We are starting a new series focusing on positive “change agents” within PCI. Each newsletter will tell a behind the scenes story of a past or current effort. For our initial launch, community member Parry Aftab provides important and illustrated insights into her efforts that also help advance PCI’s goals.
Parry’s community focus is on “When You Need The Real Experts – Work With Kids and Teens”. She is a digital privacy and security lawyer and formed the first cybersafety and help group in 1995. That group is still all-volunteer (including Parry herself) and operates directly in 76 countries around the world and through non-profits in the US, India and Canada. Parry is often consulted in cybersafety and best practices issues because she is able to help identify common sense and relevant approaches and solutions. Her key to that? Kids, tweens and teens. They act as her insightful guides on what is happening, how often it’s happening and ways to address it or get in front of it. Here Parry shares her experience in bringing cybersafety to India a few years ago. Her Cybersafety India was the first child safety-centric site and group addressing traditional cybersafety issues and youth.
What follows is Parry’s story in her own words:
By Parry Aftab
Until February 2016 India was just a place on my bucket list. I had visited the Taj Mahal at the age of two with my parents. I have many Indian-American friends, live in NJ (which has a very high India-American population) and I love Dosa and real Masala Chai. But, working on a national program to promote cybersafety, cyberwellness and digital literacy, while also addressing cyberbullying? Not in my plans.
But, India is a country of the unexpected. It is a place of Karma. It is highly spiritual and highly practical at the same time. Its music, holistic wellness, rich culture and spices – intoxicating!
“Colors, perfumes, aromas, elephants, women in jewel-toned saris, laughter, noise and energy”
When I received an invitation to attend and speak at the World Culture Festival and Global Leadership Forum hosted by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living Foundation in Delhi, I was excited and intrigued. I had keynoted large international conferences and acted as rapporteur for UN conferences. But never have I been involved with an event with 3.5 million attendees (in person!). And never before had I met a Guru. (I wasn’t even sure I knew what a Guru was :-))
And then it happened. India captured me in its melodious and magical grip. Tens of thousands of dancers from all over the world and musicians to match.
Colors, perfumes, aromas, elephants, women in jewel-toned saris, laughter, noise and energy. So much energy. I was watching performers on a 7-acre stage on a warm misty night. It was overwhelming and intoxicating! When Sri Sri came to meet me on the balcony, I was grinning from ear-to-ear. Because of increased security after a terrorist threat, only a select few were pre-cleared for the smaller stage with Prime Minister Modi. So, to avoid disappointing me, the Guruji came to me instead.
The next day at the Global Leadership Forum our panel on digital technology and policy began late. I was the last panelist to present. Each of us were supposed to cut our presentation back by 1/3 to allow the audience to have lunch. When my turn came, I had three minutes. 🙂
I explained the lunch schedule and apologized in advance for shortening my presentation and in the last second decided to avoid boring privacy law discussions and to share with them, instead, why I changed my life to focus on child protection online. I told the story of the little 3 year old I saw being molested online. I explained why I had chosen to sell my home, empty my bank accounts, cash in my inheritance and devote my like to searching for that little tortured girl. (I wrote about this on LinkedIn in February.)
Then, I apologized for cutting things short and released them for lunch. But they wouldn’t leave. They implored me to tell them more. I was shocked, brought to tears and continued my story. By the time I finished, lunch was over, and the audience rushed the stage seeking selfies with me and asking for my card and my help. (I later found out that a few hundred had gone to wiredsafety.org and volunteered online to help!)
I will share more about that experience and what the amazing people I met shared with me in future posts. But they had inspired me. I felt an energy I hadn’t felt from an audience in years. They understood and share my passion for helping change the world. They valued my goals and needed my help.
But, when I met 80 13-year-olds at a small school in Bangalore, they had me at “Hello, Madam!” The head of Disney PR/Communications once warned me that I wear my passion for kids on my sleeve, and they and other big corporations know that if they tell me it will help kids, I will reduce my consulting/spokesperson fees to do it. Not a great reputation to have. But 1000% true.
As much as I love working with parents, teachers, policymakers, millennials, industry leaders and seniors, the students are the ones who touch my heart. 1500 students later, I am converted. I believe firmly in Karma, India and its future. I believe that the impassioned people in India need the cyberwellness skills to use the technology that they build for the world, safely, privately and securely. And the talent we need, with a little help from my friends and me, is in India.
Its 29 states have little in common, not even a common language. So, 31 languages will make up our programs. Some communities have no electricity, but residents with smartphones. We will address their needs, as well as the needs of public school students in wealthy Mumbai and Delhi. From the Himalayas to Goa, from Hill stations and coffee plantations to Jaipur. We hope to reach all of India, in a uniquely Indian-way, online, offline and face-to-face, using resources and programs custom designed for its needs.
Indian people are like the spices that make up the richly diverse Indian cuisine. When in the West we see a spice and add it to our dishes whenever we want to, in whole or ground cold form, in India the spices are a world of variations. The same spice is ground, used crushed or whole, heated to express their oils, used cold or warmed, added at the beginning of cooking, midway or at the end, Indian people are rich, exciting and addicting and as different from each other as the flavors of its spices. Yet, like their spices, all Indians have a common core. India is intriguing and calls to me.
Perhaps my swan-song (not sure that I have another country cyberwellness/cybersafety/stopcyberbullying initiative in me), this will be the most exciting, challenging and rewarding project of my life. Thank you to our hundreds of Indian volunteers from the lawyer who volunteered to form the new NGO, to our illustrious steering committee members, to @ameer shahul who helped me make this a reality, to Indian families/teachers/seniors and especially your brilliant children.
Thank you India, thank you to all your amazing people and for allowing me to help in my small way to help improve lives by helping you be safer and more aware online.