Woman of the Week is Stylist’s weekly celebration of women making a difference to society. This week, we’re championing Kajal Odedra, UK director of Change.org.
Kajal Odedra has always been passionate about helping other people affect change.
“My parents are immigrants and I grew up seeing people not have their voices heard,” she tells Stylist. “From a young age, I loved the idea of empowering others and elevating their voices.”
The 33-year-old studied English at university and knew her future was either in writing or campaigning. “Shortly after I graduated, the tsunami in Thailand happened and I worked in a children’s centre in Phuket for a while. It was an incredible experience that confirmed campaigning was the route I wanted to go down.”
Odedra has now worked in the campaigning sector for a decade. She started in young people’s rights, working with the UK Youth Parliament and Channel 4’s youth project Battlefront, before moving to homelessness charity Crisis in 2011. In 2013 she joined Change.org as a campaigner and worked her way up the ranks, eventually being promoted to the position of UK director in September 2017.
Change.org is the world’s largest petition platform, with 15 million UK users and 200 million globally. “The idea is anyone anywhere can create the change they want to see in the world,” Odedra says. “Some of my favourite campaigns are the local ones trying to save the local lollipop lady or protect a local pub. But they also deal with big issues like climate change.” Fun fact: most petitions are started by men, but most victorious petitions are started by women.
As UK director, Odedra still has plenty of contact with many petition starters. “Four years ago, I saw a petition to end tampon tax by a woman called Laura Coryton. We helped her strategise the campaign and saw it go from a few hundred signatures to hundreds of thousands. She delivered her petition to Downing Street and it led to George Osbourne mentioning her petition during the autumn budget that year.”
Another campaign that was particularly close to Odedra’s heart was the New Era Housing campaign. The New Era Estate, a social housing estate in Hoxton, east London, was bought by US private equity firm Westbrook in 2014. Westbrook announced that it planned to increase rent prices by 10%, a move that would certainly force out the working-class families who had lived on the estate for generations.
Two New Era residents, Lindsey Garrett and Barry Watt, started a Change.org petition calling on Westbrook to ensure long-term affordable rents. Russell Brand got involved in the campaign, and the New Era Estate became a symbol of the struggle against gentrification and ‘social cleansing’ in London.
Ultimately, the campaign was successful: after significant public pressure, Westbrook sold the estate to a housing charity that promised not to raise the rent at a rate tenants couldn’t afford.
“We organised a petition delivery to Downing Street and thought 50 people would come, but 500 people showed up,” says Odedra. “It was crazy trying to organise that many people, especially as they just wanted to mob Russell Brand. [But] with enough tenacity, willpower and the right tools, the impossible becomes possible.”
Odedra’s activism doesn’t end with her work at Change.org. Three years ago she founded the People of Colour in Campaigns network, which aims to increase diversity in the UK’s campaign sector, and she is an advisor for Ada’s List, a network helping women get into STEM. She also recently completed a master’s in creative writing and is working on her first novel, loosely based on her own experience, about an Indian immigrant family living in Nineties Britain.
Despite the huge number of petitions being launched on Change.org every day, Odedra says the office still explodes with excitement when they learn a campaign has won.
“We all scream,” she says. “It’s emotional because what we’re doing is disruptive. As a society, we’re taught certain people have power and if that’s not you, you don’t have agency. Every time a campaign wins that notion is turned on its head.”
Images: Courtesy of Kajal Odedra / Getty Images