This is the transcript of a Seeking Peace podcast episode featuring Maitreyi Ramakrishnan.
Melanne Verveer From Georgetown University, this is Seeking Peace. I’m Melanne Verveer, and this is Maitreyi Ramakrishnan.
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan I’m really grateful for the people who have come before me, the South Asian kings and queens of Hollywood, who created that platform for me to be where I am. I equally want to help contribute to that platform, to bring on more people, more representation for my community.
Melanne Verveer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan is a Tamil Canadian actor known for her leading role in the Netflix comedy series Never Have I Ever. Maitreyi’s parents fled to Canada in the late 80s, during the civil war in Sri Lanka. Maitreyi is an ardent advocate for diversity and gender equality and this year she was named Global Ambassador by Plan International Canada to promote girls’ rights around the world.
We reached Maitreyi at her home in Toronto, to speak about her journey to becoming a famous actor and how she’s using her social media platform for advocacy.
Melanne Verveer It’s so great to have you with us today. For our listeners who haven’t watched it yet, tell us a bit about the show. What’s it about? And exactly… something about your character, Devi.
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan To summarize, the show follows the story of an Indian American teenage girl in Sherman Oaks. And just going through high school, dealing with the loss of her father – not a spoiler, it happens within like the first 10 minutes. The loss of her father, dealing with her friends and then, of course, her own family, her relationship between her mom and her cousin. And just seeing that Y.A. but for the first time, from the perspective of an Indian American girl being the lead. Like she’s the center, which I think is really amazing. And Devi herself is this hot-headed but insanely smart, probably too smart for her own good, but, you know, really rambunctious girl that just goes out there and gets what she wants.
Melanne Verveer That’s fascinating and I know that the show is incredibly entertaining, which is why it’s been so successful. I know it’s been praised in Canada and in the United States also for its diverse cast, which you alluded to. So Mindy Kaling says that she wanted to create a show that would allow South Asian youth to feel normal. Why, in your view, is diverse and authentic representation so important?
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan You know, I have to admit, just the other day, like literally yesterday, I was just talking to my mom and I was like: “Damn, I’m the lead of this show where the girl is South Asian and incredibly strong as a character”. And that still just warms my heart! Like I’m so happy about that fact. It really just makes my day because I just know it will have such a great impact for people looking for that representation because it is important. I remember that feeling of just, not being seen on TV and film. And as somebody who really enjoys watching TV and watching movies, it sucks. It really sucks to not see yourself. And I became normalized to that fact that… I guess characters just don’t look like me often, especially young South Asian characters that I could relate to. But after I finished filming Never Have I Ever I was like: “This needs to change”. I shouldn’t have to live in the shadows. I shouldn’t feel like I’m not being seen. And neither should any minority, no matter your race, ethnicity, sexuality, anything.
I’m really grateful for the people who have come before me, the South Asian kings and queens of Hollywood, who created that platform for me to be where I am. I equally want to help contribute to that platform, to bring on more people, more representation for my community, because I think that’d be awesome.
Melanne Verveer Here at Georgetown University, where I am, our research center focuses on why women and marginalized communities need to play a central role in politics and peacebuilding. Do you think there’s a connection between the way we depict our world in entertainment, for example, and the society that we become?
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan I one hundred percent think so. If you don’t see women in positions of power or people of color in power within those movies, it sort of makes you think: “Huh? How is that ever gonna actually happen in reality? Like, in the real world that we live in?” Which really, really sucks. And that’s why it’s important to put those characters that are on screen into powerful roles. Like I want to see more roles where it’s like, you know, Katniss Everdeen from Hunger Games… Like I know for my generation that was something that we grew up with. And we see this awesome female lead a revolution! That is awesome! But now we want to see more of that. And, maybe a character of color doing something like that, because that normalizes this idea of, yes, we can all actually be in politics, in the real world. We can actually be a part of those peacemaking decisions because our opinions, our values, our stories have immense value to bring to the table.
Melanne Verveer You’re so right. You know, I was thinking as you were talking about how much role models matter in real life and they certainly matter in the media as well, because that’s what we all see. Now, I know that you were born in Canada to Tamil parents who had to flee Sri Lanka as refugees because of the civil war there. Now, how has your family’s history impacted you both personally and professionally?
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan I’m really actually grateful for learning my family’s history. It’s just that appreciation for my family and for who they are as individuals coming here to Canada. And it, of course, makes me even more grateful for the soil that I walk on to live the life and be able to do what I do again, you know. But, it also gave me this understanding of social justice that I think was put into my brain as a kid so that now it’s just so natural to me. When an injustice is going on, it feels wrong to not speak up about something. I remember when I was younger, my mom would always take me out to protests and by the time I was in, like middle school and high school, like that was no stranger to me. Doing a walkout — that wasn’t anything new that felt out of the ordinary. It just felt like the right thing to do.
Melanne Verveer Well, that’s really so well said. And as you were talking about social injustice, I was thinking about gender equality because women everywhere are still on a journey to achieve full gender equality. Is that important to you as well on a personal level?
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan With my whole heart, I say it is so important to me because, of course, I am a woman and… it’s just…. Nothing infuriates me more when somebody looks at a woman or looks at me, I guess, and says… thinks less of me or thinks my value is any bit less because I am a woman. And it just, all my brain can say is: “How dare you? How dare you think that?” And, you know, I really wouldn’t want to be anything but a woman like I am so happy to be a female and I’d never want somebody to tell me “Nah, you can’t do this ‘cause you’re a girl.” No, no, no. You’re going to tell me that –and I guarantee you — I’m going to just do it and be even better at it. Because you told me that. I like that fact about me, and I hope that I always continue to do that when it comes to the fight for gender equality, because as much as we really are pushing for it, like you said, it is something that we’re still fighting for. It’s a movement that is still very fragile. That can be broken very easily with, you know, whatever law that has to pass that sets us back, whatever icon we lose. Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Perfect example, true feminist icon. It is so fragile that when we lose somebody like that, we feel it because we know how hard we’re working for it still to this day.
Melanne Verveer Well, I think so many listening to you can relate to what you’re saying because you clearly are not only passionate. I know that you’re very actively engaged in trying to redress gender inequalities. And one way you’re doing that is as the Global Ambassador for Plan International Canada. And for our listeners who don’t know about Plan, it’s an organization with which I am well acquainted and it champions gender equality and children’s rights around the world. It does an incredible job. So Maitreyi, how did you get involved with Plan? And tell us about some of the biggest injustices it’s trying to rectify.
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan Yeah. So for me, actually, I think I was like 10 years old when I was just, you know, going to the mall and, you know how Plan, they’ll be around the malls, like handing out brochures and just information for people to learn more. And I remember this girl coming up to me and giving me this brochure that talked about child marriages. And I was like, “What is this? Like, this is interesting.” I also was the kind of kid that would, like, talk to strangers. My poor parents really had to make sure it didn’t get lost. So I was learning about this and I was genuinely shocked. I was like: “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. I’m out here thinking I’m never gonna get married and children my age are getting married? This is crazy.” I remember that feeling and thinking: “This is wrong. This is…This is… I don’t like that.” And ever since then, that has been a contributing factor to fueling my brain towards social justice and learning more about what’s going on in the world. So I reached out to Plan International Canada and I said: “Hey, how can I help you guys? Is there anything I can do?” And I asked them, like, you know: “Is it possible before I become a Global Ambassador that I actually maybe take some courses with you guys to learn about every single thing?”
Because I want to actually know what are the facts? What are the stats? You now, what’s the plan? How are we changing this? How do you guys do that? What if this doesn’t work? I want to know all the facts to actually be informed, because it would be very hypocritical of me to not educate myself first before I tried to educate others. ‘Cause that’s something I always try to preach.
Melanne Verveer Well, and it makes you so much more effective too when you are familiar with all of those critical issues. But I wanted to ask you, too, about the work that you’re doing with Plan to compel social media companies to take action to stop online harassment, because we know that’s a terrible, terrible phenomenon now that more and more women and girls are dealing with.
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan Yeah, it’s actually really brutal and I think the scariest part of it when it comes to online harassment, the scariest part to me is just how normalized it is. Like we really, really have made it in a way that, if you put yourself out online, if you go put yourself out in this way, you should just expect to be harassed. You should just expect those comments. If you even put anything remotely promiscuous of a photo, expect to be hit on because that’s what you signed up for. That’s so… that’s so scary. That’s wrong. Why did we create this mentality? Why did we get to this point where we think that harassment, just because it’s behind a screen, is OK? At the end of the day harassment is harassment.
And it’s absolutely brutal because, especially in COVID times, where all of our lives have moved onto the digital space, it’s…it’s scary, especially when people are also in isolation. It really messes with your mental health. And specifically for girls, it really messes with their self-esteem. And we put so much validation into a comment written by a person without even a profile picture.
Melanne Verveer Do you take any specific action with social media companies to try to bring about change?
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan Yes, so with Plan International Canada and girls around the world who experienced online harassment themselves, they’ve created an open letter that anybody can sign onto. And it’s an open letter addressing Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, asking them: “Hey, you need to take reports of harassment seriously.” Like, you know, when you click those three dots and you report a comment and you sort of wonder: “Is that actually going to do anything?” Well, we want to make sure it actually does do something and that these social media platforms are listening to us so they can stop creating this environment.
Melanne Verveer Well, it’s a powerful way, clearly, to be able to make a difference. Speaking of making a difference, you’ve inspired so many other young people to get involved with pressing issues. To seek justice in their own communities and many of the ways that you just described for us. Why do you think young people are important in the fight for gender and racial equality?
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan Well, of course, we’re going to be the changemakers. The world truly is in our hands, right? We pass down the world from generation to generation, and…we’re up next! So we’ve got to make sure that we do you know, we do the world better. Of course, the legitimate soil and planet that we live on when it comes to something like the climate crisis. But then, of course, do better to the people around us, treat people better with respect and kindness and I think if we focus on empowering youth and giving them that courage to stand up for others on the level of respect and inclusivity, and just true equality and equity, I think the world can hopefully become a better place. I’d like to think so, at least.
Melanne Verveer Oh, I’m with you. I know so. I think it will make an enormous difference. So, you know, I’m on a university campus when we’re not dealing with COVID. And I know that the students at Georgetown with whom we work are huge fans of yours.
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan Aw, shucks.
Melanne Verveer It’s true. So what’s your call to action for them? And by calling them to action for young students everywhere.
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan My call to action to them, I would just say, honestly, don’t wait. Don’t wait until you have a big platform or you have… however many followers. Especially now, like I said in Covid times, or we’re all on the digital space. Don’t wait. Whatever idea you’re sitting on, that can hopefully create change. Do it. Just start it.
And don’t ever doubt yourself. Look to your friends and your family, the people who you trust and put so much support and faith in – look to them for that emotional support. Look to them. And keep going. Don’t look back. You’re gonna do great. And as long as you stay true to yourself, you educate yourself and you’re always staying aware, you’re gonna be fine.
Melanne Verveer That’s very good advice. Well, let me thank you so much for being with us today. Thank you for being a great entertainer and making so many people laugh and be happy as they watch you in your role as Devi. But I also really deeply want to thank you for the way that you are conducting yourself and using your platform in trying to make such an incredible difference in all the ways you can, whether it’s through Plan, whether it’s through your own motivation on social media and in so many ways speaking out on behalf of gender, justice and racial justice. You make the world a better place, Maitreyi.
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan Thank you. That means a lot. Thank you.
Melanne Verveer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan recently signed an open letter from Plan International to stand with girls against online abuse. You can join her at planinternacional.org/signtheletter. Almost 60,000 people have signed so far.
Today’s interview was produced by Laura Ubaté.
If you liked what you heard, please share it far and wide. You can find all of our episodes on your favorite listening app or at seekingpeacepodcast.com.
In our next episode, we talk about peace and security for women, right here at home, with Opal Tometi, an American human rights activist and community organizer. She is the co-founder of Black Lives Matter, and was recently named among Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2020.
Opal Tometi I love the fact that we’re three women who started this. I think the fact that my sisters are queer, myself with the background of having immigrant parents, just the diversity, even within who it is that we are, allows us to have a a necessary perspective and organizing framework that is really inclusive and that demands that we support, protect and defend all Black people, period. You know, whether you have a disability or whether you are undocumented. We’re here for all Black lives.
Melanne Verveer That’s next time, on Seeking Peace.
The second season of Seeking Peace is a production of Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security, and Adonde Media, in collaboration with Our Secure Future.
I’m your host, Melanne Verveer. Thank you for listening.