Viewpoints Editor Maggie Dougherty ’21 sits down with Mahi Lal ’22 to discuss her recent scholarship, the concept of the gaze and her leadership in creating a new club to support women and gender minorities in economics.
Can you introduce yourself?
Hi! My name is Mahi Lal. I am a Junior economics major with a minor in math from Kolkata, India. On campus, I work as a Resident Assistant, Teaching Assistant and a Research Assistant. I also love being a part of the South Asia Committee and I participate in the Culture Show every year.
You were recently selected out of over 800 students who applied for a scholarship, right?
Yes, there were a total of four Flywire Charitable Foundation scholarships – two in the area of global health and medicine and the other two for social justice. This was the first scholarship I had come across that was open to international students. And I, along with three other students from across the globe, won.
How did you apply?
Over the summer, I received an email about academic scholarships from the Flywire Charitable Foundation. Having been involved in social entrepreneurship and social equity since high school and for a year here at the College through Local and Global Social Entrepreneurship Programs, I chose to apply for the Social Justice Scholarship that required me to write a one-page essay about myself, the hurdles I had overcome to pursue my studies and what I hoped to achieve with my education in the realm of social work. I filled out the application on Flywire’s website and submitted my essay!
What did you write about for your essay? What did that mean to you?
The concept I explored quite a bit was that of the gaze, which I like to define as a certain kind of prolonged look you experience when you are born with a vulnerability (the opposite of privilege). Everyone gets gazed at, and as a woman of color and an international student, I have grown accustomed to it. Being in classrooms, feeling like an outsider, it became very clear to me that the gaze is not just a perception. It is an unspoken but active interaction between a privileged and a vulnerable person in which the former looks down upon the latter, rendering them inferior. This then has costly repercussions.Hence, I wrote about the importance of recognizing the gaze and gaining the confidence to gaze right back.
Writing about my personal experiences with the gaze meant a lot to me because I finally felt comfortable being heard. Winning the scholarship has given me the confidence that my voice is worth being heard.
Did you write about any past work or research experiences in your essay?
I did. I was working for the Rights and Resources Initiative as part of the Global Social Entrepreneurship Program this summer. The project involved examining the livelihoods of India’s indigenous people, tribal communities and Afrodescendants through the lens of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA), the most important Indian forest legislation, that recognizes people’s rights — collective or individual — to their own land. The FRA was a result of the historic struggle of marginalized people. Discrimination against them has been more overt than a gaze, but at the core, the two have the same reasons — the us versus them mentality, the dominant versus vulnerable reality. On a micro-level, there was discrimination even within indigenous people on the basis of caste and gender, affecting their bargaining power and livelihoods. The key is to make models that cater to those who are winning at losing and by doing that, my team (Maggie Dougherty ’21, Mekdes Shiferaw ’22 and I) could truly be a part of the change-making process for the most vulnerable groups of the society.
You and I are currently in the process of founding a new club here on campus. Can you tell our readers about that?
We are in the process of founding a much-needed club in the Department of Economics – Wooster Women and Gender Minorities in Economics (WWGME). In a highly male-dominated space such as the Economics department, something that my female and gender minority majors or minors and I shared in common was this feeling of not belonging. Most of these economics majors were double majors indicating that they were not comfortable in this space or felt that their needs were not met just by the economics department. Intersectionally speaking, even within female economics majors, I felt like an outsider because these spaces were predominantly white.
I believe that this club will provide a safe and comfortable space for women like me. With the recent increase in representation in both gender and race in the department, students are already feeling more comfortable. This club will further provide an escape and solidarity to not only those who feel left out, outside of classes, but also to everyone who has a very narrow view of economics. Heterodox economics, including feminist theory, is equally relevant in today’s world and we choose to focus on such topics.
For those reading, how do you pronounce WWGME?
What do you hope the club will be able to do and offer students? One of my favorite trips outside campus was with Dr. Long and Dr. Krause to the Cleveland Federal Reserve as a part of the Women in Economics program. It was a group of smart, strong and brilliant women that attended this program where successful women in different spheres of Economics spoke. Being with so many like-minded women also gave me the idea of a club like WWGME. We would like to go to more events like this along with graduation panels and other programs designed specifically for the main purpose of WWGME – to uplift the voices of women and gender minorities in the field of economics; to provide opportunities for educational and professional development; to support success in career planning and placement; to promote a safe space and community; to elevate female, non-binary, and other gender-minority students as leaders in the field of economics.
Why are you excited about it?
Economics holds a very special place in my heart. In my three years at the College, I have made some brilliant friends in economics and working alongside them to make WWGME a reality and then a success is something I am the most excited about. It was in conversations with them that the conception of WWGME took place. It is definitely our baby and we can’t wait to introduce it to everyone.
Who else has been involved in creating WWGME?
I cannot thank our senior economics women, Maggie Dougherty, Nasua Labi ’21 and Rita Chiboub ’21, who have taken upon themselves to get this club chartered (fingers crossed!) before they graduate. They have done so despite realizing that they would be involved with the club for a fairly short time period. Without their help, this would have remained an idea. Along with the seniors, many of my friends from the department have devoted their time with the application and constitution. Their interest and dedication is a testament to the importance and necessity of such a club.
Our advisors, Dr. Krause, Dr. Long and Dr. Tian, did not hesitate for a single moment to hop on this journey with us once we told them about the idea. They have been instrumental in helping us talk through the logistics, dividing roles amongst themselves and potential programming ideas.
Last but not the least, Julia Zimmer has been incredibly receptive of our ideas for WWGME. She has helped us improve our application and we look forward to working closely with her throughout this process.