"So, how was it?"
"Was it crazy?"
"Were you scared?"
"Did you love it?"
"Was it weird?"
"Was it hard?"
"Did it really look like that?"
The questions mount as I reconnect with family and friends, after three and a half months in India. This is a second round homecoming, I spent the majority of 2010-11 teaching and traveling in Asia; but I'm finding the questions more difficult to answer this time around. It's not that I don't have answers, I do. In fact, rejecting the standard, "It was amazing" I probably have better answers. It just seems that sometimes mine aren't the answers that people expect or want to hear and when the expected answer does come, the caveat or further explanation is not absorbed.
In January 2012, I moved to New Delhi to participate in the American Jewish World Service Volunteer Corps in India. The program, which a friend once referred to as the "Jewish Peace Corps," places Jewish professionals at local working in fields ranging from environmental conservation to public health, education and human rights. Volunteers are expected to provide sustainable support, as per a work plan developed based on the skills of the volunteer and the needs of the NGO. I was placed at a small Delhi based organization, which provides capacity building and modest financial support to grassroots individuals and organizations working to advance Dalit rights.
India, one of the largest most populated countries in the developing world, is facing both rapid growth and large-scale social, environmental, and developmental challenges, many of which are hindered by the persistence of a social caste or class hierarchy ingrained in nearly every aspect of society. While it is true that living, working, economic, and social conditions vary to levels which rival the nations geographical and environmental diversity, Dalits, or members of the formerly "untouchable" castes, continue to face wide spread discrimination throughout many parts of the country. This again ranges from unequal educational and employment opportunities, to physical abuse and sexual exploitation. The mission of the NGO at which I was placed, like many of its partners and counterparts in the Dalit movement, is to wipeout caste discrimination throughout the country. Through various fellowship programs, grant opportunities, and training workshops the foundation hopes to empower and aid Dalits in their fight for equality.
So, what does this all mean in terms of my volunteer placement? And how does it affect my response to the curiosity and queries of my friends and family?
On a larger scale it means that it was not about me, but rather the group, the movement, and the larger goals being supported. In the day to day, however, it meant I split my time between work in the office, field visits to foundations partners, and workshops aiming to train and select new fellows/grantees. In the office I provided support in the areas of English reporting and editing, developed leadership training sessions for the foundations young professionals program, and helped document job descriptions including clearly defined roles, goals, and performance indicators.
In the field I accompanied NGO staff to observe and evaluate the work and success of current fellows and grantees. I also spent time meeting and listening to stories told by the people for which the work was being done, the Dalit families, mothers, school children, domestic workers etc. all feeling the burden of a castes inherited at birth. It's when I try to recount these stories, to communicate to the best of my abilities, what my NGO was doing and who they were working for that I run into road blocks. "That's really heavy." or "So, you would never want to live there." A shift in conversation to lighter subjects, and often a comment that leads me to believe India has been written off as backward, or terrible, or scary.
But, that's not what I am trying to say. I am not trying to depress or scare people. I am trying to have the conversations they started, trying to answer the question, "How was it?" The point is that these things, the discrimination, the violence, the poverty, they are happening. They are a very real and present part of daily life; but they are not the only things happening. Activism is happening, community organizing is happening, and awareness building and education are happening. I want people to understand the problem (one of many, but perhaps the only one on which I have any basis to speak). I also want people to understand that there is a solution, or there will be. Maybe it hasn't come yet, maybe it won't come from the NGO I was placed at (or maybe it will!), but it will come from somewhere and likely it will come from people who are dedicating their lives to the fight.
And that's a very exciting, positive, wonderful thing.
I can't focus on the positive and ignore the negative, or vise-versa. I certainly can't bypass the expansive space between. My life in India meant daily ups and downs, seemingly endless frustration followed by equally endless positive surprises. Similarly, when someone asks about my NGO placement, my daily responsibilities, and the people I met, it will be heavy, but it will also be beautiful and inspiring. So, if a person wants to know, I ask them to take a moment to look at the big picture, to try to understand that I can't give an elevator pitch about the experience. I can't make definitive statements about the country as a whole and I certainly cannot provide one-word answers.
To my friends and family and everyone else that wants to know, I will respond each and every time, India was a lot of things. Let's talk about it.
For more information about The American Jewish World Service and Volunteer Corps, please visit: http://ajws.org.