A Year in Review: Archana Reddy, Indicorps 2010 Fellow, Looks Back at Her Year in India through Indicorps
Thinking now about why I wanted to do the Indicorps fellowship feels like trying to remember something from a past life. It’s a bit hazy and very diluted by what the year would eventually become. I remember that I wanted to challenge myself, I wanted to do service, and more than anything, I wanted to resolve a growing disconnect I felt between myself and India. India was not so much of a choice as a pull that I was finally surrendering to.
Indicorps appealed to me because of its emphasis on personal transformation as an integral part of service. The application process itself was a testament to that; it was an exhaustive experience that forced me to delve deeper than I ever had, a small taste of what the year would bring. Indicorps’ structured approach to service also attracted me; I was applying to work with a specific NGO on a specific defined project–this much structure was a lifebuoy that I latched onto in the chaotic sea of service opportunities in India. I anticipated that India might weaken that structure, but had little idea exactly how much.
I came to India two months before Indicorps orientation to get a head start on learning Telugu, the language I would be speaking at my project site. Telugu is my mother tongue, but I had long since lost the ability to speak it after moving away from India at a young age; re-learning it was a central reason for why I wanted to come back.
The fellowship is a three-way partnership between the fellow, Indicorps, and a local partner organization that works on development issues at the very grassroots level. I was excited to be going back to the state of my ancestry; I was partnered with Rakshana, a leading rural development organization in coastal Andhra Pradesh.
In August, I arrived at orientation in Gujarat with few expectations. But Indicorps still managed to tear them apart, re-molding my outlook on service and re-introducing me to India in a way I had never seen it. I also learned about the Indicorps philosophy, which at the time seemed like a collection of catchphrases like ‘sustainable empowerment’ and ‘community immersion’ which sounded very nice but held little meaning for me. However, over the course of the year, every aspect of this philosophy would resonate with me.
By mid-September, I was on my way to my project site, unsure of what was to come but full of a year’s worth of food for thought. As I drew nearer to my project site on the twenty-eight hour train journey from Ahmedabad, I began to take notice of what was rushing past me through the train windows. I saw vast tobacco fields, palm trees, and began to smell salt in the air as the landscape became wetter and more lush. I was nearing the eastern coast, bordering the Bay of Bengal. The people who dotted the landscape, cutting tobacco or fishing in swampy ponds, would form the backbone of the communities I would be living and working in.
Based in the small coastal town of Chirala, Rakshana works on a holistic range of development issues in villages composed mostly of scheduled caste and other economically disadvantaged communities. The villagers in these areas are mainly agricultural workers, fishermen, weavers, and laborers. Their jobs are seasonal and very vulnerable to fluctuations in the climate and market, creating unstable financial situations. Poverty is often only an emergency away or is a very painful reality. Children of these communities, depending on their family’s financial status, attend private school, local government schools, or no school at all; child labor is a serious issue.
One of Rakshana’s many ongoing projects during my fellowship year was the Supplementary Education Centers. The twenty-five centers, located in twenty-five different villages, are geared towards government schoolchildren and child laborers in villages surrounding Chirala, aiming to promote and enhance primary education. They are held in the evenings at government schools, as a free after school educational service for all students from first to fifth standard. The centers especially welcome girls who might otherwise not attend school. The teachers themselves are members of the local village communities and are charged with bringing students up to educational standards, filling the gaps left by the less-than-satisfactory government school system, and engaging with the community to promote education for dropout and working children.
The teachers’ qualifications and experience ranged widely, from no teaching background at all to completion of degrees in education. However, degrees in education often were not much help to the children they were teaching. Education, the way it is approached in rural India, even in one of the higher-performing states like Andhra Pradesh, is stuck in a decades-old rut.
Rote memorization is a standard fixture. Education works like a factory; it tries to fill students with facts and knowledge, churning out marks and exam scores. In this antiquated system, government schools are at the bottom of the heap. It is common to see students sitting in straight rows and being told to copy sentences repeatedly in their notebooks in lines that are just as straight, a task that is often given as a punishment in the West. The after-school Supplementary Education Centers were not much better off. Having grown up with this style of teaching, it was all most teachers knew.
My role was to fill that gap, by providing a basic continuing training curriculum for the teachers. Armed with little experience and no degree or formal training in education, I initially felt overwhelmed by the task ahead of me. For a while I observed and helped the teachers in their centers, caught in the headlights of the glaring problems. But I had to learn that it was not my job to ‘fix’ everything; my own perspective of education was based on what I had learned going to school in the states. I had to let go of the notion that a school in India should look the same, and instead look for what these students actually needed from a school.
This realization led me to a year-long search for what education should really be about, something I still don’t have the answer to. I did know that education should be less about learning facts than about learning how to think. And that especially in primary school it should not be as painful or boring as what I was observing. While primary school teaches us the basic skills to move on to higher learning, wasn’t it supposed to be fun at the same time? When a five-year old is forced to sit quietly and copy words he doesn’t know the meaning of, what is his motivation for coming to school?
Through my observations, I learned a great deal, but I was waiting for some kind of revelation as to what to do. Around late November, I reached a turning point, spurred by our first Indicorps workshop followed by a visit to my project site by my Indicorps mentor. I realized that I was playing too small. I came to India underestimating the power of a single person like myself to create change. Sure, I came wanting to make a difference–but my idea of making a difference was so much smaller than my potential.
Humility is one of our most important collective values at Indicorps–we are humbled every day by the inspiring communities we have the privilege of living and working with, but humility means something different than what I had previously thought. It does not mean thinking small or being modest about change. Serving as an Indicorps fellow means having enough humility to realize you cannot change the world, but being fearless enough to try.
What was stopping me from thinking big? I think it was mostly a subconscious fear of failure and an affinity for my comfort zone. There was no path for me to follow, but it was time to create my own by running head-first into challenges. I needed to experiment–inevitably some ideas would work and some wouldn’t, but I had to have the courage to let nothing hold me back. How could I really get teachers to actually change their mindsets? To see that learning was about more than memorizing lists?
It was with renewed energy that in late November I really began planning the project. The goal was to improve the quality of education at the Supplementary Education Centers through a teacher training curriculum. I decided to focus the training on two main areas. The first was activity-based teaching; I wanted to empower the teachers to teach in a way that made learning engaging, interactive, and fun for the students.
I also wanted to focus on leadership development; my vision was for teachers to be able to innovate and have the confidence to pioneer a new mindset of teaching. I envisioned them confronting barriers, striving to genuinely teach and develop themselves both professionally and personally. I wanted to sustainably strengthen the centers by focusing on the teachers.
I began the teachers’ training at the beginning of December, conducting bimonthly training sessions focused on activity-based learning and leadership skills. I also did follow-up and monitoring of the training at three model centers; I visited these centers regularly and worked with the teachers one-on-one to help them implement the new methods.
With the beginning of the new year in January I noticed that the trainings were making slow but definite progress. Teachers welcomed the new methods I introduced, and were willingly implementing them in their centers. Children responded enthusiastically to activity-based methods because learning turned into a game for them. The teachers slowly took ownership of the new teaching methods. Their smiles at their students’ enhanced learning and enthusiasm were the moments I took the most pride in, because they were not dependent on my presence. Those months-old phrases from orientation, ‘sustainability’ and ‘empowerment’, suddenly clicked.
While I achieved small successes, the majority of what I experienced were setbacks. But my ‘failures’ were actually my most valuable experiences; it is only through them that any victories have come. This year has taught me to redefine my previous notions of success and failure. Indicorps pushed me to take personal responsibility for my actions, which required a great deal of questioning, self-reflection, and honesty. Teachers were often quick to forget new ideas and revert back to their old methods. If something was not working, I would always be pushed to ask myself why, and what I could do differently to make it work. I was able to move forward from the setbacks with new insight and would try again, usually only to face a new challenge. But patience and persistence were my best friends and most valuable tools, more than any specific knowledge I could have begun the year with.
What I did and how I did it–those are only the logistical aspects of my project. The core of it was formed by the relationships I built. True change starts with the individual; engaging people on the most basic, personal level has the most power in opening minds. And for me, the work I did would have been empty without the relationships, which I will remember after all the specifics have faded.
From the beginning, I made an effort to get to know the teachers and Rakshana staff on a deeper personal level than our professional relationship. I visited and stayed in their homes, I played with their children, I cooked and cleaned with them. This year I gained a sister in the eleven-year-old daughter of one of the staff members I lived with for the majority of the year. While living in one of the villages, I began an extra-curricular art class and was able to engage with the children of that village in a wonderful new way. As I gradually gained an understanding of these communities, I learned how I could engage and empower the teachers; but they unwittingly ended up teaching me so much more.
Of all the teachers, Parvati had the most impact on me. She is a truly radiant person; she can make anybody feel warm and welcome in an instant, and has a bold confidence that belies her age, gender, and circumstances. This year I was trying to live intentionally and purposefully, but Parvati, only eighteen, showed me how. In addition to taking care of all the grueling household chores that come along with being a woman in rural India, she is completing a correspondence degree and working during the day as a tailor to pay for it and support her family. This was after her parents had paid for her older brother’s college education but not hers. In the evenings she gives her time as a teacher at her village’s Supplementary Education Center; she is an excellent teacher, but goes far beyond her obligations. She extends the hours to accommodate students who cannot come earlier, and recruits her family and friends to help. She rarely goes to see movies because any free time, she says, would be better spent teaching a child. Parvati for me is the definition of a life of purpose.
Another phrase from orientation floats back to tap me on the shoulder-’community immersion.’ I know I did not truly become one with my community this year–I am not perfect and I missed home; I spent time reading American books, listening to American music, talking on the phone with people from America. But somehow connecting with my community made my desire to do all of those things go away. Immersing not only brought me dear friends, but also helped me look at my project from an insider’s perspective and helped my communities see me as one of them. They took me into their lives and in doing so, were more likely to see me for the messages I was trying to live than as just another foreigner. Indicorps fellows often cite this aspect of the fellowship as one of the factors that distinguish it from other types of development work in India; we walk away with not only a job done, but also with a new family.
During the Spring months, the project was moving forward, planting seeds of change in teachers’ mindsets. But around May, my fellowship year took an unexpected turn. Through a series of events and conversations that had been happening for several months, it became apparent that the partnership between Rakshana and myself as an Indicorps fellow no longer made sense. The decision to leave was one of the most difficult I have ever had to make. Having invested so much into the teachers and students, and having made these communities my own, it broke my heart to leave. However, it was time for me to face the reality of the situation and understand that I was not giving up, but rather was accepting that my environment had devolved into one in which I could no longer add value.
Where the project would go from here was in the hands of the teachers and Rakshana staff. I had conducted many trainings for the teachers and before leaving, handed over a teachers’ manual that documented what I had presented, written in Telugu, to Rakshana staff. I had wanted to empower the teachers to enhance their own teaching and expand their skills to their peers; it was difficult to leave not knowing where they would take this, but if the project was to be sustainable, I had to leave at some point, and now was the time to let go.
After a short detour to Karnataka for an Indicorps workshop, I headed to the NGO I would be working with for the remainder of my fellowship term. When I arrived at Bhumi at the end of May, I was broken. But there was something in the atmosphere here that began to revive me. There was a passion and an energy that could be felt. Bhumi is a grassroots leadership development organization based in the Rasoolpura slum area of Secunderabad, a twin city to the Andhra Pradesh state capital, Hyderabad. Bhumi is formed by individuals from all backgrounds in the city and works to develop leadership within the Rasoolpura slum and engage its citizens in their own governance. Its leaders work toward sustainable development in areas such as education, livelihoods, water & sanitation, and health.
Beginning a new project at Bhumi was almost like starting a new fellowship, despite the fact that my energy levels were not so fresh. However, the advantage of that was that I was equipped with invaluable learnings that had taken ten months of trial-and-error to gain. My objective here was to implement a short training curriculum for Bhumi’s health workers to empower them to better educate the Rasoolpura community on a few basic health issues. I had two months to research, plan, and carry out a sustainable project–inevitably I became overwhelmed, but I started where I could.
The main issues we focused on were general health education strategies, water and hygiene, and maternal health. These were all based on health problems faced by residents of the slum, as observed by members of Bhumi who are residents of Rasoolpura themselves. I was also able to observe the health challenges on a first-hand basis during my stay there; unsanitary water collection and storage conditions led to diarrheal diseases, and improper levels of chemicals in the water supply led to respiratory problems and an array of other maladies. Pregnant women often did not have an adequate number of pre-natal checkups and were usually ill-informed about how to best take care of their and their baby’s health.
The Bhumi health workers themselves were quite knowledgeable about all of these health issues. But it was in educating the community about these issues that I was able to be of use to them. The health workers complained that nobody in the community wanted to hear what they had to say, but in a strange parallel to my project at Rakshana, I was able to help them understand that they had to get creative and interactive in how they conveyed health information if they wanted people to listen and learn. I conducted the training through educational modules that I developed or adapted from existing resources. I wanted the health workers to be able to re-use these same modules in the community, so I tried to teach them with methods that they could use themselves in the community, such as games and interactive demonstrations. In addition to the didactic sessions, we also did a few practical training sessions where the health workers actually conducted events in the community.
All too quickly, June passed, July came to an end, and it was time to leave for the final Indicorps workshop and then the flight home. Once again, what stood out from my time at Bhumi were the people. I was inspired by their sage wisdom, their silently fierce passion, their visions of a better India. Of all the individuals I met, I spent the most time with the health workers. Over the course of the two months I was there, we evolved from a relationship in which they resisted me and scoffed at my ideas to one of close friendship. By the end I had visited their homes, shared meals, stories and jokes, and realized that community is what we create.
I was afraid I would not be able to produce much in such a short period of time; I faced constant challenges, internal and external, and neither began nor ended with what I felt was an ideal curriculum. But I knew I did something right when, after conducting an evaluation of the training, one of the health workers remarked that she had learned more about how to teach people in the community than about any specific health topic. Small victories arise from the ashes of many, many failures.
Though this year ended up being more about me than about results, I wanted so much to produce something of value in the little time I had. The Indicorps philosophy of being a producer rather than a consumer had become ingrained into my every thought. It obsessed me, often too much. It is important to look, listen, and learn in a community so as not to let our actions be clouded by judgment, but it’s also important not to let this turn into consuming the experience. Rather than collecting photographs and stories for personal satisfaction, we are encouraged to produce, to add value rather than take it away. I attempted to give more than I took, which never failed to cause me mental struggle because in the end I don’t think it was possible to contribute as much as I learned from the organizations and communities I had the honor of working with.
I chose Indicorps partly because of the structured route it provided to service in India. I had imagined that structure might be in the project itself, that I might have more instruction than freedom. I didn’t realize that I would be given a blank canvas. The real structure was in Indicorps’ approach to personal growth. Part of it was the ever-present pushing–pushing us to produce, to be better, to live our message. Part of it was support to balance the countless challenges the year would bring.
This year would not have been possible without my Indicorps mentor, who while based in Ahmedabad, was with me every step of the way. Along with invaluable support at the most difficult moments, he was not afraid to question and push me far beyond my comfort zone and my imagined limits. I also faced the ups and downs of the year with an incredibly inspiring cohort of fellows. We were scattered across India and only saw each other at quarterly week-long workshops; but somehow we formed a strange and unbreakable bond. While I was the only fellow anywhere near my project site, we all moved on parallel roads; I feel like I traveled on this entire journey with eighteen other souls.
Structure was also omnipresent in the form of the Indicorps philosophy. By the end of the year, all of those catchprases from orientation had come back to hit me full force and turned out to be anything but cliché. Some stuck with me more than others, but I finally understood the point. One idea that will probably always stay is purposeful living. Something that Dev Tayde, the ever-profound director of Indicorps, wrote once continues to come back to me: “The length of a day is a function of the earth’s latitude; the ability to stretch time is a function of living with purpose.” India is full of ambiguity, contradictions, and confusion. The only way to combat this onslaught is with a razor-sharp sense of purpose that can cut through all the distractions. Living in such a way is not something that came easily or even completely; it was and is a skill to be developed through constant and brutally honest self-reflection.
I thought a lot this year about service and development: what they mean, how they relate to one another, and what role they have in my life. I used to be confused by service. I was drawn to it; it always felt right. I could see how it helped people and improved lives. But my dilemma was, I couldn’t see how it changed anything; the status quo was still in place. It felt like putting a bandage over a cut that needed to be sewn up. When the problems were structural, service seemed more like something that simply felt good and alleviated guilt, rather than actually fixing the problems. I’ve learned that thought was very misguided.
This year has helped me connect the large and small scale, which I previously saw as completely separate. I know now that real development cannot happen without service. Large-scale programs are not sustainable in the long run if they do not address the small scale. Change starts at the individual level, and spreads like a ripple. It starts with relationships between people. I want to have my part in creating big change, but I know that service at the individual level must be an integral part of my life. For me, development loses its meaning when it is not tied to connecting with individuals, which is what centers me.
One of the best books I’ve read has been ‘Mountains beyond Mountains’; it’s the story of Paul Farmer, a truly extraordinary doctor and health policy advocate who has changed the face of international health. The author, Tracy Kidder, quotes Farmer as having said that without his clinical practice, “I wouldn’t be anything”. While I am also on the path to becoming a physician, that’s not exactly the aspect of the statement that resonates with me. It’s that without service in the form of one-on-one, human relationships, I would lose my way. Every time this year I got caught up for too long in research, planning, or documentation, I lost my footing; and every single time I connected with the project on a personal level, I rediscovered my calling.
This year has led me across the full landscape of India, from bitter cold to melting hot, from the richest to the very poorest, from north to south and east to west. From travel on my beloved Indian railways to milk trucks and hay tractors and everything in between. But beyond the outer adventure has been the much deeper inner adventure. This was a tough year. I am more exhausted at the end of it than I have ever been–physically, mentally, and emotionally. But that is no accident; it was always meant to be that way. Dev continues to say that Indicorps is “the toughest way to come to India.” Maybe we are crazy, but fellows are still coming; and because of how hard it is, in the end each one of us is astounded by our own potential. I came to India because I was pulled by some force I could no longer ignore. India remains in my heart, and Indicorps has taught me that change is in my hands.