to extend their support beyond metropolitan areas. Rituparna emphasizes the need for a more inclusive approach to ensure that resources reach grassroots organizations working in smaller towns and marginalized regions. To this extent, she proposes a collaborative space where philanthropists and organizations can unite to streamline the process, making resources more accessible.

Aspirations for the Queer Community

Rituparna's vision for the queer community is rooted in the principles of equality and constitutional rights. She hopes to witness the fulfillment of all constitutional rights for the queer community within her lifetime, envisioning a future where justice is not a distant goal but a lived reality.

Rituparna’s journey is marked by a steadfast commitment to creating spaces where everyone's voice is heard and valued. Her work not only transforms lives within Assam but also serves as a beacon for a more inclusive and just society on a broader scale. In a world where challenges persist, Rituparna's approach is a testament to the transformative power of empathy, collaboration, and solidarity in pursuing a more equitable future.

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