Interview by Anita Nahal
QFTD: Sunita, hi! It’s such a pleasure to interview you, someone I have known for maybe over 20 years! We go back to our days at Sri Venkateswara College in New Delhi where I was a professor and where you taught for a short while prior to moving to Australia.
By way of a short introduction to our readers, which will also be my first question, I am actually going to provide a portion from your bio. The first part of your bio reads, “Sunita Kotnala is an international development professional with experience in public services governance, urban poverty and sustainable cities. She lives in Sydney, Australia with two daughters, a husband and a cat. She likes to repaint discarded furniture, rejuvenate old gardens and go nomadding to new lands. In between she consults globally to address issues of gender inequality, safety and urban poverty.” It is so refreshing to see a bio which combines the personal and professional in a new twist. So, let’s begin with what prompted you to stress more on your personal interests and passions rather than professional attributes in the introductory para in your bio?
SUNITA: My focus on life at present is on doing things that I have passion for and enjoy. In this age of internet, the old norms are giving way to new thinking that I find very revitalizing. That gave me the confidence to describe myself as how I really see myself- someone who is following her heart and trying to live a holistic, symbiotic life where work is not all encompassing or something that describes me best. My career continues to be very important for me, however there are other aspects of my life that are equally relevant and which give me great pride to be associated with.
QFTD: So, Sunita, you have a Master’s in Social Work, and in India you were involved with advocacy. Tell our readers about the work you did in India and after moving to Australia.
SUNITA: After completing Social Work degree, I started working in India with youth organizations. I translated my knowledge of social issues on to some work I did with the current affairs programs for some TV channels in India prior to moving to Australia where I continued working in the social policy sphere. Initially, I worked as a gambling counselor to support gambling addicts and their families in their journey of recovery. This was followed by managing a Youth Service to develop services for children and youth at risk of homelessness. A key part of that role was to reduce criminality by creating solutions with the community, especially the indigenous community and newly arrived migrants to address youth recidivism and prevent their entry into the juvenile justice system. This work naturally led me to apply for a role of Multicultural Police Officer within the New South Wales police to work with people of culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds.
The multicultural role was an immensely rewarding experience because I could see the impact of my interventions both with the police - through diversity training to improve their cultural competency in addressing law enforcement issues related to newly arrived migrants, refugees, humanitarian entrants and asylum seekers - and the community, largely from non- English speaking backgrounds to reduce their fear and mistrust of the police. It was improtant to improve reporting of crime from the CALD communities and reduce their risk of becoming involved with the criminal justice system - many times by mistake or their fear of the police. As you are aware that in many non-Anglo and countries of the south - people, working for state institutions such as police, nurses, doctors, judges are seen as abusers and not to be trusted. This is in contrast to how these professions are seen by the general population in Australia, except perhaps by the indigenous communities, which are very distrustful of the state institutions because of valid, historical reasons.
The cultural competency of the police improved significantly as a result of ongoing education and training of police. This included: creating opportunities for interaction through police attendance at community cultural days, interactive youth and police sports competitions such as soccer matches, police station open days and mentoring programs between the police and the community, to name a few. The police budget for interpreters and the reporting of domestic violence related cases went up dramatically from the CALD communities as they began trusting the police more. A number of very long standing investigations could be solved because the communities broke the culture of silence and collaborated with the police by providing statements and evidence to charge people who had deliberately intimidated the community for a long time. I also worked with all other government departments to improve culturally competent workforce and services by organizing diversity conferences, refugee expositions, migrant fares and participating in the development of state and national strategic plans.
After almost 6 years in the police, I moved to work across different state departments and ministries in interrelated areas of community mental health, homelessness, social housing, child protection, sexual assault and violence prevention and safer cities planning in Australia. My last project was a Taxi Safety project to improve transport safety options in the city.
QFTD: How did you then move into development work? Please give us one or two examples of development work, in Australia or abroad, that you have enjoyed.
SUNITA: After nearly twelve years in the Australian public service, I realized that my skills, competency and intergovernmental experience would be very useful, internationally, for organizations working specifically in addressing gender equality, inter-related with social policy issues.
I became a member of the SATHI All for Partnerships, India - women’s land rights and resource rights advocacy organization - in 2005 and began doing a lot of online work for them, primarily assisting them in streamlining the governance aspects of the organizations. Subsequently, I began writing policy briefs, funding applications and editing reports and research papers on property rights, women and safer cities, gender planning for safer habitats, designing safe neighborhood programs for greater inclusion of elderly people experiencing mental health and disability issues. Since a couple of years, I have been representing the organization at a number of international platforms.
I began applying for international consultancy roles in 2012, and my first contract was with the World Bank Mongolia to complete a Review of Services for the Homeless in Mongolia for Ministry of Labor and Social Services. Since then, I have worked on a number of initiatives related to gender equality, violence against women, child protection and safer cities across the world. I later became involved with complex advocacy projects with UNICEF, Un DESA, ECOSOC, International Land Coalition, Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and Governments in the Asia Pacific region. A detailed history of published reports and papers is available at https://harvard.academia.edu/SunitaKotnala
QFTD: Very impressive, Sunita! You also have been associated greatly with enhancing the UN Agenda 2030- Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) as member of the Women Major Group (WMG) and Asia Pacific- Regional CSO Engagement Mechanism (AP-RCEM). Could you please share with our readers about that?
SUNITA: Yes, in 2015, I began participating in the process for finalization of the 2030 Agenda for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit on September, 25, 2015. I became particularly involved in the process of finalization for the targets and indicators as a SATHI representative at the Asia Pacific Regional CSO Engagement Mechanism (AP-RCEM) through different online platforms and tools. This was the first time that individuals and organizations from across the world came together in this process of transforming the world by participation of every individual and every country at all levels to address poverty, inequality and climate change at a global level. I was able to link in with the UN proceedings and contribute my voice as a member of the Women Major Group and by writing policy briefings, position papers, preparing presentations, making interventions at UN and participating in other advocacy activities to ensure inclusion of gender related language and indicators across all of the SDGs for addressing structural barriers to equality and meaningful participation of women across all three dimensions - social, economic and environmental.
Now I am an active member of a number of committees and sub-committees through my involvement on more than one Major Group and continue to be involved in high level engagement with intergovernmental processes at the UN and have had the opportunity to attend a number of meetings related to the 2016 High Level Political Forum.
QFTD: I know that travelling is part of your emotional make up, and you really enjoy “nomadding in new lands”. Recently, you were in New York City doing work with a project in the United Nations. What was that about? And which countries or cities have you enjoyed visiting the most?
SUNITA: In the last three months, I have traveled twice to New York. In April, I was invited to the UN DESA Stakeholders Expert Group Meeting (EBM) https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/?page=view&nr=1948&type=13&menu=1634 for the High Level Political Forum (HLPF), which is the key international mechanism for monitoring of the national reviews of the SDG’s.
The HLPF adopts a Ministerial Declaration and is expected to provide political leadership, guidance, and recommendations on the 2030 Agenda’s implementation and follow-up; keep track of progress of the SDGs; spur coherent policies informed by evidence, science and country experiences; as well as address new and emerging issues.
I was again in New York to attend the first HLPF from 10-20 July 2016 as a delegate of the Women Major Group. I presented at a number of events about the need for inclusion of measuring gender resource gap across all levels from the household to the neighborhood, village level, and district, state and all the way to national level to improve planning and address structural barriers leading to gender inequality. I presented at the Getting set for SDG implementation from local to global-Presenting the GGEO, gender resource gap, gender budget tools session, and made an intervention for greater inclusion of women at all levels of planning and implementation of the 2030 Agenda at national levels. It was a very fruitful and educational trip.
I have visited more than 30 countries. Mongolia and Portugal are two of my favorite countries, with Oporto being one of my favorite cities.
QFTD: Globe trotter! So, let’s shift a bit to your personal interests. You love to “repaint discarded furniture, rejuvenate old gardens,” the first which I love to re-use (smile), and the second which my mother absolutely enjoyed! What drew you to these two personal hobbies?
SUNITA: I have always been a painter- of picture, landscapes, and now furniture. A few years ago, I discovered Annie Sloane chalk paint, and since then there has been no turning back. Of course the fact that in Sydney you can find excellent pieces of discarded furniture on the roadside during council clean-up has also been instrumental. I pick them up and repaint them to save them from going to the tip- doing my bit for the environment.
Again, gardening is something that grew more from need. I have always loved having a nice, neat garden and a kitchen garden. It is expensive to hire gardeners in Australia. As a new migrant, the next best thing I could do was get down and dirty- and I loved it from the word go. Recently, I was working on a project to document the lives and struggles of small scale farmers, mainly women farmers in India. By changing their agricultural practices by rejecting commercial crops and going back to traditional methods, they have not only managed to grow enough food for themselves and their families, but also made enough profit to make their ventures sustainable. I was highly inspired by their experience and have since then replaced ornamental plants with edible plants. Now, my husband and I get enough greens everyday, and we have not bought salad and green vegetables for quite some time. I am planning to join permaculture classes to grow a range of food and make my land as self sufficient as possible.
QFTD: That is extremely useful and productive, for you and the land. Sunita, we are almost to the end of our interview…tell us a bit about your “two daughters, husband and cat.”
SUNITA: My older daughter is 25, working as a Project Officer in the University of Sydney, and she was recently awarded a scholarship to complete Master of Management while she continues to work as a full time employee. My younger daughter is studying at the Australian National University in Canberra doing a double degree in environmental studies and international relations. I am very proud of both of them and they make me smile with their feminist convictions, individuality, caring and humor.
My husband has started his own consultancy and mostly works from home, like me. We are discovering the art of living in harmony despite being in proximity of each other for long periods! We are revisiting our interests and dreams about places to visit in the near future.
QFTD: Sunita, as a parting message, what would you like to say to young or new folks in the field of development and inter-cultural competency? What should they keep in mind while pursuing these fields in the non-profit sector, which are not high salary yielding fields? One has to be very committed to a cause to work in these fields.
SUNITA: Firstly, you can have well paid jobs in the field of international development and cultural diversity. The salaries are obviously not comparable to corporate careers, however they can pay you enough to lead reasonable lives. I would advise people to get involved with Major Groups and other regional mechanisms to get an idea of what happens at the international level and how they can get involved.
All of us have to find our median- where our ideological aspirations come together with financial needs. It is different for different people. For example, I know of people who joined well paid UN jobs to leave them after a few years and work for much less in a nonprofit or a civil society organization. Also, we all have different needs at different times in our lives. I could have not done what I am doing ten years ago when I had many more bills to pay and I did not want to travel as much because of my girls. They were young, and I wanted to be around them when they were growing up.
QFTD: Yes, that’s true, time-related-needs play a huge role in our thoughts, decisions and choices.Thank you so much, Sunita, for being featured on our site. I am sure our readers will gain many insights from experiences.