Ayu Kartika Dewi’s love for teaching emerged many years before Presiden Jokowi appointed her to be a part of his Staf Khusus Milenial in 2019. Right after graduating from Airlangga University in 2005, Ayu chose to first work in the corporate world to pursue financial independence before pursuing her passion. Her managerial position at P&G took her abroad. Even so, Ayu always knew that she wanted to return and serve her country. When Ayu received the opportunity to be a primary school teacher, she resigned from her position at P&G, left the corporate world, and ventured right into the social sector.
Over the years, it has always been Ayu’s passion for teaching that drives her to initiate and lead multiple initiatives — Sabang Merauke, Perempuan Gagal, Milenial Islami, and Toleransi ID. Ayu founded these initiatives with a common objective in mind: to foster tolerance in the midst of discordant voices. Though Indonesia is scattered in its different languages, religions, and ethnicities, Ayu hopes to plant and culminate the seed of tolerance through educating our country’s young minds.
On finding her interests
1. You’ve started many initiatives such as Perempuan Gagal, Sabang Merauke, etc. How would you best describe yourself as an individual?
This is an interesting question because I didn’t know who I was as an individual even though I started all these initiatives. I thought my interests were scattered. My best friend pointed out my individuality — “you’re helping other people become “whole” human beings.” My initiatives mostly focus on tolerance. One of the elements for tolerance is to help anyone, regardless of his or her identity, to live their lives to the fullest. For example, I first started Perempuan Gagal because I want to help everyone to be okay with their failures. Not to say that we should celebrate them, but to normalize failures. This is what I mean by helping others become full human beings — we should accept who we are as a whole.
2. How did your education and professional background shape you into the person you are today?
My college years at Airlangga University were fun. Because the academic pressure was not very high, I was able to explore my interests outside of my studies. I think my years of being involved student organizations shape who I am today. Those activities helped me grow my leadership skills. After college, I worked for Procter & Gamble for 5 years. Like many other graduates, I wanted to be able to support myself financially first.
After my years at P&G, I had the opportunity to become an elementary school teacher. Teaching has always been a passion of mine, so I thought I should try it out to see if I enjoyed the career. I’m grateful for my teaching experience because it made me realize that I like the social world more than corporate. Then, I decided to take my MBA on social entrepreneurship at Duke University.
3. When did you realize you cared very much about social issues?
Ever since I was little, I’ve always been interested in social issues. I always wondered what I could do to help more people and animals. One of the earliest memories I had as a kid was watching matador on TV. I started crying because I felt bad for the bull. I promised myself that one day, I would adopt all these bulls so the matadors won’t hurt them anymore. I realized then that I am passionate about helping those in need for help.
4. Why do you value “tolerance”?
When I was teaching, I lived in Ambon, where a major kerusuhan (riot) happened [in 1999]. Though the kerusuhan happened a long time ago, my students still felt the impact 11 years later. People of different groups still hate each other. I decided that this was an unhealthy environment for my students to grow up in. My vision for Sabang Merauke is to provide a space where students from all over Indonesia can exchange their perspectives. Exchanging perspectives allows students with different religious beliefs and upbringing to learn to converse with one another.
On her work
5. Now that you’re working as Staf Khusus Presiden Jokowi, what’s a typical day at work?
There is no such thing as a ‘typical day’ in my role. Usually, I start my day discussing with my team and preparing presentations for the president. Presentations can vary from ways on improving the capital to ideas on reducing unemployment. I also dedicate time for my managing role at Indika Foundation. Last but not least, I make sure to have eight hours of sleep every day because nothing is more important than our own health.
6. What are some challenges you face at work?
Because we have so many problems we need to deal with in Indonesia, so many people hope that President Jokowi would solve all of them. This is not possible to do at once. The main challenge for us is to manage people’s expectations. Our main responsibility as Staf Khusus is giving advice to the president, but people sometimes expect us to give our opinion on certain issues. That is not our responsibility — we act as discussion partners for the president, not the spokespeople for the public. Trying to navigate around people’s conflicting expectations is my main challenge at work.
7. Have you ever faced conflicts of interest between your public responsibility as a founder of all these initiatives versus your professional responsibility as Staf Khusus?
Instead of conflict, I think there is more potential for collaboration between my two roles. For example, my initiative, Sabang Merauke, is a non-profit organization. Because we are not making money out of it, there is minimal room for personal conflict of interest.
On creating change
8. We saw you discussing privilege on your Instagram. You’ve publicly acknowledged your privilege — being able to study in America and having supportive parents. In order to improve education in Indonesia, why is it important to acknowledge privilege?
Because if we don’t acknowledge privilege, we will always treat everyone equally. When we treat everyone equally, we’re not being fair because everyone has different starting points in life. There are students who have wealthy families. They can afford good schools and additional lessons. Other less fortunate kids don’t have access to these things. So if we give equal treatment to these two kids, they will end up in very different places. It is also important to acknowledge the different types of privilege. Only by understanding someone’s position can we intervene and help them according to what they need. I want to emphasize that it is okay to have privilege. With greater privilege, you have greater power to help others.
9. Going back to your matador memory, is it important to have an angry reaction in order to care and instigate change?
If we want to create change, I believe that we need fire within us. Without that ‘fire,’ we would feel tired and be discouraged easily. A friend of mine said that if you want to fight for change, you need to do two things: find what you love or find what makes you angry. If people asked me what I love, I don’t have an answer. But if people asked me what makes me angry, I would say intolerance and inequality make me the angriest. That is why I decided to start initiatives that address these issues.
10. How do you express your anger in a productive way, especially when girls are typically stereotyped as “too emotional”?
I’d like to clarify that girls are seen as “too emotional” because society allows this misconception to continue. If a girl cries, people would let her express her emotions. But if a guy cries, society would say he’s “unmanly.” We need to be careful with this stereotyping. As for me, whenever I feel an angry reaction, I stop and think, “Do I want to yell? Do I want to break things? Or do I want to change things that make me angry?” I try to separate my emotion and action. By having that mindfulness to stop and think, it helps me arrive at a more logical decision.
11. To start change, how do you convince others to see your perspective?
I don’t believe in convincing others. I believe in finding other people who are already convinced. Find other people who have the same concern or are angry at the same things. When you find people with the same fire, it is much easier to work together towards a common goal.
On embracing differences
12. What do you do when you come into a disagreement with people who challenge your perspectives?
I don’t usually engage in debates because debates are usually used to satisfy someone’s ego. I believe in rational conversations. It’s okay if they don’t agree with me. I can’t convince everyone. I will only convince people who want to be convinced and move on to others. Being stuck on one person’s approval is an unproductive way of instigating change.
13. In order to contribute back to Indonesia, is it necessary for students who are studying abroad to go back home?
I don’t believe so. There are definitely more hands-on opportunities if you do go back to Indonesia. But that doesn’t mean you can’t start change outside of Indonesia. The world is globalized so if you end up starting a business outside, that would actually further promote Indonesia. For example, Rich Brian is promoting our country outside of Indonesia. I’m not saying not to come back because Indonesia certainly needs open-minded individuals who have been exposed to other perspectives.
Though not all students must return home, I believe that most students should. If all of Indonesia’s brightest minds decide to leave the country, then who’s going to be involved in the government? Who’s going to build Indonesia?
14. Advice for students who are currently studying abroad or are planning to study abroad?
Studying abroad is a great opportunity. The biggest benefit from studying abroad is not the knowledge you get in class. The biggest transformation you’ll have is the personal growth you experience from living in another country. You’re experiencing a new culture away from your family and your usual society. You will also fail. It is definitely a maturing experience, but only if you properly reflect on your years of studying abroad.
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