Stories of Strength and Self-Assurance

Stories of Strength and Self-Assurance

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.

From the municipal dump, we went to a bustling SEWA production complex where women who work as rag pickers were busy learning a variety of paper-production skills — a way to exit their dangerous trade. The union has won a number of bulk contracts, such as production of file folders for the office supply giant Staples; we watched as the women hand-printed a silk-screened stamp bearing both the Staples and SEWA logos. Though such work might seem tedious, to these women it comes as a lifeline that allows them to leave the work of rag picking behind them forever.

For more than 30 years, SEWA’s primary work has been in helping the most impoverished women in India band together and fight for dignity; recognition; and the basic rights of health care, supplementary food for their families, and an education for their children. Women who roll cigarettes for sale on the street, sew piece-work clothing in their homes, or make the ubiquitous thin pancakes known here as papadam have found the strength of a union through SEWA.

In a nation in which women of any class are routinely silenced and abused, it was remarkable to listen to the voices of some of the most marginalized as they stood together and told their stories with an unmistakable air of inner power and self-assurance. We were so proud to learn that SEWA was the first partner of the UU Holdeen India Program, which has supported these women since 1984. We eagerly look forward to the next UUCSJ journey to India in November 2013, when we’ll bring another group to meet these women, document their stories, and be inspired by the depth of their courage.

The Familiar and the Foreign

The Familiar and the Foreign

The following post was written by Laney Ohmans, membership coordinator at the First Unitarian Society in Minneapolis and member of Unity Church Unitarian in St. Paul. She is currently taking part in a service-learning trip to explore justice for rural India with the UU Holdeen India Program.

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, to volunteer 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.

But when we made it to the Usgaon campus, I found that my face ached from smiling after an hour. I saw my former students and hundreds of repetitions of hokey pokey and “thank you, madam” and shared lunches and breakfasts and dinners came flooding back. I sat with my trip mates in meetings with activists from the Shramajeevi Sanghatana union and felt again the powerful force of their convictions and the clarity they brought to their struggle for justice in their block, district, city, and state. By the end of the trip I felt truly full of purpose again, renewed by the energy of the place, with every intention of keeping the part of myself that holds those memories close. I hope that she is never a stranger to me again.

On my way home, though, I feel I’m faced with a larger problem of recognition and connection. It’s easy to be resolute when everything around you seems so clear. When the distractions of your daily life are 15 hours away. When you’re surrounded by people who share your values and amplify them. What is difficult is to force yourself to be changed while everything around you remains as it has been. When I get back to the United States, all my jobs are waiting, as are my friends, my family, my car, my computer, my iPod, my gym membership, my favorite bar. How can I hold on to this feeling in the midst of all that familiar?

Clearly I don’t have the answer to this — if you do, please leave it for me in the comments! — but I did find one thing.  As I was writing this post, I searched for the Hammarskjöld quote I mentioned earlier. I know the first piece by heart because I often use it in our membership classes at First Unitarian Society. What I didn’t know was that there is a second stanza to the poem. After urging us to hold out the chalice of our being each day, Hammarskjöld reminds us that each day it must be held out empty. I’ll leave you with his words:

Each day the first day: each day a life.
Each morning we must hold out the chalice of our being
to receive, to carry, and give back.

It must be held out empty —
for the past must only be reflected
in its polish, its shape, its capacity.

The Proverbial Fire Hose of Experience

The Proverbial Fire Hose of Experience

The following post was written by Rev. Jay Leach, senior minister of the UU Church of Charlotte. He is currently taking part in a service-learning trip to explore justice for rural India with the UU Holdeen India Program.

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 Vidhayek 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 adavasi — 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.

The Power of Collective Action

The Power of Collective Action

The following post was written by Rev. Kathleen McTigue, director of the UU College of Social Justice (UUCSJ). She is currently coleading a service-learning trip to explore justice for rural India with the UU Holdeen India Program.

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.

Why We’re on the Ground in Rural India

The following post was written by Rev. Kathleen McTigue, director of the UU College of Social Justice (UUCSJ). She is currently coleading a service-learning trip to explore justice for rural India with the UU Holdeen India Program.

The first of our UUCSJ journeys to India is now under way! Eleven of us, from all over the United States, are gathered in Mumbai for a day of orientation to this region of India and to our partner organizations here. We’ll spend five days in Maharashtra, where the union Vidhayak Sansad is centered, and learn about their work over the past 30 years empowering tribal peoples to reclaim land that has been taken from them. We’ll also travel to Ahmedabad to meet with the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a union that has organized and empowered women who do piece work at home and work as street vendors. Both organizations are longtime partners of the UU Holdeen India Program.

There are several reasons for our pilgrimage to India. First, to learn from our Indian partner organizations about their important work empowering some of the most impoverished people in India to stand up for their rights to land and education. Second, to explore solidarity through this work, not only for the short duration of this journey but after our return to the United States, via work in our own regions and congregations. Third, as UUCSJ’s pilot delegation, we’re here to learn how a continuing program of exchange can mutually benefit our partners here and UUCSJ participants in pilgrimage, in the hope that we’ll send two delegations each year going forward. And fourth, we will further develop opportunities for long-term volunteers — especially young adults — who UUCSJ will help place with Vidhayak Sansad, SEWA, and other Holdeen partners for periods of 4–12 weeks.

It is a complicated political moment in India’s history. The country has been heavily impacted by the downturn in the global economy, and the stress of a slowing economy has brought issues of economic justice as well as political corruption to the forefront. We are immensely privileged to be guests here of the courageous people working for justice in India through Vidhayak Sansad and SEWA, and we’re looking forward to our time in this ancient, lovely, and complicated land.

To be alerted when our next trip with the UU Holdeen India Program is announced, please sign up to receive UUCSJ e-mail.


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