An internship program has been launched to help build a website and carry out important research for the still under-development project “ISKCON at the United Nations.”
After applying and going through a rigorous approval process, The Office of Communications for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) received ECOSOC status with the UN in 2016, the highest level at which an NGO can be associated with the UN.
ECOSOC (The United Nations Economic and Social Council) is one of the six principal organs of the United Nations, and serves as the central forum for discussing international economic and social issues, and formulating policy recommendations. Over 1,600 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been granted consultative status to the Council to participate in the work of the UN, including, recently, ISKCON Communications.
At present, ISKCON Communications Director Anuttama Das has been formally designated as a representative to the UN, along with UN Multi-faith Advisory Council Co-Chair Gopal Lila Das, who will oversee ISKCON at the UN.
According to Gopal Lila, there are three primary reasons for ISKCON to connect with the UN: 1) to have a platform to showcase the society’s work 2) to engage with global decision makers on current issues like climate change, food security, poverty reduction and human rights, and 3) to better understand the latest thinking and best practices on issues of the day, and to take these back to our ISKCON communities.
“For example, in the current context of COVID-19, the World Health Organization (WHO), which is part of the UN system, is coordinating and tracking the development of the pandemic,” Gopal says. “In the future, it would be great to have ISKCON staff in Geneva who are regularly getting the latest information from the WHO and relaying it back to our temples and communities. Then we would also relay ISKCON’s best practices, and the lessons we’re learning from the pandemic, back to the WHO.”
To help build out ISKCON at the UN, Gopal Lila contacted The Sanga Initiative (TSI), an organization that supports and empowers young devotees to become leaders for future generations of ISKCON. With the TSI keen to pilot its own internship program, the two collaborated to bring on interns for ISKCON at the UN.
Although the initial aim was to recruit only two, there were so many high caliber applicants that four were chosen. All the new interns are part of the TSI network, have been raised in ISKCON, and hail from North America, where the project is currently focused. Their college majors include international development, international relations, diplomacy, engineering and web development.
The internship program (being conducted virtually) is currently in its sixth week. One of the interns is building a website, un.iskcon.org, which will be ready by the end of the summer, while the remaining three are focusing on research and content creation.
These latter have been gathering information about ISKCON’s work in five thematic priority areas – COVID-19; gender; climate change and the environment; youth empowerment; and food, or prasadam distribution – by reaching out to the relevant ISKCON projects.
Keshav Agiwal, 18, for example, is currently researching climate and the environment by contacting various ISKCON eco-villages and eco-farms around the world and learning about their different sustainable practices.
Keshav, a second-generation devotee from New Jersey who is studying diplomacy and international relations with a minor in communications, says he was attracted to the internship because it was an opportunity not only to help ISKCON, but also to educate himself on what ISKCON could contribute to the global society.
“Given the unsustainable practices that the general population lives by, I think that the research that is being conducted at ISKCON at the UN in climate and environment is extremely important to shedding light on what the community can do to preserve Mother Nature,” he explains.
Meanwhile Darshina Dhunnoo, 21, from Edmonton, Canada, is researching ISKCON’s work in food relief and COVID-19, reaching out to projects like Annamrita in India, Krishna Lunch in Florida, and Food For All in the UK, who all together have served millions of free healthy meals to people in need and frontline workers during the pandemic.
“I was interested in this internship because I’m studying political science, and have always wondered how to pursue the field in a Krishna conscious way,” Darshina says.
The reports compiled by interns like Darshina and Keshav will be available on the ISKCON UN website, and will also be used to showcase ISKCON’s work in the five priority areas when representatives attend UN events.
While the young interns are working on these projects, they are also attending a Zoom call each week with a different UN representative, ISKCON leader, or other faith leader working with the UN. These talks give them a holistic understanding on what it means to be an ISKCON member engaging with the United Nations, and on ISKCON’s role in the modern world.
UN representatives speaking to the interns include Charles McNeill, head of the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative at UN Environment Programme, who has almost three decades of experience working on rainforest protection with the UN; and Bruce Knotts, UN representative for the Unitarian Universalist Association.
ISKCON leaders include Anuttama Das, Director of ISKCON Communications International; and Radha Dasi, ISKCON Vaishnavi Minister.
Because the United Nations regularly holds consultations with faith-based organizations on polices it plans to enact, building ISKCON at the UN with this internship will allow ISKCON representatives to attend UN events and give the Krishna conscious perspective on issues of the day.
“That’s part of the work Srila Prabhupada really wanted us to do, which was to be the brahmanas – the thinkers of society – and to give advice to the decision makers on the global concerns we’re all facing,” says Gopal Lila.
Of course, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all UN conferences and events are currently taking place virtually online. But when the world situation eventually allows, ISKCON representatives will have the opportunity to attend events in person at the UN headquarters in New York City; at the world’s second-largest UN office in Geneva; in Rome, home of the UN World Food Programme; and in Nairobi, home of the UN Environment Programme.
“I think a new front for ISKCON’s work will need to be how we’re engaging with society at large, and how the values and philosophy that we have can apply to the whole world, not just to ISKCON members,” Gopal Lila says. “There have been other devotees and communities who have engaged with decision makers, or who have spoken at the UN. But this is the first time we’re attempting that on a global level. And I think this will open the eyes of many devotees to the fact that we have a contribution to make beyond the four walls of our temples – that actually, we have a major contribution on how to tackle the challenges of the world.”
In the long-term future, Gopal hopes to continue running the internship program every year, and to secure funding so that – COVID-19 allowing – devotee interns from all over the world can come to spend their summers in New York City, working for ISKCON at the United Nations.
“I feel that for many young devotees, these kinds of opportunities – connecting ISKCON with the broader society – are what they’re really craving,” he says.
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