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As a young, immigrant South Asian woman, I don’t always feel like I belong in the UK, even though I have every right to be here.

I still do come from a position of relative privilege – I was raised in a middle class, upper caste South Asian family – but I often find myself in a space where people don’t necessarily understand the unique problems accompanying my social location in this country.  

I have often wondered about the ways in which this both enables and constrains my appetite and ability to make a difference and work for social change. How I could develop my ideas, feel supported, and feel like I belong, if I had a network of people who looked a little bit more like me? 

Personal networks and unequal access to social capital  

The RSA Fellowship is a network of like-minded individuals working towards positive social change - this has been our mission for over 260 years. This network is a valuable source of social capital which enables our Fellows to achieve transformational change through their work. But what about extending this social capital to individuals and communities that have been systematically denied access to it?  

That class, gender, and race (among others) are determinants of inequality and often dictate access to resources is a well-accepted truth. We are also more likely to interact with individuals “like us”: people coming from similar communities and sharing demographic characteristics. As a result, our personal networks tend to be homogenous and defined by gender, occupation, education, religion, age, and most of all race and ethnicity. 

For example, people from higher socio-economic backgrounds tend to associate with other people from similar backgrounds. They occupy positions of power and authority in corporations, governments, charities and businesses, and through the power of social capital, their family and friends can gain access to powerful positions themselves.  

This is evident in statistics like the minimal representation of BAME women in leadership roles in the UK, and more disappointingly, the gross under-representation of ethnic minorities in the charity sector. A survey by ACEVO in early 2017 found that while UK charities have made progress on gender balance, racial representation is a glaring issue with just 3% of charity leaders from BAME backgrounds. We need to do better.  

A more recent survey by RSA Fellows highlights the disability pay-gap. Many disabled people find that gender and race take priority in within organisations looking to diversify, leading to an ‘invisibilisation’ of disability within these conversations.  

These are complex, intersecting issues, and solutions to them are never straightforward.  

Why Representation Matters 

So where am I going with this? I work with the RSA Fellowship, and we have always prided ourselves on the diversity of thought and innovation it represents. However, it is only if our Fellows come from a variety of backgrounds that we are able to support initiatives spanning the world and empower communities otherwise out of our reach.  

Moreover, having people that look like you, that have similar experiences as you do, and come from similar backgrounds can be a source of support in and of itself. Representation matters. It is tremendously important to have representatives from BAME backgrounds, international Fellows, people with disabilities, individuals from varied socio-economic backgrounds, members of the LGBTQIA community – and have them leading change in their own communities.  

Which brings me back to why I started writing this piece. Under-represented minority groups have never had the same access to resources and social capital as dominant groups. We’re not at the same dinner parties, we don’t have the same “family and friends” allowances, we don’t always fit smoothly into conversations and don’t always feel like we belong. Consequently, we don’t always have the same easy access to brilliant new ideas, we aren’t in conference rooms where decisions get made, and we don’t always hear about opportunities for support and collaboration.  

What does a diverse network look like, and how can we support you? 

The Fellowship is a ready-made network of connections, collaboration and support. We offer a platform for your ideas, a space for people to learn, grow and innovate.  

Our work with Fellows has included funding women farmers in Vietnam, encouraging conversations around disabled women and sexuality, and projects to strengthen migrant economiesThe Fellowship creates relationships across borders and introduces you to people who can help turn your ideas into reality.  

We want to continue to extend this network to those people and communities who have grown up without access to this kind of capital in the hope that it serves to alleviate inequalities in access to social – and by extension economic and cultural – capital.  

My hope is to build a diverse, thriving community of people, leading projects that they understand closely, challenging the dynamic of outsiders bringing change and development to “less developed” or “underprivileged” communities. My vision is of a Fellowship that is intersectional, inclusive and representative, so we can truly be a global community. 

Join me in creating a space for voices on the margins to be heard. Join me in building a network where more people look like me, where more people look like you.  


If you are interested in finding out more about the RSA’s work, and how being a Fellow can support you, get in touch with me directly on kavya.menon@rsa.org.uk, or sign up on the form above. 

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