On board the Shinkansen

Staying Stable Amid Chaos

Heard of the Shinkansen? Known outside Japan as the bullet train — the Japanese word refers to a network of high-speed railway lines that connect distant regions with the capital Tokyo. These lines ensure that the remote regions of the country have access to economic growth and resources.

Now imagine you are aboard one of these trains — and as the train gathers speed, the view outside is constantly changing — serene swathes of land till the horizon, cityscapes, snow-covered mountainous tracks, grasslands… each evoke a different feeling.

If you were to think of how every journey begins, there’s a whoosh of excitement about the newness of it. Even if it’s a destination you have been to several times, each journey is at a new point in our evolution, and therefore, comes with its own mix of anxieties and thrills.

How does the journey begin usually? You stow luggage away and choose only those things that are needed for the moment or the next few hours. As the train pulls out of the station, and you look out at the fast-changing scenes outside, do you feel a sense of overwhelm? Not being in control, no more able to jump out of the train you are on, even if you wanted to?

In all that I have described above, do you recognize the preparations we do for a journey (securing a ticket, organizing our luggage, boarding the Shinkansen), the priorities we set for ourselves (choosing what we might need over the course of the journey to keep it by our seat, have phone apps tracking the distance and journey covered). Despite this, the sense of excitement and overwhelm are often difficult to distinguish. However, have you marvelled at how steady your hand is controlling a steaming cup of tea or coffee that you have poured yourself, because the train is stable and offers you a safe cocoon even as the world whizzes past. That ability to act with a modicum of steadiness is what UAF A&P, as a rapid feminist fund, hopes to provide feminist activists, movements, and organisations through our work and support mechanisms.

To be steady and stable, and model what we hope to offer women, trans, and non-binary defenders and their communities, we chose to fashion an alternate approach to monitoring, evaluation, accountability and learning (MEAL). Our effort was to design the cabins of our train with care and consciousness in order to serve us well through evolving contexts and crises.

Therefore, we focused on the process of building networks of interconnectedness — rail roads that led us to the diverse communities, groups, and organisations that make up the human rights landscape of Asia and the Pacific. We chose our feminist values as the main links to build the networks and forge trust. The iron-like strength in our networks were fostered through tough conversations, honesty and vulnerability. When we knew a crisis or context was beyond what we could support as a grantmaker, we openly discussed our vulnerability and lack of capacity, encouraging new organisations that share our values and ethos to support us to build alternate responses.

When the network-laying became second nature to us (for us, that work will never end till we can bring more communities across Asia and the Pacific together into interconnected grids of feminist solidarity and co-responsibility), we focused on building the environment inside the cabins that our team, Board, advisors, and grantees were to use. We manifested a culture of curiosity, sharing, and feminist camaraderie. How the cabins looked, what the seats need to be to offer stability during the high-speed journey, what would bring the much-needed quiet to be able to speak and be heard over the expected chaos of movement — all of these were co-designed with diverse communities at different points of this ongoing journey. We fashioned new approaches out of working practices that activists shared; we listened to them to figure out what kept them comfortable and safe in their previous journeys; and we ensured that those enabling environments were worked into our programmes.

For this, we used languages — not just using English (the language of the colonisers, for sure, but the most common one that is understood or used across most countries of Asia and the Pacific), but also what our staff, Board, and advisors spoke, to build signposts and instructions for a comfortable journey. We experimented with art as a unifying language that evoked emotions, and was a shareable and relatable way of storytelling about the essentials needed to journey together. Language was not just written words and spoken phrases but accessible ways for those within our community that needed different forms of support.

We knew the Shinkansens we were building didn’t have a ready example or template to follow or work off, so we started from scratch. Using our lived experiences to map what we seek to avoid, reframe, and reimagine. We relied on the electricity and power hidden in the moments of connectedness, and in the generosity of shared resources that are beyond dollars. We named harmful practices, we recognized the scars that patriarchy, capitalistic structures, and the mindset of being constantly productive had left us with. Naming and intentionally unlearning them helped us reduce the power these systems had on us. So we institutionalized sharing our learnings, and talking about how these structures are not serving us as the knowledge that we produce and share.

In the feminist Shinkansen that we have tweaked and improved on every year, we have journeyed for five years, working with and working for women, trans, and non-binary defenders of Asia and the Pacific. We have covered over 31 countries, travelled through political turmoil and mass migration in Afghanistan, Covid-ravaged countries, civil unrest in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, and natural disasters in Pakistan and the Pacific islands. We continue to amass many champions and partners to support our journey, while recognizing that our main task is to leave essential resources and supplies for those at the various stations we crosswhat they asked for, and what we were told they need.

The journey stretches on, but our hot steaming cups are set out on tray tables, inviting more people in to take rest and some time off to view these changing landscapes from within the safety and confines of our cabins. Inviting them to build our Shinkansen into a faster, more resourceful, and ever expanding feminist train of sharing.

Written by Deepthy Menon, UAF A&P’s Strategy and Narratives Facilitator. Read about our Feminist Learning Approach here.



Urgent Action Fund, Asia & Pacific

We support and accompany women, trans, and non-binary human rights defenders and activists taking bold risks in Asia and the Pacific.