The other evening I found myself in the basement of the church I work at fabric painting a sign for our Harvest Festival. Crouched on a tiny blue chair meant for kids, I filled in letters and pumpkins, my own music gently playing in the background. Upstairs the Irish step dancing class was just starting and soon the sound of many small dancing girl’s feet was mixing with my John Legend flowing in and out of the basement classroom. It was a perfect coming together of things done, heard, and felt that don’t usually meet and mingle.
Sitting in the slight chaos of the classroom with a mix of Irish feet beats and music, reminded me and made me miss the elegant chaos and all the coming togethers of things not always matched in Mumbai. It made me miss the mornings I spent at the Sharanam Center where busily typing out curriculum, girls next to me sat studiously at computers placing pictures of their own faces on those of Bollywood actresses, while other girls braided each other’s hair prepping for school. Just like in all successful families there is a beautiful coming together of all parts at Sharanam.
A coming together of all parts, activities, and actions, that makes most people feel welcome and ready to settle in once they cross over the doorway stepping over what seems like a million small pairs of shoes. My favorite times there were of course when all the family was present, when all the family was overfilling the rooms and doorways. This family includes the woman who runs the programs with the utmost grace, passion, and organization, sitting in the small office while excited girls peep in crowding the doorway with stories of their days and tidbits about their lives that make everyone in the vicinity smile. In the next room more of the family sits in a schoolgirl clump, books and papers sprawled around presenting slight chaos to go with the chatter and laughing that comes with all the studying. In and out of the kitchen is a consistent bustle of tea making and two young women stand near by checking in with each other as a tray with water glasses moves between them. Someone is getting changed in the corner and pulling out their school uniform while another emerges from the bathroom towelling off their hair.
Holding much of the flow together is one of the other women that works and lives at the center, acting as mother, teacher, and confidant to all the girls. She calmly walks through the room commanding a presence that is both strong and kind. A music class starts in the midst of her stride and she smiles and pauses. Perhaps humming a few notes herself, she creates a lilt in the air that I believe all the girls can fully feel.
There are atmospheres where you can feel the people growing and changing. This feeling is most frequently found in schools, as is the case in the Sharanam Center, where so much teaching goes on. In the best places of learning, the new information, the new skills, are learned and affect everyone participating, not just the teachers, not just the students, but weave through the daily activities and learning in a way that affects, inspires, and impacts all involved. A learning that consistently holds everyone up and circles in and around everything and everyone that enters, stays, or resides in this area. A learning that is tied together by the pride, the love the girls have in each other and in the women that work with them, that love them.
I miss this, I miss being part of such a beautifully constructed, living, and thriving group of people that contains so much. That contains dances both spontaneous and practiced, that contains questions and concerns that are always most lovingly being addressed by all the staff and family members, that contains a diversity of rich and loving relationships that hold each other up. I miss being a part of this family. I miss being contained in those spontaneous dances, I miss being brought concerns, and I miss being part of a family that worked so well.
Every week I teach around 4 classes on U.S.A. history and culture. For the final week, we are reviewing the pieces of history we learned as well as dipping into, and answering questions on U.S. culture today. I have found that for me, a core part of what I want people to see and know about American culture is the way in which all different cultures come together in a crazy, often sporadic, eclectic, and creative way. The best parts of America for me are the parts made of many, the parts that show off a collaboration of the diversity, style, and combinations that that are America.
When constructing a lesson on a quick peek into American culture, I looked online at many videos, pulling together dances, eating contests, sesame street episodes, and songs about the fifty states. We watched middle school variety shows, college step contests, and large men eat hot dog after hot dog. Though all of these gave a view into American culture, none did it quite so well as the MIT version of the popular Korean song “Gangnam Style.” Firstly, this video is shot in Boston, so I was able to point out to them places I live and love, offering them a personal view into the America I know. Next, this video shows off a diversity of people. The video includes people of many races and cultures and even includes a pan over a large group of people doing an Indian dance.
The video while including students at a lab, college kids playing sports, and professors dancing also includes their beaver mascot dancing and of course…Noam Chomsky! While perhaps not the most typically richly educational, who could resist and who can complain about that piece of America that showcases an a Capella group, giant dancing beaver, students of all races dancing, and Noam Chomsky, all captured in a time frame of under five minutes? I for one clearly could not.
The auto rickshaw ride was always too long. To travel from Vasant Kunj to the slum of Jeevan Nagar in Delhi takes roughly thirty minutes. Thirty minutes is not bad for a commute, but thirty minutes jammed full of pollution, stop and go traffic, ridiculous and nonsensical moves by all vehicles involved, and auto flirtations with death, is too much. I often got out of my morning auto rickshaw ride damp with sweat, damp from rain, frustrated, hot, and tired. The center I worked at however, always took me in and chiseled that frustration right off. I worked at the Asha Health center in the middle of the Jeevan Nagar slum, a center that was a sanctuary, a haven, not just for me, but for the whole community it served. Staffed by two women and many Community Based Health volunteers, the center provides health services, guidance, classes, and a haven. I worked Monday through Friday teaching English, leading project-based justice workshops for youth and occasionally I ran community building workshops for the women’s group at the center.
I tend to take on the role of a development worker when in the context of working for social justice and change. I anxiously attempt to secure basic necessities and programming for those that lack them, feeling that my actions are less ministerial and more similar to those of an aid worker. An important part of instigating and sustaining change is working in this role, but the role of development worker differs greatly from that of a minister. Both crucial and important, but vastly different. For me, a minister’s role does not center on providing basic necessities such as water, health care, food, housing, or even education. The minister’s role, in the context of creating change, is to provide and establish the spaces people need to begin the change, the spaces that should be on a list for basic necessities. Spaces for dreaming, for quiet, for reflection, and for the type of sustenance normally not handed out by development workers. The sustenance not thought about in cooking stove projects or in water pump initiatives. The minister within development work, must work to develop this space, developing along with it room for communities to nurture the pride and creativity that will allow their change and dreams to grow. The minister should create a space where people and communities can dream, reflect, and find time for themselves in which they can garner pride, empowerment, and spiritual sustenance. The sustenance needed for dis-empowered communities to become truly self-sustaining in all they do and pursue.
Whether it be working with women in Malawi on a garden project or working with girls on leadership in India, I struggle with this role, the role as a change instigator through creating spaces. I often want to take on the tasks of a development worker and build the health center, house the children, and feed everyone. When, however, this summer, I experienced moments of developing spaces of ministry, I remembered how valuable the creation of these spaces is.
This summer I worked at two centers, one in the Jeevan Nagar slum of New Delhi and one in a Dharavi slum of Mumbai. In Delhi I organized project-based justice workshops for youth, guiding them in a process to understand justice more fully and empower them to pilot their own projects. I worked briefly with the women’s group affiliated with the center to develop community building workshops that created space for women to develop pride, value and protect their communities. I taught English and classes on the environment, but my memories of true “change instigation” were not times of workshops, curriculum, and class, but moments of ministry. Moments that were ministerial in their creation of spiritual sustenance. Moments when there were exchanges between people that caused shifts and inspired empowerment. Times when the woman I worked most closely with confided in me about her difficulties within her job. Times when the youth had not even started their projects yet, but felt empowered and excited to dream. Both instances, times of space creation, when I could see, feel, and touch a new space. A new space where a woman felt heard, listened to, and justified. A space where youth felt free to laugh and realize dreams for their parents, families, and communities, empowered to change.
Thinking on ministry and my time spent at Aasha and Asha I am continually grateful for both experiences. Throughout my work with Aasha and Asha I was both honored and privileged to better understand development work and my role in it. I am immensely grateful to all the young women at Aasha and all the students and volunteers at Asha who have inspired me and motivated me to continue opening up space to empower, instigate, and create change.
The sound of a rubber orange basketball hitting the pavement has a specific and satisfying sound. A sound that can only be described as a orange rubber ball hitting concrete. I have always thought basketball was a satisfying game. A game satisfying to watch, as though my height may hint at otherwise, I’m pretty bad at it. A satisfying fast paced sport filled with those sounds of sneakers and balls hitting the court, with a rhythm most sports, at least from my view, lack.
Some of the girls I work with take basketball lessons at the YMCA in the area in which I live. Globally, I have found YMCAs to have a pretty down to earth, wholesome, feel. The YMCA in Bandra has a feeling of wholesomeness that is exemplified by the thick rows of coconut and palm trees that line the outdoor basketball court and the full tree-provided canopy that shades the court and main building. These trees create, what I like to think of anyways, a bubble free from the normal Mumbai pollution. A bubble that contains the freshest of fresh coconut infused air for my little basketball players. Besides my fondness for the game and the relief of breathing coconut infused air, there is a third reason why I love bringing the girls to basketball.
I love being the one who takes them to this place I find wholesome, I love being the one of the ones to help them build their extra-curricular activities. I love being the one to bustle them into the car. I love being the one to buy them snacks and pop straws into their juice boxes. I love being their part-time soccer mom, or rather basketball mom.
These girls have tons of amazing people that see the girls as daughters, as sisters, loving them and consistently acting on that love. Perhaps this is why I feel honored to be able to, even just for a couple of hours, be one of their moms. To be one of the people that carves out constructive wholesome chunks of times for them to develop their basketball skills amongst that coconut air.
I also understand more now the want many mothers have to take their children to extra-curricular activities, or even the joy of taking them to school. There is something satisfying, good, and lovefulfilling to be the force behind at least attempting to enrich the lives of young children, to be the force that drops them off at a place where they learn, run, play, interact with other kids, and sip on mango juice next to those thick tree rows.
It is the same feeling I get when I feed people. The feeling of not only fulfilling a need that needs to be fulfilled, but fulfilling a need you also know and have. A need that you can both recognize and fulfill. A need that because of your own understanding ties you to some greater cycle. A cycle that allows you to feel connected in a world so often filled to the brim with disconnect.
And I do feel connected at basketball lessons. Connection when one of the girls waves and smiles after she finishes a series of sprints. Connected when a baby waiting with his mom for older siblings wanders over and gently touches my skirt. Connected when the mother smiles at both of us carefully watching that her baby does not grab my skirt. I feel connected when I bring them back home. Back home after lecturing them about why they should not throw their plastic straw sleeves on the ground. Back home after potato chips and pineapple juice, back home after a car ride full of Lootera and Chennai Express sing-a-alongs, back home to more loving mothers. Back home to their ever expansive and connected family that consistently is feeding and caring for each other whether it be on the YMCA grounds, the tidily swept tiled floors of the Sharanam Centre, or anywhere else.
When I was little my mom for one of my birthdays made a cake with a Barbie doll stuck in a conical shaped cake that served as her skirt. For whatever reason, Barbie and her cake skirt have recently reappeared with force in my life. At the beginning of this school year I was invited to a potluck in which the food theme was supposed to be a comfort food or a food that reminds one of home. I constructed a Barbie cake, her plastic torso covered carefully and tastefully in frosting, her legs disappearing in vanilla cake. This cake was requested for a second potluck, putting my Barbie cake count at two per year though the second one was actually a Barbie knock-off purchased at a dollar store due to financial restrictions.
The other day I almost logged a third Barbie with cake skirt for 2012/2013. This Saturday, in celebration of a young woman’s birthday at the center and mine, I am hosting a princess party at the center. It seemed appropriate to order a Barbie princess cake, assuming I could find a Indian Barbie doll. I began inquiries at the bakeries of Bandra West area. All of them had a wide array of princess cakes I could order and a wide array of Barbie doll cakes I could order. They all looked delicious and were all beautiful in that princessy way. They were all, however, all white princesses, all white dolls. In all of the thick binders of their wide selections of cake, all the princess, all the faces that appeared, were white. I asked again and again if they could replace the white doll with a brown doll. “No,” they said, “We will not be able to find a brown doll.” Finally I did find a bakery where they said they would a Indian princess, they would make her skin brown.
A brown that is different from my white skin tone, my white skin that has allowed me to move with ease and mobility in a world where I am afforded privilege just based on my whiteness. A skin tone that allowed me to never worry if my skin tone was beautiful or not, as clearly any skin tone donned by most princesses I saw, the ones on cake, and the ones in castles, was beautiful. No wonder these girls struggle to see the beauty in their skin tone, even the tiny women imitations put on cake are white.
There is no loft at the “Art Loft” in Bandra. Regardless of the slightly disappointing lack of loft, the space was filled yesterday with college girls sipping lime water and defining justice, discussing leadership, and chatting about the future.
Yesterday my friend and I led our second workshop in the newly entitled “The Empowered Advocate Initiative.” We hosted two groups at the “loftless” Art Loft defining vocabulary for the future sessions, leading activities where they discussed the areas of leadership they wish to improve upon, and participating in one-on-one meetings to create plans and next steps to take in the upcoming months.
Sitting in an outside structure with a plastic cover on the top, my friend and I took our young women leaders out of the workshop one by one to sit with us and our coffee as the rain hit the roof and enclosed us in monsoon. A lot of the young women talked about having confidence when asked what skills they wished to obtain or improve upon. Many expressed a similar sentiment of feeling they would gain confidence in themselves after they felt more competent in the skills they wished to have. They talked about having confidence in themselves once they could speak English well, once they passed their exams, once they felt they had enough knowledge in a certain field.
In my experience, this view, at least for young women and often older woman is commonly held. The view, the idea, that one is not worth it, not good enough until they have done something of worth, until they know something of worth, until they have completed enough acts of worth and good. Maybe this sometimes extends to men, but again at least in my experience, it is women, it is girls who doubt their own worth and can only see it when they have proven it to themselves and have had it commended and approved by others.
Part of the session involved the participants talking to partners about if they felt they were leaders. So much of the conversation often started with “I will be a leader when…” I scrunched up my face and would say “What about now?” and they would laugh and say “yes, Didi, now.” I then made them go around the room saying “I am a leader.” They smiled and continued on with the workshop and I wondered how much they felt they were leaders, how much did they actually recognize their worth, how much did they take their own words with seriousness especially when I may or may not have followed up my request with the statement of: “I need you all to become leaders and save the world so I can concentrate more on pursuing a husband.” I know, or I felt a lot of them did really see their own worth and expressed it through their actions, words, and presence. Some of the them however, I feel, do not fully see themselves as worthy, myself often included. I find that I am also one of those women who believes that my worth in a way lies outside myself and can only be truly realized when commended by others through my actions and pursuits.
This is not what the world needs right now. The world needs more leaders, more women leaders, more leaders who are smart, grounded, creative, idealistic, driven, and passionate. All qualities that these young women possess. Leaders who do not necessarily have to lead large groups or causes, just leaders who protect and defend what they value, including their worth. A worth that for some is hard to see, but a worth all will benefit from when the women that don’t see it, take the responsibility, take the courage to know it.
Whenever I take a group of girls to the dentist, the orthodontist, or the eye doctor, we conclude the outing with a snack at various nearby restaurants. They all order different things filling the table with fried rice, plain dosas set up as cones on the plate, neat metal trays of pani puri, cheese pizzas, noodles, and on occasion a paper dosa that stretches the length of the table creating widespread smiles and smirks coupled with head shaking.
From the beginning of our outings, when we first visited Amrut Sagar, all the girls offered me their food, tearing off dosa, giving me spoonfuls of rice, constantly and sweetly saying “didi, try.” I did of course, but they would never take my food much to my disappointment…until the other day. After being made fun of by all of them for legitimately drinking all six cups of water at the table, the young girl beside me offered me some of her pav bhaji, a buttery roll that you dip in a tomato based sauce. My masala dosa was the next thing to come, and I halfheartedly spun the plate, saying “have some,” not expecting to be included fully on the ritual I so badly wanted to be a part of. This time, though, they did. All of a sudden my dosa was getting smaller and smaller as small hands ripped it apart hungrily, filling themselves in part with my dosa. I smiled went in for my seventh glass of water and felt part of the table family. The family where no one’s food is there own, and all food is for all. Where my dosa is your dosa and your pav is my pav.
They lean out of the train doors sometimes for lack of space within the train, sometimes for a quick positioning and efficient escape once the train pulls into the platform and sometimes just because. The train passengers lean out of the doorways in such large numbers at every doorway that it looks as if the train has developed new features and fixtures at every car door. They fan out with saris at the women’s cars and black and brown pointed shoes at the men’s. When its not rush hour these human fixtures are reduced to just a few individuals fanning out, allowing themselves to be people sized fans both waving and wavering in the thick Mumbai air.
At the center I work at I often help out by accompanying the girls to various appointments. Helping to check off a few items off the organizations long list of doctors and dentist visits that need to happen. Usually I take a bunch of girls, but on this particular day I only had one girl with me, one of the few girls that doesn’t mind traveling without an age-mate or friend. She and I got on the train ready to go to her dentist appointment. It was in the middle of the day so not too many people filled the train and it sported no rush hour fixtures of people, saris, and shoes. This girl and I however, took the opportunity to stand by the door leaning out slightly allowing ourselves to be train flags, letting our heads duck out of the train interior as we firmly stood and gripped the pole safe, yet flirting with the realm of outside train air.
There are times when in a car, or on a bike, train, or even subway that I find not only meditative moments, but moments where you actually feel more could be possible than you normally do. I think it has something to do with being in motion yet not feeling compelled to do anything in that moment. I feel this state allows my mind to let go, to feel I am still part of a productive action of getting some place, though I do not, in the moment have to do anything to get there. A created moment where all one has to do is lean slightly out of a train and feel anything is possible.
Many people talk about what countries need to develop, what kids who have been in tough situations need to grow, to become strong and empowered. A lot of these conversations end up caught in discussions of the need for basic necessities that “Developing” countries and communities often lack. The necessities that are often lacking in a community like a slum. Conversations about access to clean water, good healthcare, healthy food, safe homes, and quality education. While these of course are always needed and required, I find a crucial part of development, of empowerment is consciously making room for dreams, consciously making spaces where people can feel the freedom to believe anything is possible.
I know that emphasizing dreams as a part of development seems naive, overly idealistic, and just plain not realistic or useful. But I do believe that when people are given the space to dream, they not only build up creative and critical thinking skills, useful in the world of development, but they also develop pride and create inventive spaces of possibility, spaces of productive self-reliance, spaces where their own problems can be solved in innovative and truly self-sustaining ways.
When this young girl and I rode the train, I did not ask her if she felt the same way I did, if she felt those small pieces of freedom and possibility blown in by rain laden Indian wind. But I do know that we were both comfortable with the silence between us as we both were spaced out and looking off beyond trains, train stations, and the polluted water that ran under the tracks. For all I know she was thinking about her upcoming trip to the dentist, or maybe thinking about the chicken sandwich she usually gets from the bakery near the dental office. Maybe, though, she was also dreaming, and as that polluted, turbulent brown water rushed under the tracks, the train, and our toes, maybe she was making space for dreams that will develop. Maybe we were both dreaming Dharavi dreams and dreams of Dharavi, just maybe.
It felt as if I was stepping into an Austen Power’s airplane turned coffee shop. Dark reds, 1960’s designs, and themes, packed the space with smooth curvy chairs, green and yellow flower-shaped cushions and of course a bar in the back. Giving off that moody feel to help clients feel “groovy,” the morning customers sat at long booths or on the curvy white chairs resting their feet on the black and white tiled floor. It wasn’t loud at first, but then the music started, confusing ideas of morning coffee shop with a small 60’s themed dance club.
The noise. The world often makes a lot of noise and Mumbai certainly has snatched her share. Filling her city with it, the sounds come out through rickshaws, crowds, people, honking, and the general chatter and yelling of a city. When frustrated with the amount of noise, the amount of sound that threatens to fill me up, I think about how usually the world does want to listen, there is often just too much sound. Too much sound to use your normal voice, too much noise to just talk. If one wants the world to listen, they have to speak up, and speak out.
Mocha Mojo is a coffee shop surrounded by and filled with noise along with its 1960’s décor. It was here that a colleague and I decided to host our first workshop in the series “Activate the Leader,” a series of workshops and gatherings meant to help young women harness the leadership skills they already have and become strong advocates for themselves, their views, ideas, and dreams. First days, first classes, are often rough, but this one was complicated by the distraction of a loud and bustling eatery. The participants were all crammed into an odd assortment of “groovy” and “funky” furniture as they ate pancakes, omlettes, and French fries leaning in to hear as I talked about developing leadership through pursuing immediate and future goals.
There was an air of frustration throughout the session as I tried to talk over the odd choice of morning electronic music and the girls crammed together trying to hear and understand my English. At the end of the session when we had the participants evaluate it, they of course all suggested a different locale for next time. Though it was frustrating to start off in a way that wasn’t entirely successful, maybe in a way it was ok, and maybe even appropriate. Part of the goal of this series is to prompt the young women to use the voice they already have and to stand up with their voice and speak out with the articulateness, confidence, and grace that all their words and ideas deserve.
In order to develop this voice they will have to learn to speak up. They will have to have faith that the world is listening even when there is a lot of noise. They will have to learn that it is worthwhile and courageous to continue speaking even when the frustration of the noise seems unbearable, even when the noise seems that it will not let up. They will have to learn how to make their voice rise above the noise or sneak in between the noise, creating spaces within the congestion, creating spaces within noise pollution, creating spaces that are needed that are required in building change that goes beyond the noise. A space that can transcend and transform the nosiest of places, that can transform all the mixed up Austen Power themed eateries.