I’m a native of Phoenix, Arizona, and I’m here in Seattle studying Economics and Public Affairs. I attended Brophy College Preparatory, the only Jesuit high school in Phoenix, and Brophy is what made Seattle University appealing to me. From there, the Jesuit focus on social justice is what originally got me interested in non-profit work. I don’t have the specifics of what I would like to do within that interest, but I’m hoping to discover that with time and further discernment.
I’m really interested in exploring how people can creatively come up with ways to provide people with services. Muhammad Yunus is one of my inspirations, with both his microcredit experience and his social business ideas. Putting plans together (and seeing them through) gives me both energy and excitement. I’m looking forward to gaining some more hands-on experience with an NGO this Winter Quarter, in whichever country fate decides to place me.
I don't feel white here—I feel like a foreigner. The difference is that I'm not marked by my privilege here, and no power dimensions are assumed because of my skin color. I think it's interesting that no one knows which country we're from... no one guesses America (or any other country). I don't think we're hated for being here. We're stared at, but not in a glaring way, but a curiosity. If any assumptions are made, it's asking whether we're students here. Yes, I suppose we are! Cultural students.
We've been here in West Bengal, India for more than three weeks now. It's been a cultural immersion, to say the least. Erika and I are living with local Indians, working in an NGO staffed solely by Indians, and traveled with Indians. We've eaten Indian food for nearly every meal, traveled by bus and rickshaw and train, stayed in rural villages with Indian families. I find this significant to write about because it is not necessarily the case with traveling abroad; all too often, travelers can be stuck in a tourist-bubble, seeing surface-level life but never really being immersed. Here has been full immersion, and it has been fantastic.
I've been working with Center for Knowledge and Skills (CKS), which focuses on building the capacity of other local NGOs. This means, among other things, offering trainings to organizations and a lot of pilot programs. As the director of CKS told us, the organization focuses on innovation and new ideas that other NGOs don't have the time or funds to try.
My scope of work has been evolving since I arrived. My main, written task is to assist in setting up a tele-medicine program, which basically involves bringing out a laptop with 3G internet connection to rural places, setting up Skype-appointments with doctors. The problem I've encountered is that it's hard to make progress on this project independently—the actual progress requires traveling and spoken Bengali, which I cannot complete on my own. After a few days of feeling generally unhelpful, I decided to offer my assorted skills in internet marketing for the CKS website.
This led to a conversation about improving the website, which turns me to my current work from day-to-day. I am developing a website-based application where NGOs and other authorized entities will be able to post disaster-emergency descriptions in one centralized location. Currently, organizations go out to areas after a natural disaster and fill out a form by hand, but there is no efficient way to share the information with others. With this website, organizations will be able to fill out the form online, via laptop or mobile internet, submit them instantly, and share them with anyone who looks. That way knowledge of the responses will be spread further; organizations or the government can know the details of the natural disasters, which communities are affected, and in what ways. With the data in one centralized spot, responses to disasters can be more efficient and geared toward the specific needs of the area.
In the off time from the website work, I do miscellaneous tasks to help. Another useful part of this particular week has been designing the sign for the CKS office, which is 3’ x 9’. I was glad to use my graphic design skills in a helpful way here, and it was relaxing to play around with art for a short time while working on the sign.
In a country where I do not speak the most common language, I have found that the way I can be most helpful is with computer-related or internet-related tasks. Stepping outside of those bounds renders me mostly useless, and I change from being helpful to an unknowledgeable observer. I feel that it is necessary to strike a balance between being helpful/productive and learning as an observer.
With regard to learning Bengali, I am content with not knowing much of the language. I say this because English is one of the three mainly-used languages here, and I think it is much more helpful for Indians to learn English than it is for me to learn Bengali. I would only be able to pick up a few phrases and basic grammatical pieces, and I would rarely use the phrases again after returning to Seattle. On the other hand, Indians see and hear English everywhere, but few people are able to speak in-depth someone with who is fluent in English. I am glad to be helpful in that regard.
Being able to be around Puthumai (the director of CKS, our boss, and our host) is an inspiring learning experience. I am able to see how he organizes work, how well he manages people and projects, and what being a director of a small NGO involves. Traveling with him to meetings is an amazing chance to learn by osmosis, which I would not really know how to appreciate entirely in words. His passion for innovative projects is stirring, and I have been able to discern that these kinds of new ideas are what I love. I get such energy from having new ideas, and not only that but acting on the ideas as well. Turning ideas into reality is a source of energy for me; it has been in the past, but it has not been until working with CKS that I realized the possibilities for this passion within NGOs.
I am thrilled to soak up as much knowledge as I can in my next seven weeks here. Everyday there is a moment when I instinctively stop, look around, loosen my vision to take everything in my sight at once, hear all sounds at once, feel the ground underneath me, smell the air, and breathe deeply. This place is beautiful, this experience is beautiful, and life is beautiful.
From my journal on the plane:
"A child walks the aisle next to me. I brace myself for a child beggar, to ignore him until I haven't a choice, when I'll glance at him, shake my head, and mumble a soft 'Na.' No child beggar can be here on this flight, out of the country, off the street, into clean clothes, with a white mother leading him down to the bathroom, down the aisle." I've arrived safely back in Seattle. It's wonderful to be back in the loving embrace of this home. I'm dealing with constant mini reverse-culture-shocks. Going to the grocery store is overwhelming. Small things, everywhere. It's surprisingly easy to adjust, though. I've learned to let go to my reactions as a measure of the experience, which was difficult—like I had a sense like the greater culture shock(in both directions), the more authentic/intense the experience. It isn't like that.
I'll share some of the most valuable things I learned for this trip: Puthumai said to me one night (paraphrasing), "I've learned many things in my journey with CKS. The hardest lesson was being taught not to be quick in action. I used to be quick to act, but hasty action isn't effective with this work." He was talking about the deliberation that people take in India, being slow to change the way that people do things. Patience, because things do not come quickly. To loosen my grip on my pride. I don't know how to do things right all of the time. I don't have to be right. I acknowledge that I take pride in knowing things--and I've had to loosen this pride, since I do not know many, many things. I am not immune to stress. FULLY acknowledging my own stress is healthier than casting it aside, or else the stress becomes physical symptoms in extreme cases. NGOs doing things on the cutting-edge are my passion. Innovation and new ideas and approaches—these excite me enormously, and I want to be involved in them.
India, you're beautiful. Thank you for our shared experiences. Puthumai and Shubhra, thank you for everything. I have a feeling that our paths, however long and winding, will cross again. I'll end this with some wisdom to stew over. I believe it could be true of finding ultimate contentment. This is again paraphrased—Puthumai told it to us months ago, but he translated it into English (and I can't find the original anywhere on the internet): "To realize moksha [Hinduism's word for nirvana] is to find action inside inaction and to find inaction inside action."