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Welcome!

24 Aug

Welcome to the website of the Carnegie Mellon Social Change Semester!

The Social Change Semester brings Carnegie Mellon students from Pittsburgh to Qatar and India. Our goal: to learn how to change the world by partnering with those who are already making a difference.

DSC01333The semester begins in Doha, Qatar, where we live at the CMU-Qatar campus and collaborate with migrant workers from South Asia. While teaching these workers English, we learn from them about Qatar, South Asia, and the inequalities of travel. We learn to recognize the privilege of studying abroad when many travel out of necessity.

From Qatar, we fly to rural central India, where we live at Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram in Sevagram, Maharashtra. We work with a rural development organization, the Kamalnayan Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation, to carry forward Gandhi’s legacy. We assist the Bajaj Foundation and its village partners with projects in water management, alternative energy, women’s empowerment, sustainable agriculture, and village industries.IMG_6301

From Sevagram, we travel to one of India’s largest cities, Chennai. There, we partner with educational organizations that focus on educating and empowering underprivileged children: the Avanti Fellows and Visions for Global Empowerment. Throughout the semester, students take courses and conduct research, while designing and implementing service projects in collaboration with our local partners.

IMG_2272By directly engaging in the many challenges and opportunities facing Qatar and India, students gain the confidence, purpose, global awareness, and intercultural skills that are best learned via service-based experiential education overseas.

We learn with our partners how to mobilize social innovation in pursuit of social justice. Together, we leverage CMU’s resources to advance the work of our community partners in Qatar and India.

If you would like to know more about the Social Change Semester, please contact Nico Slate at slate@cmu.edu or read below the student blogs from our last semester.

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Visions Leadership Camp — Tirukoilur, Tamil Nadu

26 Mar

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I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy (or happy at all) to be in a room filled with 50 screaming, crazy, sweaty middle school students all on sugar highs, but the Global Party we organized for the Visions scholars was one of the best moments of the entire week. We started off the event by passing out cookies and soda to each student, a brave decision on our part if you ask me. We cleared a dance floor and though it took a little bit of coaxing, Regan did a great job of getting everyone dancing to the tunes he was playing from his cell phone through the microphone. Soon, all of the students and the volunteers were pulling out their best moves in a complete whirlwind of colors, laughing, whistling, shimmying, and total grooving.

These kids all come from extremely disadvantaged families and communities, and many of them have faced more hardship than I likely ever will. It was a joy to provide a space for them to exercise their kid-ness to the fullest extent. It was absolutely a day that I will always remember, and I’ll be lucky if I ever become as good of a dancer as any of them.

-Molly Berntsen

By the end of the camp, my hands were raw from multi-step high fives and my body worn down from the Global Party, but it was all worth it.

Watching these kids transform a classroom of chaos – with miscommunication, nervous behavior and intermittent inattention – to a hub of productive and pointed organization churning out events and good ideas was inspiring. Most of the time, I just did my best to get out of the way of their unstoppable energy. Sometimes all an individual needs is a little space to realize their own potential and I truly believe that the Visions camp was exactly that.

As someone who is interested in the way that a new generation of young people can become a positive force in changing the changing world, you can often find me extolling the virtues of my own generation – the Millennials – and the possibilities of a different world as we come into our own.

The week at the Visions camp showed me that these future generations will keep that positive energy coming. There are some new kids on the block and they’re sharp, driven and ready to take the world by storm irrespective of their group’s gender, race, or background. Watch out.

– Daniel Nesbit

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Visions Leadership Camps strive for students to gain self-confidence through fun activities, a simple premise that is complicated to implement. The camp is successful for two reasons: the children’s eagerness and the meticulously planned workshops led by a dedicated team. Greg Buie, our Visions coordinator, created and refined an entire curriculum of leadership profiles, games, and activities that are translated into beautiful Tamil books given to each student. He also established partnerships with two dynamic translators, Reagan and Satish, which made a profound difference in communicating with the kids.

But Greg, Reagan and Satish were guides rather than instructors, giving both the students and the Social Change Semester group freedom to learn, experiment and resolve on our own terms. Rather than claim that the students underwent a transformation during those five days, they were simply given an environment in which they could be their energetic, creative selves.

Visions has established a unique and enriching experience for disadvantaged children that should be used in other contexts, such as the United States. The workshops help kids break out of their school’s rote learning methods and teach them to be their own teachers. Students learn that they don’t have to wait until adulthood to make a difference in their own communities, which is an encouraging message for  both them and our Social Change Semester group.

– Marielle

Edited - for Social Change blog

One of the pillars of effective teaching is effective communication. This is because learning happens when students understand something that is communicated to them and it changes or shapes the way in which they experience the world.

It was a really interesting experience participating in the Visions Leadership Camp in the role of an instructor and being unable to speak the language that the students speak. The words that they heard me say were my own, but they were a version of my words that had passed through many cultural and linguistic filters. I didn’t realize the full magnitude of this when we began, but having engaging and thoughtful translators really helped things to go as well as they did. Not only is it difficult to communicate to a group through a translator and still be a teacher (and to be the translator relaying this information), but it is also difficult to communicate to a group of kids who are in the process of becoming adults but are still kids, and to get them to work together, to believe in each other, and believe in themselves.

I guess that all communication goes through multiple layers of influence and interpretation, it is just that at the Visions Camp some of those layers were more apparent than they normally are. For me, this experience drew more attention to alternative forms of communication other than what goes on verbally, and I always think it’s nice to reaffirm the place of importance held by goofy dance moves within the world.

– Marcy

Sirya and Mariem

The Visions Leadership Camp was certainly one of the highlights of our stay in India. We started off the camp by taking turns introducing ourselves and telling interesting things about ourselves. I mentioned how I was looking forward to learning new things from the children and how I was very excited and happy that I finally had the chance to meet one of my childhood dreams: teaching!

When I was a child, and whenever I was asked about my dream job I would always say that I wanted to be a teacher. Sometimes, I even pretended to have my own invisible class and I had a whiteboard in my room that I used to study some subjects. As I was explaining the lesson to myself, in my mind it was dedicated to “my class”. Growing up, I completely put aside that dream and never consider it to be my future career anymore. But it is funny how things turn out and how life leads us to live our own old desires and choices by coincidence. I finally got to teach an actual class with real pupils in India. That experience was challenging and tough to some extent, but certainly joyful and unforgettable. By the end of the five days, I realized how hard to be a teacher and how hard to control young energetic children, but once that skill is acquired nothing is more enjoyable and noble than to pass your own knowledge to younger generations eager to learn about your experiences and about the world.

By the end of those five days, I also learned new Tamil words and sentences. It was so remarkable and impressive the way the young children taught us their language. They were seizing the tiniest opportunities to sit by our sides and ask us to repeat a Tamil sentence or word several times. That repetition process worked very well and whatever I was taught through that methodology wouldn’t be easily forgotten.

The Visions Leadership Camp was a great opportunity for me because I was able to teach high school kids, and at the same time learned new skills and met new great people.

-Mariem Fekih

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“When do you leave for America?” Jilkghih asked.

“One month,” I answered.

He responded in Tamil, and I searched my group of tiger cubs- a term of endearment for Tiger Group members- for a translator. One of the girls, Divya, giggled, “You take him to America?” Jilkghih pointed at me, himself, and the group. He didn’t only want the trip for himself, but for all of them. Some students focused intently on decorating posters and making badges for the poetry reading they’d organized for that afternoon, other’s listening to our conversation began to giggle. For them the idea of traveling to America was so intangible it was a joke. The request was enough to risk a bit of eye rain. This would be our last day with them and the hardest part of the Visions camp for me- leaving. I’d finally learned the names of all my tiger cubs and was even beginning to pronounce the names correctly. The week had gone so fast, each day packed with lessons and activities. The stress from busy schedules and the usual social issues that come with large groups of teenagers was nothing compared to the tensions on this last day. This end was the infuriating part, simply because I’d not get the opportunity to know them better.

-Tahirah Green

With boisterous voices and fierce attitudes, I watched as Silambarsan V., Manikanadan S.T., Divya V., Psathishkumav, R. Vertrivel, S. Sabina, S. Sudhakar, Jayasurya C, P. Salomya, J. Jlikghih, and Kumutha recited our group cheer: Clap, Clap, Clap-Clap-Clap, Tiger Group, Clap, Clap, Clap-Clap-Clap, RAWR! The pride all eleven tiger cubs exuded on our final day together was both tangible and contagious. But, then again, it would have been nearly impossible NOT to be completely overwhelmed by love and admiration for each and every tiger cub. Watching them all grow more and more empowered over the course of five days was nothing short of a privilege. S. Sabina, our Home Minister, took the first steps towards pushing past her fear of not being smart “enough” to be a leader, taking meticulous notes during all of our meetings and presenting them to the entire camp. P. Salomya, our Finance Minister and quietest group member, found the confidence to M.C our group’s poetry reading. Silambarsan V, one of our most rambunctious group members, began to not only give others the opportunity to share their thoughts but also listen closely to what others said. Although a week has passed, I remain in awe at just how phenomenal they all are. My only regret is that I will not have the chance to continue watching each tiger cub grow further into the beautifully intricate and individuals they are.

– Alexandria Hernandez

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Our time with the visions camp has hands down been my favorite week so far this semester. To me mentoring programs serve many purposes; the most important is making sure the children know they are important. At times it was hard to tell if they understood what we were trying to teach about diversity, teamwork, or the other lesson. However, when I saw they were smiling I felt instantly reassured that this experience was meaningful for them. My favorite moment was when they were thinking of the cheers. Our team decided to say “Right, left, success” giving a thumbs up. While the other groups were a little more creative, what mattered to me was the smiles from ear to ear that each of the kids had when they said SUCCESS! This week taught me that everyone will find their own meaning in mentoring programs. Some people will be more interested in the lessons, while others will find meaning in the opportunities provided to speak up, lead a meeting, or come up with a cheer.

-Marie Avilez

Appearance-wise Gokulraj was eight.  Behavior-wise Gokulraj was eight.  But in reality, he was thirteen years old. His small frame and ever eager expression never failed to bring a smile to my face. When he wasn’t struggling to stay awake during lessons, he would sit quietly smiling away. Initially, he wouldn’t say a word. By the end of the week, he would be sitting up straight and tugging on my shirt hoping to read the next passage in the lesson aloud. The transformation seen in these kids throughout the week was absolutely remarkable. They went from requiring explicit instructions of what to do to wanting to take charge and being willing to volunteer for anything. It pulled on my heart strings to see one of the most timid boys in my group get up in front of all of the students to sing a song for the talent show. What impressed me most is the resilience of these kids. After everything they have been through, they are still able to be so loving, generous, friendly and happy. These kids were absolutely inspiring.

-Asha Thomas

Visions leadership camp was one of the most enlightening and meaningful experiences I have had in India so far. The transformation between the first day of the program and the last was like something from a lifetime movie. All of that passion and brightness could so easily have gone unearthed. It was was inspiring to see how little it took, and sad to see how little it took to create such an enormous impact. It made me wish the world was smaller, and plane tickets were cheaper so that opportunities like these could become as frequent as they are special.

I remember wanting so badly to say and do the most impactful things possible. I wanted to fill every parcel of time with “teachable moments” and waste no words on anything that was not utterly profound. But half way though the training I began to understand precisely what my most valuable asset was-my ears.

What moved these children most was not the material we taught them, or the gifts we gave them. It wasn’t that we traveled 8000 miles, and spent 45 minutes on a bus every morning to teach them. It was that we had done all this to create an exchange.

The beautiful thing about Visions camp was that our daily mission was not to simply impart knowledge. It was to tease out the autonomy, the perspective, and the initiative of each child. The goal was never to leave my voice bouncing around inside of a child’s head but rather to let him know that it was okay to turn up the volume of his own.

-Wesley Hall

Grassroots Leadership

4 Mar

Reflections on a Participatory Rural Appraisal

What does a village know? Rather than enter a village as “experts” with something to teach, the Bajaj Foundation first helps villagers recognize everything they already know. The process is called a “participatory rural appraisal” or PRA. We had the honor of participating in a PRA in a small “tribal” or indigenous village. Here are short reflections on that experience…

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Mahendra Phate listens as villagers construct a cost-benefit analysis of their crops.

As the farmers gathered into a quiet group, Mehendra Phate, our Bajaj Foundation coordinator, scratched a perfectly aligned grid onto the blue paper. Through hushed conversation the men and women calculated the input and output values of growing cotton, wheat, soybean, pigeon peas and chickpeas. Buying seeds, hoeing, insecticide, manure, fertilizer, irrigation – the list of demands grew faster than the weeds plucked from their fields. After the farmers had calculated each cost, we added them together and determined the final profit of each crop. Cotton, wheat and soybean were negative, under by thousands of rupees per acre. Astounded, we ran the numbers again, but they remained stubbornly below zero. Mr. Phate explained that while wheat and soybeans were sometimes profitable, cotton never has a positive output. We struggled to understand how the farmers could grow such cruel crops.

Because of market demand and the region’s farming history, “Changing crops is like changing religion.” While the Bajaj Foundation is a successful organization, the farmers have been hurt by countless broken promises from the state government. Additionally, any investment in new crops brings more risk to their already precarious line of work. But the farmers are working to transform their livelihoods in spite of these immense challenges. Their ambition to change what is perceived as irreparable in their farming community is a brave act.

—Marielle Saums

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I’m grateful to have had continued opportunities to work with Preshant over the last few weeks.  From our very first conversation at the Bajaj Foundation headquarters early in our time here, I had asked him why he chose this work.  Sometimes when English isn’t your native tongue, things spill out in beautiful, unexpected ways.  He told me that he saw the struggles of the rural farmers – his own community – and that he “feels”.  I knew I was in good hands when we did our biogas and grocery store visit.

I was captivated by the way Preshant spoke to the crowd at the beginning of the PRA. I couldn’t understand a word he said, but I understood the feeling.  Listening really is a full body experience and whatever energy and excitement in that room flowed through me as well.  It was evident that Preshant was in his element after 10 years of community organizing.  There are certain people in life who I know would help cure the illness that runs rampant in politics.  I saw a lot of my brother in Preshant and I sometimes wonder what people like the two of them could do in our dysfunctional system.

During our small group exercises, I really tried to hone my ability to listen.  (I keep a list of quotes that syncs across my laptop and phone and one of them from Harriet Lerner is especially relevant here: “If we would only listen with the same passion that we feel about wanting to be heard.”) Even if you don’t speak the language, you can learn a lot from watching people speak and how the translator responds.  Manasi and Preshant are really good translators for this very reason: you can glean a lot of info from their reactions.

Marcy and I definitely enjoyed the session.  At the beginning the group was very shy but by the end we definitely had a cast of characters.  The way the women would interrupt to correct something always made laugh.  The playful chiding of the young scribes illustrated the age dynamic in India and the group loved it.

I was honored when Preshant told the villagers that he didn’t need to translate as much because we had listened with our hearts.  The idea of public service is still so far off in my mind, but if I ever get there I hope that compliment can still hold.

—Daniel Nesbit

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“The men. They do not appreciate the work that we do.” Asserted a young woman clad in a fiercely beautiful turquoise and silver sari. She sat in a circle amongst a collection of her fellow women villagers who all nodded their agreement. With a marker in had, she directed her attention to the list of twenty-seven tasks the women had compiled of daily duties. Children wandered in and out of the circle, a constant reminder of just how many responsibilities the women must juggle at any given moment.  When asked what time the women begin and end their day, a resounding 4am to 10pm echoed in response. That is an eighteen-hour day. This initial assessment of the type/amount of work women do in their village was only the first exercise in the Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) the Bajaj Foundation conducted. The Bajaj Foundation leads PRAs with the profound understanding that the villagers not only know more about their village, but also the solutions to whatever problems the village face. In that way, the role of the Bajaj Foundation is that of an organizer/facilitator of change.

The second exercise began as young men from the village distributed petite cups of tea. In between slow and deliberate sips, the women shouted replies to the questions: What challenges do you face in your personal life? And, what forms of adversity affect the entire village? The list was capped at ten challenges/issues. Upon completion, the Bajaj Foundation staff took a step back and broke the women down into three groups. As I watched the women gather into small circles, I thought of the projects that the Bajaj Foundation spearheads, all of which could solve about half of the problems on the list. I wondered why the staff wasn’t leading a larger discussion to initially offer the option of participation in these projects. Then it became clear. Each small group was given the task of assigning a number between one and ten to each challenge/issue on the list. One signified that the challenge/issue was not urgent and could be addressed at a later time; ten signified that a solution was needed as soon as possible. The results were tallied and each challenge/issue was allotted a final number between one and thirty. “We will start with the two problems assigned the number thirty.” The Bajaj Foundation staff member said. “Now, think of solutions. Discuss.”

—Alexandria Hernandez

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I sat in silence during the car ride home because my mind was racing. It was such an interesting day doing the PRAs. My primary thought for the rest of the night centered around one main idea. How can I be as effective at teaching/leading/being a role model? Watching Prashant and Mahendra was such an uplifting experience. It truly is an honor to work with people like them. Prashant has such charisma and knowledge and can really connect to those he works with. As I watched him lure people out of their reticence and get excited about the activities, I wondered how can I obtain those same skills and energize and motivate those around me.  Observing  Mahendra, I saw how he pushed the villagers enough to think through their answers and keep developing them until they had a solid idea of the concept at hand.

I love giving other people the tools and skills necessary to be able to create more value in their lives or in other people’s lives. But I’m always terrified of imparting the wrong information, not being able to answer their questions, not being able to adapt to whatever the situation is or not being able to convey the information in the clearest way possible. I think the activities that the Bajaj Staff conducted during the PRA were all excellent. They were not overwhelming the villagers with too much information. The Bajaj Staff gave them the power of sharing their information. Each of the activities were very useful at conveying a lesson or a message. It was so awesome to see the whole PRA come together in that way.

—Asha Thomas

We sat in the entryway to the school, and by the time we finished our conversation the sun had moved from our laps to cover the wall of the school with the diamond pattern of the wrought iron window. We had been talking with a group of farmers about the history of their village, Pargothan, located in the Arvi block of Wardha. We divided a large sheet of paper into five ten-year blocks, and we learned that from 1963 to 1973, outbreaks of typhoid and cholera had spread through the town. Within the next ten years, what is still the nearest hospital to Pargothan was built in another Arvi village 50 kilometers away. Between 1983 and 1993, the government introduced hybrid versions of cotton and soybean crops, and since then knowledge of indigenous plant species and how to cultivate them went unused and was forgotten. Today, all of the crops grown in Pargothan are hybrid varieties.

At one point, a man carrying a young child began to observe our conversation. Between making contributions to the timeline, different group members took turns entertaining the little girl, smiling and gesturing to her. Maybe some day they’ll be telling her the history that they told us.

—Marcy Held

I was really impressed by our experience with the participatory rural appraisal. While I knew all along that it was something unique that the Bajaj foundation does It didn’t really hit me until we were there witnessing it. From the moment we arrived it was amazing to watch the Bajaj Staff connect to the people in the village and get them excited. Then we broke into groups , where we got to witness everyone sharing their thoughts. What our group did was all the women listed their daily activities. I was amazed by the women and their list of 38 meaningful things they do every day. Then they listed some of the challenges they and their community face. All of the women collaborated to form this list of things they want to see change. They assigned each challenge a number based on how detrimental the challenge is to their lives as a way of ranking all of the difficulties they face. After our small groups we got back together into one big group. I was in awe of how these activities really created a sense of community and a hope for a better future. It amazed me even more that this excitement and hope was not imposed by the bajaj staff but created by the members of the community.

—Marie Avilez

Moving slowly against the backdrop of sunlight in the doorway, I could see villages peering in. Their tall thin forms waved back and forth like the tall grasses of their farms as the shuffled into the green school room. I tried to gage what they must have been feeling, but their faces seemed impossible to read.

We jumped right into the exercise of mapping their village, and in doing so discovered it’s strengths and it’s possibilities for improvement. The villagers moved at lightning speed, pointing out where things were, how big, and how many. I was envious of their cohesiveness. There was no tension, criticisms and corrections were well received though not always honored. Theirdesign. was masterful

Once map making was finished, our Bajaj staff member went on to other tasks, leaving us alone together. Manasi asked if anyone in our group (comprised of mainly boys my age) had any questions that they wanted to ask. The discussion that developed was less of a Q&A session, and more of a general discussion about inequality. They routinely mentioned what a rich country America was, and that India was not rich. There seemed to be a general sense that most things in America were better, and many expressed a desire to go there.

I told them that although America had a lot of money, it struggled just like India with severe inequality. This came as a shock. Somewhere, somehow, they had been sold a narrative that Americans had moved beyond inequality. Everyone in America was assumed to be rich. I told them that millions of people in America struggled with food and debt, just like farmers. And we had a fruitful conversation that led to the conclusion that money cannot change the problems being faced in India or America. There has to be a change in philosophy. The conversation cooled, as they wobble their heads back and forth smiling. And the sea of perfect straight white teeth, with just enough money for toothpaste but too little for routine access to refined sugar sparked a thought. I told them that they all had amazing teeth-movie star teeth- and that most people in America had to pay thousands of dollars for teeth as nice as theirs. They seemed most entertained by this, and smiled a lot more after that.

— Wesley Hall

During our stay in Wardha, I noticed how the work of the Bajaj Foundation (KJBF) is efficient and of important value to their beneficiaries in many ways.  What distinguishes their activities is that the staffs are in continuous contact with the beneficiary either through consultation, trainings, assistance or financial help and planning. Last week we learned about another approach that adds more to the efficiency and effectiveness of the KJBF existing work. This approach is called the PRA. PRA stands for Participatory Rural Appraisal and it is about engaging the villagers to appreciate their own lives, to recognize their own problems, and to identify some possible solutions to tackle them. The way these activities are run and set is outstanding and well organized. The number of the village leaders was about 60 or 70 in total composed of both genders. So, in order to make the discussions more beneficial and to meet the activities scheduled for that day, KJBF staff divided them into 5 to 6 groups most of which were composed of both genders and two were composed of just women or men. The activities lasted for about 2 hours and included interesting discussions exchanged between each group members. The activities were about telling stories about the leaders’ villages, about the daily life of these leaders and about talking about some problems related to their own jobs and life. The group I stayed with was composed of many women of different ages and they were all married. The first activity they had to finish was to state all the tasks they do on daily basis. The second one was about stating all the problems they face every day. All members in the group were energetic and participated in the discussions and brought in different thoughts and ideas. When Mr Pawar explained to me their tasks and the problems they face I realized that these women were very powerful and strong indeed. Everyday they had to finish 25 tough tasks, they had to walk for 4 to 5 kilometers, they had to feed their families and they had to work in the field. When I compared these activities with my own, I praised these women even more and admired their determination to lead a better life in their families despite all the difficulties and problems they face.   

— Mariem Fekih 


Women’s Collaborative Reflections

28 Feb

Some of our most meaningful exchanges have been with members of a Women’s Collaborative. The Bajaj Foundation encourages women’s empowerment through organizing and facilitating self-help groups. These groups help women come together to pool their resources and ideas in order to generate alternative means of income. They also serve as a vital support system for the women. Here are some reflections on our experiences with these remarkable women.

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Marcy Held, Alexandria Hernandez, and Molly Berntsen discuss ideas with members of the Women’s Collaborative in Vijaya-Gopal

Marie Avilez:

Kalpana values the importance of satisfying her social and financial responsibilities in business. She has two business plans to address both of these responsibilities. First, she offers water for free to anyone. However most of the time when a mom would come for the water, her son would ask for pepsi that’s next to the free water and the mother would end up buying the pepsi. This increased her profit tremendously. Similarly, many times people go to her to help with paperwork and applications, she offers help free of charge and then she charges them to make copies on her photocopier.

Molly Berntsen:

Almost all of the women in our interview group said that before they became involved in the women’s collective, their husbands and families wouldn’t allow them to leave the house by themselves, let alone join a group for women. Many of them joined the group secretly and then, once the benefits of the collective became obvious, revealed their membership to their families. In the interviews, they spoke about how becoming involved in the collective has increased their confidence, social skills, and standing in the community. It’s hard for me to even fathom the enormity of what that means, especially having grown up in a family that has both allowed and encouraged me to be independent. I can’t help but think that these interviews had just as big (if not bigger) of an effect on me as an interviewer as they did on the women I was talking to. My mind was expanded in ways that I didn’t expect at all going into the experience, and the women in the collective were given a chance both to tell their stories in an open/receptive setting and to practice their English.

Mariem Feikh:

The second meeting with the village women who are part of the Bajaj Foundation Women Empowering Program was way too inspirational and interesting to me. Throughout this meeting, I was able to listen to these women telling their stories openly and expressing their eagerness to learn and to improve their personal skills. Most of them joined the program because it offered trainings and gave them the chance to visit Ahmadabad in Gujarat where they were exposed to different workshop sessions about how to speak confidently. According to them, the main help that was received from the Foundation was in business skills. They were taught that business has two sides: financial and social responsibility. Previously, if they had to buy something, they had to travel to another village and so they would lose that money and the day’s wage. Thus, it is better to have business with the community. They are in the process of starting a business of buying local produce and setting up a processing plant and preparing the food to be sold in the market.

In addition to sharing with us their history with the Bajaj foundation, they also told us about their future dreams for themselves and for their children. Most of these women view that education is essential to their wellbeing and to the improvement of their financial situation. They also hope to get more training and learn more about how to use computers and learn English language.

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Molly Berntsen and others teach each other Marathi and English collaboratively.

Wesley Hall:

Almost all of the women that we interviewed were married with at least one child. Some pursued love marriages, while many had their marriages arranged for them. The most striking point in our discussion seemed to be that whether women’s husband was chosen by her heart or by her family, the challenges that she would face in married life were likely to be very similar.

For most of the women, their relationship with the Collaborative blossomed slowly over time. For nearly all of them it was a struggle. Many found their husbands were less than enthusiastic about their participation and some were even forced to resort to sneaking out to go to meetings. One of the most beautiful things about the women was the candidness with which they spoke. They were not afraid to recount what life had been like before joining the Collaborative. All of them seemed to echo the same themes. Marriage had brought some frustration, and them all a sense loneliness.

In joining the collaborative, women became the arbiters of their own destinies if only for a few hours. They controlled their own money, in their own space, in a relationship that they had chosen to be a part of and could leave anytime. There was definitely a sense that this simple notion of each woman’s right to determine what she did with a small piece of her time and money had opened a gateway to a much bigger store of autonomy and self-confidence. The benefits of the Collective radiate out beyond the walls of the gathering space as women become fuller participants in their households and communities. Being able to take out loans, or start their own businesses has given women a voice at home. More importantly, it breaks the patterns of isolation experienced by the women that we interviewed. They begin to feel that they have the right to interact with their communities and to have their opinions represented in the presence of their husbands and in-laws.

Most hopeful were their descriptions of how they would work to create a better future for the girls to follow them. Education was paramount and the women all wanted their children to at least complete high school. I did not feel that the women were shooting farther than their beliefs allowed them too or placating our audience. Their hope was tempered by the realism that these women must employ to get through life. They dreamed of their children becoming engineers, and they dreamed that dream because many of them expected to fall short of it. But in falling short, they knew that their children would complete high school. The most hopeful thing about the women’s collaborative was exactly that-a spirit that didn’t expect miracles, but planned for them anyway.

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Emily records stories of the womens’ lives, and their dreams for the future.

Marcy Held:

It started raining soon after we got in the car. We’d spent most of the day going over English vocabulary that the women already knew: “The apple is round,” “The egg is white,” “The orange is orange.” We spent the rest of the time butchering the Hindi and Marathi translations of these phrases. “I have one sister,” “I have no brothers.” Language simultaneously served as a point of interaction and as a barrier as we bided our time speaking these small phrases while we waited for a translator.

After our interview began, the wind picked up and the clouds moved in. The women talked about how their membership in the collaborative helped them to buy school uniforms for their children or medical care for their families. The group gave them a certain level of financial autonomy and even the ability to leave their house when they wanted to, a few freedoms that they had not previously experienced. Our interview began late, and some women were unable to stay because of other work they had to do. We would not get to hear what they had to share, but they’d spent their entire afternoon with us, sharing information about their families, encouraging our fumbling Hindi and Marathi pronunciations, and giving a generous gift of their time. After we’d finally wrapped things up, the sky had darkened to a severe gray.

Now rain pattered the exterior of the car, and we waved goodbye. It seemed as though the whole town came to see us off, despite the turn in the weather. People beamed as their hair began to stick to their necks and their clothes draped heavily over their limbs, beginning to swing slowly with water. The cows parted to give a final, confused goodbye as our cars bounced over the uneven road.

Daniel Nesbit:

Kalpana Dhange is a fiery woman who doesn’t seem to know her own strength just yet – but she’s learning. When we first encountered Kalpana in a larger group, she came across as confident and outspoken; however, upon translation, we found out that she said her voice was shaking.  She was surprised to be speaking in front of so many new and confusing people who had come to learn about the power of these women’s groups.  Later, in a smaller setting, we learned just how much the women’s confidence had improved with their involvement in the support groups. For many, the group’s activities were their first opportunity to venture outside their homes.  As they’ve grown closer over time, their confidence in telling their own stories has made leaps and bounds.  The almost month-long retreat that some attended gave them a chance to hear their own powerful voice, both individually and collectively.

The strength of that group fabric was evident as one woman, Sushama Chaudhary, shared that the challenge of her eyesight often makes her feel weak. This moment of faltering confidence was met with the gentle but firm support of her peers, who saw the challenge of her eyesight as something that only made her stronger and more capable.  With the help of her group, Sushama has battled through these difficulties to become a Village Volunteer, one of the group’s leaders.  Village Volunteers, part of the Bajaj Foundation’s community network, oversee multiple support groups, relay concerns and needs to the Bajaj Foundation and make sure everything is running smoothly.

Kalpana is also one of the group’s leaders.  In fact, the group was so important to her that instead of running in local elections, she opted instead to take on a leadership role.  31 years old and running a small general store in her village, Kalpana is taking advantage of every opportunity that comes her way.  Kalpana’s business strategy for her shop draws from the training she received during the retreat where they taught the women about merging the social and economic ends of business.  In an ingenious interpretation of that training, Kalpana offered free water to villagers so that they would come by with their children.  The children were good for business: Kalpana had put Pepsi for sale next to the water.

The strength and innovation of these support groups is an untapped resource.  Sushama’s perseverance and Kalpana’s fueled ambitions are testimony to the notion that true power comes from within.  Sometimes you just need a few friends to help you remember that empowering idea.

Marielle Saums:

Village Volunteers like Padma Munjewar, 38, hold monthly meetings with beneficiaries to manage bookkeeping and projects. They also act as a KJBF liaison for the beneficiaries. Each group has between twenty to thirty members. Padma joined a WC group because the few NGOs that previously worked within her community gave out money but did not provide any training.

The purpose of WC groups is to build a seed fund that is sustained by its monthly contributions from its members. WC groups then grant microloans to help start small businesses within their community. Women have been able to start a variety of shops, from print stores to daal processing plants. When local businesses are established, women do not have to travel long distances to urban areas for goods and services.

Members of WC groups gain much more than financial assistance. The program provides valuable computer, accounting, and business training, and they get to travel to large cities for workshops. Members can meet other women and practice public speaking, which helps them gain confidence and expand their social network.

The women are given tools to advocate for themselves and their children. Sindu Marudkar, 43, wanted her two sons to receive an education, and was more concerned that they become responsible citizens – the jobs would follow good consciences. Padma also hoped for her two daughters to get good jobs after graduation, as she had completed her bachelors degree but had been unable to work due to family circumstances.

The women of WC groups were busy establishing a strong foundation for their kids to complete higher education, as well as improving their own lives. Yet there seemed to be a pattern of escape, of children leaving the village to pursue other opportunities. As programs like the WC groups continue to develop, these sons and daughters will hopefully bring those urban prospects back to their home communities.

Asha Thomas:

One of our most riveting experiences thus far has been our visit with the Women’s Collaborative. During one of our interviews a woman told us, “Before joining the group my life was very sad.  Now joining this group I am very happy and I want to live. For a while I have struggle with life. My in-laws are very torturous. Now joining this group I am free.” I felt my throat close and the tears form in my eyes as Shital told me her story in Marati. The sorrow in her brown eyes was evident. Her pain tugged at my heart. I had to take a couple of breaths to compose myself before I could continue with the interview.

We were in the village of Vijayagopal talking to the Women’s Collaborative the Bajaj Foundation had helped establish. The collaborative is a self-help group where the women contribute a certain amount of money to the group every month. Members can take out interest-free loans for things they cannot afford such as their children’s school uniforms. They also pool their money for group income-generating activities such as sericulture. However, this group does not only help support them financially. The women found they can also rely on each other for moral support. They have also gained more confidence, self-worth and independence.

These women have faced a lot of challenges. As the translator said, “Their husbands will not permit them to go outside. Some men will take money. Some banks will take back their money. Husband will question why they’re going to meetings. They believe they should work at home only.” Despite the challenges, they speak of hope for their children and for themselves. Primarily they want to not only provide higher education to their children but also make their daughters independent. Each woman had a moving story and by the end of the day of interviews we were all keen to come back to the community to further develop the relationships we had formed that day.

Teaching and Learning

25 Jan

DSC01326Thoughts on teaching and learning from migrant workers from Nepal and Sri Lanka…

Tutoring the workers has been an outstanding privilege.   In our short time with them ideally we can help them help themselves in their process of learning, but I’m stuck with one thought: it is a rather unequal exchange.  I can teach them a word in English, but hearing their stories – the distances traveled, the families left at home – are worth so much more.  They force me to reflect on what global travel means to me relative to others’ movement and what is demanded by the differences.  Hopefully by the end of our sessions together the exchange grows to be more equal.

– Daniel

My muscles are committed to the contours of my keyboard, able to effortlessly punch in a password after years of computer use. The students squint at the screen, repeating the motions of Shift + H with varying levels of frustration. No easy task, it is an action that requires specific subtlety. Don’t press too hard, avoid the caps lock, and navigate tiny tiles in an unfamiliar language, all while your letters are masked by those damn black dots. But with each small victory – opening Tamil Wikipedia, finding a video on Youtube –  the computer becomes less an object of difference and more a tool for exchange.

– Marielle

DSC01333My greatest joy came out of working with Sandosh. I had a great conversation with him (considering his level of English and my level of Hindi). Finding out he is only twenty-two years old makes me even more appreciative of my own opportunities. He said he was a cleaner here but the other day I saw him working at Papa John’s rolling out pizza dough. I was not positive it was him but as soon as he returned my smile, it was confirmed. I said hello to him and he replied, “Hello, ma’am!” with such excitement that it warmed my heart. We continued our short conversation and I felt this tug at my core solidifying my desire to help him as much as possible.

-Asha

“I’ve been so spoiled,” I think to myself. My fingers dance across keys at such high speed that I rarely, if ever, look at the keyboard itself. Sometimes I don’t even look at the screen. His fingers move slowly, the index hesitates above a black key with a tiny white image. He’s right. At least, I know he’s right. He presses the letter, and I list off the next one. The little black dots that obscure what he’s typing multiply. He hesitates again. “Click the blue circle,” I say. The desktop loads.

-Tahirah

DSC01332Tutoring has been an amazing and overall positive experience. The workers’ kindness reminds me that the most valuable part of teaching is building a relationship with them and giving them an hour out of the day to make them feel like someone cares about them and their future is more valuable than teaching them a few words in English. I first had difficulty trying to balance my attention, it was natural to give more attention to the worker who struggled more, but I realized that the other workers need just as much attention. I learned that by giving everyone equal attention, some workers might not get as far in English, but they will all feel like someone cares about them.

-Marie

With only seconds left before the end of a Nepali music video, I looked to my right and found a young man’s frustrated face pointed toward his keyboard with a forced smile. “Learning to type … well, it is sort of like learning how to dance,” I said. After a moment of consideration, he looked up and began to laugh hysterically. “I do not dance like the video,” he replied. “That does not matter,” I assured him, “It is all about learning the steps and practicing until it becomes effortless.” He contemplated this notion, I patiently waited. A few seconds later, I watched as strong fingers began to delicately search the keyboard for Ctrl+Alt+Dlt – the first steps to any “computer dance”.

– Alexandria

DSC01331Working with Education City’s cleaning staff has been a really cool experience. My favorite things about our lessons together are the small moments that confirm for me that what I’m doing is relevant and impactful. Often times when I am teaching or demonstrating, I wonder if what I am communicating is truly going to be helpful in the long run. But the men that I have worked with are constantly interested in trying to stretch beyond the limits of the class and return to the next class ready to learn even more! Sometimes I can’t even get them to close Rosetta Stone.  It’s great to work with people whose energy levels are so high!

-Wesley

On our first day of teaching, I was paired with a young Nepali woman named Sumitha. We started by trying to get to know each other. I asked her questions about herself which she answered by smiling and nodding… after a few questions (“Where are you from?” etc) I realized that she didn’t understand a word I was saying. Surprisingly, I think that coming to that realization made me just as uncomfortable as she was! After some awkward giggling and half-communicating through gestures, we managed to develop a system in which I would google an image of something, teach her the word in English, and she taught me the word in Nepali. By the end of the class we were both laughing and knew the words for cat, dog, man, woman, boy, and girl, in each other’s language.

-Molly

DSC01336After hitting “Enter,” the screen was once again marked with a small red “X” and the phrase “Invalid username or password.” I exhaled, smiled, and suggested that we try again. The last thing that I wanted to do was provoke feelings of frustration, but I felt like that was exactly what I was doing. Learning computer skills, especially learning how to log in to a computer system using a set of letters, a keyboard, and a language that one does not completely understand can be extremely difficult. How could I even explain the importance of logging in? I was elated when the screen eventually read, “Welcome.” We went on to look at some pictures of animals, learn some vocabulary about color, and discuss our families. I hope that I get the chance to share similar successes with the same student again.

-Marcy

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Doha Diaries

25 Jan

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Short reflections on life in Doha…

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The group’s “alternative tour” of Doha was an important experience.  History is best understood not by those who write it, but those who really build it: the common man.  We left Education City and went to see a factory and parts of Doha that are normally hidden from the tourist’s eye. The contrast between the city’s grandeur (Education City, its museums and expanding skyline) and where the hands that created that grandeur lived was eye-opening.  It made me think to myself, “Who really builds our greatness?”

– Daniel

Pedestrian life does not exist in Doha, a city shaped by unbearable summer heat and an automobile obsession. Life shuttles from building to building, AC blasting throughout any interior.  Migrant workers walk alongside roads clogged with SUVs and sports cars, yet my restructured routines leave me envious of the freedom found elsewhere to wander by foot. Walking is now a luxury for me and a struggle for many others.

– Marielle

Trying on a burqa to enter the mosque was quite the transformative experience. I have always felt the need to look away from a woman wearing a burqa unless I was interacting with them directly. So I was quite surprised with the calming effect wearing it. In addition, the way appearances are completely transformed as one is only able to see a person’s face is fascinating. It gave me a greater understanding of women who wear burqas in their daily proceedings.

-Asha

I entered the space swathed in black fabric, my face and hands my only visible flesh. The cloth around my face loosened, knowing it was unwanted. I don’t define myself in relation to religion. When asked, unaffiliated is the best answer I can give. I appreciate religious spaces with stunning architecture or a curious history. My focus shifts beyond their walls to the events that occur within them, events so foreign to me that I tense up. It’s as odd as listening to a conversation about hair styling amongst women with straight or wavy tresses that flow down towards their backs. My tightly coiled curls that grow thick, up, and out know nothing of those things.

-Tahirah

One of our favorite places to go out in Doha is a shopping district called the Souq Waqif, which is modeled after an old marketplace with winding streets and lots of local vendors. Our first night out together as a group, we happened upon a tiny bread shop completely by accident and ended up with 5 huge pieces of the warmest, softest, most amazing flat bread for 1 Riyal (about $0.27). It was so nice to sit around a rickety wooden table outside the shop and start getting to know each other over something as simple and delicious as warm bread. The shop is now one of our regular destinations at the Souq Waqif and the bread we eat there has remained one of the highlights of the trip.

-Molly

Stepping out onto a collection of rocks to find a seat where the waters of the Persian Gulf glisten below and the Doha skyline sparkles in the distance; it is difficult not to find wonder in a city in which a mere stone throw away from such a magnificent spot is a small shop on an unpaved road that serves delicious Karak Chai Tea. Essentially sitting on a tiny intersection between old-Doha and new-Doha, I couldn’t help but hope that no matter how small – pieces of old-Doha would prove resilient to efforts that might build them away.

– Alexandria

During the Alternative Tour of Doha, we visited the industrial area, where I realized the extent of segregation in Doha. Uday pointed out that this segregation is frustrating especially because the segregation prevents the people who built Doha from entering Doha. This made me ask myself “What is Doha?” Doha is defined by these workers, not by the tall buildings. After this tour I realized I’ve spent my time in the western areas of the city. My ability to select the places I go limit my experiences. The tour also made me realize how lucky I am. We live in a world where it’s easy to take our lifestyle for granted, it’s important to appreciate what we have.

-Marie

I got scolded today. Apparently, on the day that our group had gone on a fantastic alternative tour of Doha, some CMU-Q friends had secretly conspired to surprise me with a shopping trip to buy my very own thobe. Far and away, the most exciting thing about Doha is the incredible hospitality of the people here. I have made so many friends in such a short period of time that boarding the plane for our final destination will actually be difficult for me. Students in Doha have made sure that I have had something fun or interesting to do every night since I have been here. It is impossible to overstate their warmth or friendliness.

-Wesley

We were instructed to look for “community assets” as our bus made its way through what is called the Industrial Area of Doha: things like pharmacies, grocery stores, venues for entertainment. I did not really know what to expect, in what form these “assets” would be made manifest in this neighborhood. As our bus rounded a corner my gaze was attracted downward to a movement on the ground. In the shade of a parked car, for the brief moment that the speed of our vehicle permitted me to observe them, I saw three men crouched around a board game. One player’s roll of the dice was what caught my eye, and at once it surprised and comforted me to find some relatable joy that connected my own memories of childhood to this city of such rapid change.

-Marcy