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Diversity: a way to define India

14 Apr

A month ago, right after we moved from Wardha to Chennai, a friend of mine asked me to describe India to her. It was a tricky question especially since we witnessed a drastic change moving from a simple rural area in Maharashtra to a big city like Chennai. It was one of those questions that, by then, I wouldn’t have simply used a word or two like “it is amazing” or “it is mysterious” to describe it. My reply was as follows: India is a mixture of everything: poverty and luxury, rurality and modernity, chaos and tidiness, dirtiness and cleanliness, simplicity and complexity, illiteracy and innovation, spiciness and regularity, shortage and infinite hospitality, and the list goes on! But there was actually a word that could have summarized all of these lines. That word would be Diversity, a contrasting and paradoxical one!

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I was first exposed to the Indian diversity when we were in Warhda. We were living in a peaceful Ashram where many people with different backgrounds, religions and beliefs used to visit. That cultural harmony and coexistence was very delightful and impressive. People who lived in Wardha spoke different languages too. The two main spoken languages were Marathi and Hindi. I remember also when we were invited to attend the women collaborative celebration of the International Women’s Day, when we entered the tent I noticed that each woman was wearing a beautiful dress or sari with distinct color from the one sitting next to her. The view of these leaders sitting next each other in a harmonic way was really fabulous and reflective on Indian’s diversity. Apart from that, the trees were different and varied, the buildings were heterogeneous and painted with different paints and even animals of the same species didn’t look alike.

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Exploring Chennai was different from exploring Wardha. Back in Wardha everything was distant from each another, we had to travel in cars for miles and cross many fields to reach a certain village or place. In Chennai things are close, more congested and more superimposed. At first we tried to discover the city through walking. It turned out that it wasn’t a wise decision because this city, like the city of Doha, is not a pedestrian friendly one. So we ended up taking taxis or rickshaws for our small trips. And I have to admit it, having a ride on a rickshaw is so far the best part of my stay in this place. Through those rides I enjoyed a taste of adventure and at the same time was able to look closely into the city through the open spaces on each side of the vehicle.

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I saw people hanging out in fancy cafes and eating in fancy restaurants while others were collecting leftover food from the trash and sleeping on the floor side by side with the dogs. I saw people entering the malls and spending their money on unnecessary stuffs while others were lining up in front of a hospital or a temple with wide-open hands ahead of their bodies begging for ten or five rupees. I saw drivers cruising with their air-conditioned SUVs with confidence as if they were the kings of the road honking on any obstacle on their way while the rickshaw, the motorbike and the bicycle drivers were racing and zigzagging through the empty spots to fill in the blanks. I saw the minarets of the mosques and heard the calling for the prayers and I saw the temples with their fascinating architecture and designs and heard the Buddhist and Hindus chants, and I saw adherents walking in to worship in both places.

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I came into the realization that diversity is certainly one of the aspects that make the modern India. We find it everywhere in this country: in states, religion, language, food, clothes, colors, and ethnicities. It is also the gap that separates the wealthy from the poor. Diversity is meant to enrich and empower nations and communities and for this concept to be fully absorbed, along with diversity there should be unity, unity against corruption, against violence, against poverty and against injustice.

Mariem Fekih

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

Sickness

22 Mar

I am more than my sickness.  I am more than my stomach pain, however tormenting and however frustrating.  I am a human with a unique story waiting to be told to the world. My sickness is a temporary infliction brought upon me by misfortune and it’s a distraction as my hand tries to write the next chapter.    Sickness is only truly devastating when there is nothing to combat it.  Thankfully, through the help of others – doctors with medical advice filtered through dependable institutions, friends with back rubs and family across the globe wishing good thoughts my way – I will avoid any devastation that this sickness could offer.  I get the chance to continue the writing of my story because someone’s got my back.

Unfortunately, not everyone is so lucky. Every day, millions succumb to sickness without the support that I enjoy.  Some have never seen a doctor, some don’t have the resources necessarily to do anything with the knowledge that could save them.

Sickness isn’t just about the the individual and the physical body, though.  Sickness is found in groups, in systems, and in ideas.  If there’s anything I’ve learned traveling the last few months it’s that I am incredibly blessed because of the opportunities and support that exist in my life that I too often don’t notice.  My health, my education, my freedoms – these are all aspects of my life where any sickness I encounter is met with firm resistance and support.  I can’t imagine the difficulty one might face when sickness runs rampant in those important parts of life.  What I find so inspiring about the eclectic group of people gathered together for this semester is the innovation and determination that each person brings to the table as we all wage a war on sickness.

Physical sickness is an exercise in immense humility: the body and mind are breaking down.  You become incredibly grateful for any reprieve.  I hope that as I recover and come out of my own personal destruction, I will use that humility in my efforts to find ways to prevent and treat sickness – in its many forms – in whatever way I can. If someone has me, I’ve got them.

– Daniel Nesbit

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.

Simplicity

20 Feb

Mosquito nets enclose me as I lay on my hard bed with a firm pillow beneath my head and I cannot help but appreciate the simplicity of it all. We only have what we need. There is something beautiful about living a life without luxury. It is so gratifying to wake up with the sun and take bucket showers with frogs of every color, to eat fresh vegetarian food every meal and to be in a constant state of reflection, soaking in our surroundings and trying to optimize everything from our time and talents to our resources and relationships. I feel as though this is a spiritual and mental cleanse for me. The only true stress I have here is making sure I am spending my time wisely and taking advantage of everything this opportunity has to offer.

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I have noticed that many of my priorities and the lens in which I view them have started shifting. The simplicity cuts straight through the distractions and helps me to understand so much more about myself and the world around me. I try not to see life through just my own eyes here. I strive to see India through the eyes of those around me: my group, the Bajaj staff, the beneficiaries, our drivers, our cooks and the people we pass by on the streets. I feel as though my lead role in life is not cast as a consumer or as an individual like how it is in the States. My conventional divisions of labels like who can be a student and who can be a teacher have been completely challenged. I no longer just focus on my own future—a mindset that is easy to get lost in as a last-semester senior on the cusp of entering the real world. Rather, I endeavor to decipher the intricacies of the present, past and future of this country that is so rich in history and that provides such a different context of living.

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In the process of viewing my surroundings from the eyes of others, I also am acquiring a better understanding of myself through their vision. It actually seems to be contributing to the identity crisis I seem to be having these days. I find this crisis more amusing than confusing. Being an Indian in America is a bubble I have grown up in and therefore I understand my place and my role in society. I know how to act around my family and other Indians and I know how my actions and thoughts contrast to when I am around my friends and other Americans. But here in India there exists a strange balancing act of my American self and my Indian self. It is not that these two selves are complete strangers to one another. That is not the case at all. I just realize that in the US there are many things that I understand as something I am doing that I can attribute to my Indian culture and other things I can attribute to my American culture. Being in this group here in India has made me conscious of the choices I make that make me lean more towards one culture or the other. I now question simple things like whether or not I should eat the food here with my hands or call Indian elders aunty or uncle regardless of their relationship to me—both things I would normally do both in India and the US but do not do here.

In America, I view myself as an Indian in America even though I was born and raised there. But here I feel like I am an American in India. Sometimes I feel like an outsider to both cultures. Most of the time I feel so lucky that I have two cultures to embrace and to choose from. One of the strangest sensations was after we first landed in India and we were driving through the streets of India. I got this sense of homesickness. However, it was not for my home back in the States rather I ached to be at my grandma’s house in Kerala with both her and my mom. I previously had such a different, intimate view of India through just the eyes of myself and my family. It has been an eye-opening experience to be able to see India from this different perspective—see the bigger context of where all of the little intricacies that I am familiar with fit in.

-Asha Thomas