Masum Momaya


Profession: Writer, Activist, Curator

Current Employer: The Smithsonian Institution

Location: Washington, D.C.

Tell us a little about your educational background.

To be honest, I am what some would label a nerd, especially since I have a lot of formal education! I went to a public, residential high school called the Illinois Mathematics & Science Academy, then to Stanford for my undergraduate degree in Feminist Studies & Public Policy. While there, I studied abroad at Oxford University where I read 10 books and wrote a 20-page paper each week for 3 months. It was crazy, but it really improved my writing skills! Later, I went to grad school at Harvard, where I got my masters in Education and a doctorate in Human/International Development.

What led you to where you are today?

I’ve taken one step at a time, and followed my intuition along the way. I also reflect a lot and try to learn as much as I can from every experience. As I mentioned above, rather than having a professional plan, I’ve discovered, put together, or stumbled upon the next step during a current one. The dots have always connected backwards, as Steve Jobs said it does for many people.

What pushed you to move the idea of “Beyond Bollywood” forward?

I came to the Smithsonian in the summer of 2012 after doing curatorial work at The International Museum of Women (in San Francisco), the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (in Toronto) and the Indo-American Heritage Museum (in Chicago). I’ve been working for social change through the arts, and as an activist for more than 20 years, and I see curatorial and museum work as a critical part of this. Curatorial work involves blending art, academia, and activism, and I love that.

What should people come away with from your current Smithsonian exhibition, “Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation“?

I want visitors to walk away with an understanding of the vast and deep contributions of Indian immigrants and Indian Americans in shaping U.S. history. I want them to question what it means to be American and what it means to be a foreigner in today’s day and age of global diversity.

How do you strike a work-life balance?

I like to be physically active, whether it’s walking, dancing, or even my recent venture into weight lifting. All these activities allow me to detach myself from work and explore my creativity and strength.

Also, simply being around family & friends helps me see the whole picture and thus, strikes the balance that I want and need.

Do you practice any Stress Relieving methods?

In my 20s, I experienced some health issues, including losing and regaining my eyesight, so I’ve never had the experience that many people do of feeling physically infallible. Since then, I’ve been doing yoga everyday in the morning and I recently started doing a loving-kindness meditation. I also take some time every night to name what I’m thankful for and say a prayer for my well-being and that of my loved ones. Faith actually doesn’t come easily to me, and I have a lot of doubts, but these practices bring me inner peace and continuously make me feel stronger.

Has Jainism played a role in your career?

In putting “Beyond Bollywood” together, I’ve gained a deeper understanding of anekantvaad in working with the public and of ahimsa when working with myself. In this first-ever broad look at Indian Americans’ achievements, people were very passionate about what they wanted in this exhibit and they weren’t shy at all in saying no. My job has been to listen to all these inputs, sift and sort through them – and the most difficult part – field criticism, complaints, disappointment and anger. But I realized if I didn’t take their concerns personally, through the practice of detachment, it was easier for me to bring everything together. Employing ahimsa, specifically compassion towards myself, is really important to me as I field feedback about the exhibit. I’ve had to remind myself that I worked hard, worked with integrity and that it is OK for me and for the work to be imperfect.

I am also learning not to take things personally and accept that people are entitled to their opinions and that these opinions aren’t necessarily a reflection of me, or my work. Growing up in the extended family that I did, and within the larger Indian community I’ve been a part of, there wasn’t much compassion for imperfections of any kind, so this is something I’m learning as an adult and transferring to my personal life.

What defines success for you?

I used to think that success meant accomplishing various goals but the fact is success can’t be limited to that. There’s more in life. I think it’s also about being at peace in the present, day-to-day moments and about being of service in both small and large ways, to the extent that you can. Life is a journey, a roller coaster of sorts, do the best you can in your own journey and learn what you can from the collective experience of your life and others while contributing along the way.

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