It takes heart to find success and that’s exactly what Dipa Swaminathan did. Five years ago, she started a Facebook page called ItsRainingRaincoats in hopes of spreading kindness to migrant workers. With a strong vision and an invincible drive, she’s made it a long way despite starting it all on her own.
With the help of a viral Facebook post, the movement began to gain rapid attention from residents all around Singapore. Now, ItsRainingRaincoats is famed for their massive contributions towards the migrant worker community. This is especially noticeable with the recent case of the Bangladeshi worker being struck with COVID-19.
Her message of unity has continued to spread over time which resulted in a community of inclusivity that continuously grows. Curious to find out how she did it, I took a visit down to her home to get a greater insight on her ItsRainingRaincoats journey.
Siti Zulaikha: What was your childhood like growing up and how has this shaped your values and the way you live?
Dipa Swaminathan: I grew up in Bangalore, India with a very middle-class upbringing. My parents were principled people who believed in simple living with high thinking. They were very compassionate towards other people and noble in their outlook. This fashioned my perception of life today.
They always emphasised the need to be other-regarding.
This particular phrase was constantly used in my household as I was growing up. It led me to develop the mentality that if I’m in a position to help somebody in need, then I should. They didn’t consciously sit me down and tell me “You’ve got to help people” but it was just how they naturally were that made me realize this.
Though they gave me full freedom to do whatever I chose, it was their actions that allowed me to learn charity and empathy. After all, children emulate the examples they observe.
Z: How would you briefly describe what ItsRainingRaincoats is and what led you to start this movement?
D: ItsRainingRaincoats is an initiative for us to show kindness to migrant workers. Essentially, we aim to build bridges between them and Singaporeans. We want to stop these migrant workers from being an invisible community here.
They’re everywhere yet people still ask “If I collect food from Starbucks, where will I find migrant workers to give it to”. I always emphasise that you can’t walk 20 feet in Singapore without crossing a migrant worker. There’s either a construction site, road works, or a highway being built—they’re all around us.
Despite their prevalence in Singapore, they’re still inconspicuous in the eyes of Singaporeans. Fundamentally, our initiative aims to make them more visible and enable people to interact and contribute to the lives of these migrant workers.
Z: You mentioned that they’re everywhere and yet they’re invisible. Why do you think this is as such?
D: It’s difficult to say why. I think everybody is just too caught up in their own lives. But I don’t mean this in a negative way. To me, we’re all just occupied with whatever it is that we’re doing. We’re so absorbed in our affairs that we grow oblivious of our surroundings.
We live our daily lives without looking around to see who’s doing what unless there is an avenue that showcases it. Otherwise, it just becomes part of the scenery that simply buzzes by. Hence, we want to be the avenue that allows Singapore residents to grow a greater consciousness of these migrant workers.
Z: What was the biggest challenge or difficulty you encountered throughout your ItsRainingRaincoats journey?
D: Access to information is a recurring issue. This is especially apparent when workers die or get injured, as companies maintain secrecy and refuse to disperse information. When we did a fundraiser for a worker who died back in November, it was the migrant workers who came to our rescue when we required information. From them, we managed to get the workers’ name and connected with their family. However, from official channels, we obtained zero information.
Recently, there was a Bangladeshi worker admitted to the ICU due to the coronavirus. Initially, we had no information whatsoever but we dug hard and now we have a clearer understanding of who he is. I had a video conversation with the patient’s wife back in Bangladesh.
It was awful. I started crying because this girl is so young and beautiful and she’s pregnant with her first child. All this information came from migrant workers while the company did not release any contact information to us. Even queries to the Bangladeshi embassy went unanswered.
Though the lack of information is a problem, it’s a challenge that resolves us to push even harder. Every time somebody denies us of information we find our way around it eventually.
Z: On a scale of 1-10 how would you rate the success of this movement and what allowed it to reach such an extent?
D: Well, I’d rank it at 12 because you’re asking me and I’m somewhat biased. *laughs* It’s not like I woke up one morning and decided that I’m starting a movement. It happened to organically evolve and it continues to do so.
Oftentimes people ask me what’s your blueprint for next year and I say I don’t have one. But what I do know is that we will continue to grow and do something different every year. Fortunately, our pool of supporters also continues to spread. There are always new players that enter our field and that’s great.
Moreover, we have zero funding and overheads. Whatever cash we require comes from our own pockets. Every dollar that comes to us goes to our migrant workers. Because of that, we can’t afford elaborate PR machinery and social media is our main face to the world.
Facebook was a big part of our success story. Our initial post that went viral was on Facebook and that’s what attracted the media and allowed us to rake in more publicity. That’s why we never shun any offer of promotion because any publicity is good publicity. It just draws more eyeballs to our cause and that’s how we grow.
Z: What would be your advice to anybody who intends to evoke change or start a movement?
Just go out and do it.
D: Don’t overthink it, just start. Paralysis by analysis becomes the pitfall of an idea when it results in overthinking what could be very simple. Just go out and do it. Don’t be scared to be compassionate, as nothing bad comes from doing good. When I started this, people warned me that it could be risky. At the time, migrant workers were not a glamorous cause. It was shortly after the Little India riots and the community was rather maligned. People kept insisting that I’d get into trouble.
Nonetheless, I stood my ground. I said I’m not going to live in a country where you have to be scared to do something compassionate. I don’t want to raise my kids in that kind of an environment. I have the conviction that if you’re doing something good for the community, the universe will conspire with you. I have this proven right time and time again.
The support we’ve received has been phenomenal. We won the presidents award in 2017 for volunteerism and philanthropy. I guess our growth story is an example in itself that if you want to do something kind and good just do it.
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