The following post was written by Rev. Kathleen McTigue, director of the UU College of Social Justice (UUCSJ). She just finished coleading a service-learning trip to explore justice for rural India with the UU Holdeen India Program.
Our delegation just traveled to India’s western state of Gujarat, where we spent the day on Friday with the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a UU Holdeen India Program partner.
Though we had read about SEWA’s work empowering some of India’s most impoverished women, nothing could have prepared us for the morning we spent with the rag pickers. We met with these workers in the place they labor each day: the municipal garbage dump of Ahmedabad, where they pick through fresh mounds of trash to glean the scraps of plastic, paper, and cloth that can still be sold for recycling. Standing high atop the literal mountains of garbage that stretched out on every side, we listened to the women talk about their lives and the difference it has made to have a union that helps them fight for their rights.
We heard Jasiben describe the ways she and her coworkers had been preyed upon by people who buy their gleanings — and how that changed when SEWA opened a competing scrap-buying stall that caters only to women. This stall actually paid market rates for their collections and forced others to raise their prices as well. We learned of SEWA’s tireless efforts to press the government to provide an education to the children of the rag pickers so that the next generation can find alternative employment and an easier life. Epitomizing the end of this particular cycle of poverty, Jasiben’s face shone with pride as she told us that her own daughter has just entered her first year of university. (more…)
Of all the things I’d imagined would seem welcoming about my return trip to India, the smell of the Mumbai airport had not been one of them. As soon I stepped out of the plane, though, there it was: a thick bank of turmeric and musk and damp. I felt a mix of recognition and surprise, of the familiar and the foreign, that would follow me through my time here.
Four years ago I came to India on a similar quest from my home congregation, Unity Church, tovolunteer for two months as an English teacher in the school run by Vidhayak Sansad (VS), a Holdeen partner in rural India. This trip was a return to the familiar VS campus with a service-learning group of 10 Unitarian Universalists, all connected through the UU College of Social Justice. I had initially agreed to the trip — a gift from my minister, who realized at the last moment that she would be unable to go — with no hesitation. As the departure date ticked closer, though, I grew more and more uncomfortable.
I’d returned from my initial time in Usgaon overflowing with admiration for the work of our Holdeen partner, ready to offer, as Dag Hammarskjöld says, “the chalice of [my] being to receive, to carry, and to give back.” Four years had passed since that trip, however, and in the interim I felt that my chalice had slowly emptied. The realities of my life had seemed much more pressing and had demanded so much of my attention. I’d lost pieces of that passion in the struggle to find a job, find a new job, find another job, balance three jobs, finish my bachelor’s degree, move to a new city. I worried that the girl who had gone to Usgaon years ago had become a stranger to me, and that my life would seem completely foreign to her. (more…)
Since disembarking from our plane in the Mumbai airport last Saturday evening, it feels as if I have been trying to drink from the proverbial fire hose of experience. The flow of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings, and thoughts is at a rate that is completely impossible to imagine, must less take in.
From the seaside of one of the world’s immense cities, we came here, to the modest, bustling campus of Vidhayak Sansad, the center of such astounding activity in this area of such astounding need and opportunity. We were greeted at the gates by a procession of over 200 tribal schoolgirls clad in navy blue and white, and they enthusiastically paraded us in a pulsing procession to this remarkable place.
We’ve been learning from local tribal activists — union leaders — who have unpacked accounts of their decades of work. The depth of their clarity, conviction, and commitment easily transcends the barrier of language, which often requires translation from Marati, the state language, into Hindi, the national tongue, before making its way into English. Their accounts are of creative, powerful, often clever, and always strategic efforts to lift themselves and their people out of a complex web of oppression and exploitation.
Yesterday included a visit to a nearby small village where a centuries-old Hindu temple rises like a fortress above the swarm of the street. We were there not just to see that spectacle but to hear from other union activists about their work in organizing the temple staff to demand fair wages. Their actions included a hunger strike staged on the steep steps leading up to the temple. They also chose not to discard (as was their responsibility) the mounds of marigolds offered in homage to the deity but to fill the offices of the trust officials who employed them with the wilting blooms until the trustees agreed to negotiate.
The needs of the so-called adivasi — the “first people,” whose legal rights to these lands have been so abused — are as foreign as so much we’re encountering and as familiar as all struggles for justice and equity in which the members of our delegation are engaged. Our learning — and my learning — is taking place at the intersection of this way of strategizing for change and our individual and congregational efforts to work with immigrants, the economically deprived, the homeless, the incarcerated, and all those deprived of full equality and adequate opportunity.
Our learning continues, today with more activists, tomorrow in excursions into outlying villages to observe and document what we experience and understand about the work of these courageous agents of creative change. I’m profoundly grateful to be having this experience and look forward to unpacking it and exploring aspects of it with my congregation in the coming days, weeks, months, and years.
Cross-posted from the UU College of Social Justice blog.
On Tuesday we traveled from Mumbai to Usgaon, the village where partner organization Vidhayak Sansad is based and where it has organized a school for 254 tribal girls from 5 to 18 years old. We received an unforgettable welcome from the children, who had gathered at the gates to meet us. They offered each of us a traditional blessing, anointing our brows with yellow and red powder and greeting us with the words that mean, “I greet the light of the god within you.” Accompanied by drums, the girls then danced up the pathway and led us to the main center, where we learned about the power of collective action in rural India.
Vidhayak Sansad is a key partner of the UU Holdeen India program. We were privileged to meet throughout the afternoon with nearly a dozen women and men who are major leaders of the union associated with Vidhayak Sansad. Nearly all of them are adivasi, or tribal people, who still have to struggle and often risk grave violence in order to secure their most basic rights. Some of the leaders we met were among those who had been bonded laborers before the birth of the union in 1983.
Though it seems unthinkable in this modern era, the entrenched systems of power and privilege in rural India have made it frighteningly easy for the equivalent of slavery to persist. In so many areas, the laws that were meant to protect the adivasi people and their rights to land and water have been ignored; more powerful farmers from higher castes simply took the land and began planting it, hiring back the former owners for well below minimum wages.
The adivasis have undertaken recent efforts to recover land and water that has been stolen from them and, in some cases, to insist on minimum wage. Women play a key role in these struggles, and gender equality is one of the union’s principles.
Vidyulata Pandit, who founded the union with her husband, Vivek, and a group of former bonded laborers, lifted up a vivid example for us of the way women’s empowerment is linked to the entire struggle for justice. A meeting had been called to convince the workers that they had the right under the law to stand up and demand the landlord pay them the minimum wage (at the time the men were being paid 4 rupees a day and women just 3, but they were all legally entitled to 7). Both women and men attended the meeting but, as has been traditional, the women kept silent and only the men spoke. The men were unwilling to act, saying that nothing really could be done.
The meeting ran late into the night with no progress made, and then just as it was breaking up one woman finally stood and found her voice. Turning to the men of the village, she said, “You’re always saying that the men are the brave ones that have to go out there in the world and the women must keep silent and stay home. We have just heard of the way to find our freedom. If you men are afraid to do it, then take these bangles from my wrists, wear them yourselves, and go home!” Other women then stood with her, and the women walked out of the meeting and led a march — joined finally by the men — around the landlord’s home demanding fair pay. The next day a spontaneous strike began. The landlord buckled after two weeks and agreed to pay all farm workers the minimum wage.
This is just one of the dozen moving stories we have heard from people whose lives have been so changed by the power of collective action. We are deeply inspired by what we’ve heard and are so privileged to be among them.
Cross-posted from the UU College of Social Justice blog.
The UU Holdeen India Program (UUHIP) is a powerful expression of Unitarian Universalism’s commitment to social justice. Since 1984, UUHIP has supported organizations of India’s most vulnerable groups as they seek to advance empowerment and promote equity. It is committed to enabling these groups to transform their social and economic conditions in directions of their own choosing.
Derek Mitchell, Director of UUHIP, will be on a trip to the United States this summer to share stories of social transformation at the grassroots level in India. His travels will take him to the following UU congregations:
Derek will speak about the challenges UUHIP partners face in opposing injustice and their groundbreaking achievements. His captivating accounts of social change carry lessons for those seeking justice anywhere in the world.
He will also conduct a workshop on the strategies UUHIP partners pursue to inspire change in India. The workshop will explore the historical and theoretical roots of these strategies, what has worked most effectively, and how the changing scenario in a globalizing India may affect future struggles. He will conclude with a dialogue on how UUHIP partners and Unitarian Universalists in the United States can work more closely together to promote social justice at home and abroad.
In keeping with a historied tradition of honoring individuals who have had a transformative impact on society, Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study bestowed this year’s Radcliffe Institute Medal upon Ela Bhatt, founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a UU Holdeen India Program partner.
“The definition of leader in SEWA is one who helps make others lead,” said Radcliffe Institute Dean Barbara J. Grosz, quoting Bhatt during her introductory remarks on Radcliffe Day, which took place May 27th.
With a legacy of leading and creating leaders, Bhatt certainly fits the bill.
Empowering over 1.3 million marginalized women in India since 1972, SEWA, under Bhatt’s leadership, has created a social justice movement that’s challenging and changing the very fabric of Indian society, believing that “it is from the margins that real transformation comes to the center.” With its origins as a women’s trade union, SEWA has steadily developed into a self-governed NGO, offering assistance in the form of microlending, health and life insurance, and child care to its members.
“The Radcliffe Institute is proud to honor [Bhatt] this year, in which gender in the developing world is one of its dominant themes,” the Institute said. The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University is a scholarly community where individuals pursue advanced work across a wide range of academic disciplines, professions and creative arts, with sustained commitment to the study of women, gender, and society.
Over the years, Bhatt has been internationally recognized for her incredible social justice work. Last November, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton honored Bhatt with the Global Fairness Initiative Award; Bhatt was also the 2010 honoree of the Niwano Peace Prize.
It isn’t as though I have not seen poverty before. I saw it growing up in San Antonio. I have seen it in American cities and rural poverty in the deep South, in Latin America, the Philippines, and elsewhere.
Yet I was not prepared for the salt pan workers. Even the photos cannot do this justice. We drive across featureless dried mud for miles. Around us there is an endless expanse of perfectly flat, perfectly brown nothingness. I am wishing I had a GPS unit and had “dropped a pin” at the start, for I have no idea where we are or how we could possibly find our way back. We pass some wild asses along the way and wonder what they eat out here.
Finally we arrive at the camp. We get a tour of the well, the pump, and what look like rice paddies with white salt at the bottom of a few inches of brine. The salt workers camp out here for six to eight months. Entire families come. They walk out here, carrying what they will need. The season begins with women smoothing out the bottom of the salt paddies with their bare feet. We learn that their feet have absorbed so much salt that when they die and are cremated their feet don’t burn.
OK. I was prepared to see some rough conditions. What really got to me was when we sat having tea and bread squatted on the tent floor. Ready for the big shock? Here it is: They love this! And they are not faking it. Their faces light up when they talk of finally marching out here, carrying all what they will need for the season. The children are happy (children can’t fake this).
For me this would be life in hell. Nothing green in sight (and I mean nothing) for miles. Living in a small tent in a desert. No electricity. Hard work all day. And they love it.
They love it because here they are free. They set their own pace. They have no overseer. In the village they are Dalits, “untouchables.” They are dehumanized every day. I realize that I take so many freedoms for granted. These untouchables are happy to endure enormous hardship for a small taste of freedom.
Here, in the desert of Gujarat, freedom tastes like salt.
Rev. Morales is on a two-week journey across India to meet with human rights partners.