The Portal Series: Reflections on Feminist Leadership Through Crisis with Bindu Oommen-Fernandes

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on in the U.S. and the rest of the world, there can be no doubt that we are in a moment of crisis. As Arundhati Roy writes, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal—a gateway between this world and the next.” This moment of crisis is also a time when feminist leaders are stepping into their power and purpose. We were particularly interested in understanding what new practices leaders are putting in place for themselves and their teams, and which of these they think will be permanent vs. transitory. So—we asked them. Here are their answers.

How have you led your organization, community, constituency through this crisis?

Bindu Oommen-Fernandes: Narika, the organization I lead, serves and supports survivors of domestic violence with safety, empowerment, and wellness services. Instances of domestic violence have dramatically increased, and violence has taken more complex and evolving forms. I am committed to leading with a deep sense of purpose and a bias towards action as survivor needs have gone up: We’ve also pivoted to include programs for food insecurity and technology abuse [Ed. note: See here for more].

I am focused on listening and deliberately creating safe spaces for vulnerability and discussion for both those we serve and for our team. It’s important not to assume that needs, responses, and journeys are similar.

What have you continued doing by way of leadership practices or principles? Why?

I am committed to more collaboration between partner organizations and to bringing the “abundance mindset” and corporate best practices into our non-profits, while tailoring these practices appropriately.

What have you done differently? Why?

We’ve had an increased focus on our caregivers’ vicarious trauma when working closely and consistently with survivors. We’ve been advocating for the emotional, financial, and overall wellbeing and stability of our counselors. This is not a new issue but it has been compounded with the additional responsibilities most women have undertaken during the pandemic.

We also continue to examine our own power and how we may contribute to power dynamics in our workplaces, homes, and communities. It’s easier to push an “us” vs “them” narrative, but it’s critical to recognize our place in both the problem and solution in this movement.

What have you done that is a departure from how others are working? Why?

Domestic violence survivor support work requires chipping away from multiple angles and in various spaces, and requires a holistic, collaborative, and non-linear approach. For example, we’ve been actively creating spaces for those that cause harm and the non-primary family members that experience harm to support the overall healing of and accounting for our communities.

Which of these practices or principles do you think have most significantly unmasked or reduced inequities in your organization, community, or constituency? Why?

Recognizing the overlap between intimate partner violence (IPV), immigration, food insecurity, language access, and more, we are committed to authentic collaborations and resource sharing with partner organizations (both in the IPV world and outside). These collaborations during the pandemic have supported our ability to keep up with the evolving needs of our survivors and our communities. For example, we opened our weekly Food Justice Program for trafficking and assault survivors, and collaborated with various homeless-focused nonprofits, knowing that many unhoused women are fleeing abuse.

Additionally, we continue to embrace hope and action as we continue to show up for some of our most vulnerable and most underrepresented survivors of harm.

What do you think should “stick” about how you’re leading or how we’re behaving through this crisis?

I hope a few things stick: First, recognizing and embracing the intersectionality and multilayered identities and needs of survivors and our communities. And second, releasing ourselves of hierarchies, increasing collective power, and prioritizing based on our survivor needs.

How have you changed as a leader through this crisis? What have you learned about yourself as you spoke up, prioritized, or taken risks?

I am remembering to center the learnings, relearning, and unlearning of my role and approach in ending violence against women with constant humility, curiosity, kindness, and innovation. I have been more fearless as I ask my peers and community for help, and in reminding myself that I cannot be of service to others without treating myself with kindness.

About Bindu Oommen-Fernandes

Ms. Bindu Oommen-Fernandes is Executive Director at Narika, a Bay Area nonprofit that offers supportive services for anyone who has experienced domestic violence including safety planning, counseling, legal and other resources, support groups, job programs, and wellness programs.

Prior to Narika, she worked at Google as a Senior Policy Expert and was also a small business owner. While at Google, a senior executive and mentor disclosed her story of decades of domestic violence. This experience opened Bindu’s eyes to how no one is exempt from gender based violence. She is a trained domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking counselor and is passionate about the intersectionality of social equity, domestic violence prevention, and engaging men, boys, corporations, and faith leaders in the movement.

She is an avid motorcyclist and enjoys cooking and painting. In her spare time, she’s working towards an immigration law accreditation. She firmly believes that everyone can be part of the movement to end gender based violence and create safety, empowerment and wellness in our homes and our communities.