Justice for Workers and Marginalized Communities in India

UU Holdeen India Program

Five years ago, UUCSJ participant Laney Ohmans volunteered for two months as an English teacher at Vidhayak Sansad’s school. Here with our delegation, she re-learns some of her Marathi vocabulary with multiple patient teachers. View the entire slideshow on Flickr.
UUCSJ co-leader Mahesh Upadhyaya receives a blessing from the priest at the ancient sacred site we visited near Usgaon. View the entire slideshow on Flickr.
UUCSJ Director Kathleen McTigue with Hindavi, one of the Vidhayak Sansad organizers. View the entire slideshow on Flickr.
Leslie Runnels is greeted at one of the SEWA facilities designed to support self-employed women from a variety of trades. View the entire slideshow on Flickr.
The human right to water was a central theme of our visit to the small villages several hours outside of Mumbai. View the entire slideshow on Flickr.
A woman sifts through threshed grain, near Denganmal. View the entire slideshow on Flickr.
On the last evening of our one-week stay with the union organizers and the school at Vidhayak Sansad, we participated in a gala celebration with performances from both UUCSJ participants and from the students. Here, the girls wait for the festivities to begin. View the entire slideshow on Flickr.

Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, India

This congregational trip to India takes in January, 2015. Participants will explore the work of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in the central state of Madhya Pradesh and Vidhayak Sansad in Maharashtra. These organizations are among the oldest partners of the Unitarian Universalist Holdeen India Program (UUHIP). The trip will take participants to Vidhayak Sansad’s center in a verdant valley 50 miles outside of Mumbai. This center is home to a training center for activists advocating for social justice in India’s state of Maharashtra and a residential school for over 200 tribal girls. Participants will interact with students, shadow activists, and exchange stories and strategies of social change.  In neighboring Madhya Pradesh, we will visit the state’s member organization of SEWA. The SEWA movement, spread across India, organizes impoverished working women to secure sustainable livelihoods and social empowerment. It is considered one of the world’s preeminent women’s organizations.

UUHIP and UUCSJ will work with your congregation to craft an itinerary that meets the needs of our partners in India and your group. We are looking for congregations that have an established social justice ministry that would benefit from working and learning alongside grassroots Indian justice organizations.


In preparation for your journey to India we ask you to use the Study Guide for Cross Cultural Engagement available on our website. In addition, please read the books annotated below. Each Unit of our Study Guide includes a discussion outline for use in a Learning Circle, to help you “unpack” these resources. We hope that within or outside of your church you can form such a circle in order to reflect with others on what you’re learning.

We realize that your time is limited and precious, and that this may seem a great deal of preparation.  We are confident that your time in India will be of immense value to you in proportion to how well you understand what you see, hear and experience there. The resources we recommend will give you a great start!

UUCSJ’s Study Guide, a resource for cross-cultural engagement
The Study Guide consists of eight units, of which six are designed for use before you travel.

In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India, by Edward Luce
This is available in paperback and is a clear, concise and straightforward introduction to modern India. Though we recommend the full book, the most essential chapters are the Introduction through Chapter 4.

We Are Poor But So Many: The Story of Self-Employed Women in India, by Ela R. Bhatt (available directly from UUCSJ on request, $15 including shipping)
Ela Bhatt is the founder of SEWA (the Self-Employed Women’s Association), a key partner of the UUA Holdeen India Program and one of the most effective women’s rights organizations in India. This account is filled with personal stories and offers a vivid understanding of why such an organization is so profoundly needed. Though we recommend the full book, the most essential chapters are the Introduction and Chapters 1, 4, 9 and 10.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo
Winner of the 2012 National Book Award for Nonfiction, this book is a beautifully written glimpse into the reality of the immense unofficial communities that exist as the “undercities” throughout Indian urban communities.

Our Partners

The UU Holdeen India Program

The UU Holdeen India Program (UUHIP) is a powerful expression of Unitarian Universalist values in action. Since 1984, UUHIP has been partnering with grassroots organizations in India to support their work for social justice, equity, and dignity. Their groundbreaking achievements have brought hope and empowerment to millions. Rev. Meg Riley has said, “In my opinion, the Holdeen India Program has done the most effective work for social justice in the history of Unitarian Universalism.”

Vidhayak Sansad

Vidhayak Sansad (VS) was established in 1979 to support the development of marginalized communities in rural Maharashtra. The organization’s programs and campaigns emphasize universal education; women’s empowerment; training in advocacy; and economic development. Its work strives to advance the development of self-reliance and empowerment among the rural poor alongside facilitating effective government interventions.


Since 1972, the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) has been organizing impoverished working women to secure their dignity and a fair livelihood. SEWA’s members labor in the informal, unregulated sectors of India’s economy—the seamstresses, embroiderers, scrap collectors, street vendors, agricultural laborers, and others who drive the country’s economy but face often severe poverty. SEWA organizes these women to ensure secure and stable working conditions and fair wages; access to government anti-poverty programs and banking, health and other services through community-run cooperatives. Most importantly, SEWA is a sisterhood that offers solidarity and support for impoverished working women. From SEWA’s beginnings in Gujarat, it has now spread across nine states of India and has a membership of nearly two million women. It is widely acclaimed as one of the most effective institutions working to relieve poverty and build empowerment in India.