As a group of 12 young, professional women we arrived in Bikharipurwa village outside of Lucknow to volunteer for one day. Roughly 200 of the Scheduled Castes (Dalits), the lowest castes in India, live there. The day had been arranged by Sahbhagi Shikshan Kendra (SSK), an organization working to empower economically impoverished communities by promoting their participation in self governance and positive social change. In contrast to more remote villages, Bikharipurwa had access to water through pumps but they had no working drainage system. In June 2012 SSK had coordinated a group of AJWS (American Jewish World Service) volunteers to stay and work in the village for six weeks. They installed new drains, maintained the road and worked on the school house. When we arrived for a two day visit, I felt like we “parachuted in” just to maintain the groundwork. We smoothed over the school yard, laid bricks and planted trees. The village had asked for these minor things. In a few months another volunteer group was coming for 10 days to help them with more work. By the end of the day I began to see how our day of manual labour was actually part of a bigger picture. I began to understand how connected we were to the group before us in the hearts and memories of the people who lived there. We maintained their connections and hard work as well as smoothing the ground for the next set of volunteers to come.
Wearing Northface and Lucy style travel pants and cozy long sleeved shirts, our early morning conversations revolved around when to take Pepto Bismal or Imodium and using bug spray. By the end of the day, our conversation shifted to whether doing manual labour for one day was benefiting the villagers or whether we were just patting ourselves on the back trying to feel good. As we sat around a conference table with the SSK staff after we left the village, I began thinking about this idea of “parachuting in”. I recalled how each day after visiting AJWS partners, hearing their personal stories of courage and strength while facing, discrimination, poverty and even abuse, we’d find ourselves back in our comfortable air conditioned bus. At times I spaced out, staring out the window as neighbourhood after neighbourhood of slums, naakas (central meeting points were people can be recognized as day labour and pick up work), cows and water buffalo passed by. Those street scenes felt like movie sets. I experienced a disconnect between my perception of how I feel about my life and the way of life in India. ” Productive Discomfort” is the jargon AJWS uses to describe the feeling. It means we’re uncomfortable with what we see and don’t know how to react. Most days after meeting with an AJWS partner we would talk about this as a group. What could we do with the discomfort and questions that came from these meeting? Did we have unrealistic expectations that we could make a positive impact after such a brief encounter?
When we arrived at Bikharipurwa we were given the warmest welcome, as if we were honoured guests. Little kids ran up to us yelling, ” Alanna! Alanna!”, and we were all confused why they were so excited to see our lovely Alanna. She was a celebrity. Then someone explained that in the last volunteer group a there was an Alana and she became like a daughter to some of the elder woman in the village. They cried when she left. Everyone assumed that because we were from AJWS, we knew their friends. They were excited to see us because of their perception that we were connected to those people they loved and trusted. If we were friends with them, we must be good people.
Sunita, our AJWS India country representative explained some of the social nuances and changes she noticed that day. With her wide, warm smile and her voice of years of experience she explained that even the moment when one of the elder woman from a higher caste joined everyone for lunch and sat with “the lower castes”because of foreign visitors, was a subtle yet significant shift. She described the attitudes people held that certain jobs were for the “lower castes”, such as cleaning drains. Seeing foreigners come and do menial jobs happily was creating a shift. Little by little attitudes were changing and people were feeling more empowered to maintain the drain system their American friends had installed, or sit and have lunch with the whole community when visitors came. She gave us a small insight into the long and difficult process of creating social change in India. It made me think how much we’re all connected and that showing up for one day, when it supports Sunita and SSK’s long term goals, was valuable. I left feeling respect and admiration for the change we were all creating, very slowly, very methodically, one day at a time, one activist group at a time.