“I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.” ― Angela Y. Davis
“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” ― Maya Angelou
One of the many reasons I decided to take part in this program is to get a sense of where I want to be when I work for a development organization. Do I want to work in an office in D.C. or do I want to live abroad and work in the field? I already have some idea of this. Before starting at Duke, I had experience working at a summer camp, a school, a wilderness organization and a nonprofit in D.C. I also have experience studying and working abroad. I love working directly with people and I love being abroad. But when I think about living abroad, I get anxious. So, I’m not sure where I want my job to be based. Working in India has further complicated my thoughts of working abroad and directly with people.
Being a black woman in development, I will face inevitable challenges working directly with people given different societal norms. One takeaway from our classes is you can’t force a solution or project on a community. Seems obvious, right? But another dimension of that takeaway is that people have to want to work with you. In the field, I was helping identify a problem while working with people who had no interest in me. So why was I there? Why was I spending my time and energy in a village when I could be working at an office and collaborating with people who value my opinions and skillset? I know it seems selfish, but I think I would be remiss not be honest in the selfishness of development work. From big development and aid agencies to small non-governmental organizations, you will find many that people who work in these organizations think they have most, if not all, of the right answers because of their education and experience. Yet, failed projects and initiatives plague the development landscape. The very premise of the India Summer School program is to humble ourselves and not come in with preconceived notions of who people are and the solution you have developed before coming to understand the community. Second, when working with people, you care about how you are perceived. If you do not feel valued because of something you can’t control like your skin color or gender, no matter how passionate you are about a cause, you will begin to question your place in a space. (I know, this is heavy stuff. But read on!)
In my previous work, I have faced similar challenges where people have tested my dedication to them and I have prevailed. The students I worked with in the past always challenged me. I worked with students who had pretty tough lives. Because adults came in and out of their lives, they had to make sure that I was not going to simply do the same. It meant building rapport and trust, and proving myself to them. It was not easy and took time, but I was able to break through many students’ walls. Working at my research village in India requires similar rapport and trust-building because the community feels that it has been ignored by many levels of the Indian government. Yet, I was not sure I could overcome the race barrier. Essentially, I have to not only gain their trust, I also have to prove that a black woman is just as intelligent and capable as her white and Indian counterparts. I also have to do this in a total of 14 days. I was not sure that this is a challenge I was willing to accept.
I arrived at the village for the second field visit and felt very closed off. I’d have to spend the next seven days conducting in-depth interviews and focus group discussions with people who ignored me all of the first visit. I wanted it to be over with immediately. My first day was awful. From interacting with my host family to meeting people in my host village to conducting focus group discussions in my research village, I was once again treated like I was invisible. Filled with frustration, I decided that I would simply get through the next six days by limiting my interactions; only speaking with interview and focus group participants.
I woke up the next morning ready to get the day over with. Surprisingly, Day 2 was much better. People were actually talking to me. My host acknowledged me. These were small victories that I embraced. On Day 3, I conducted a successful focus group discussion with seven women. We spoke seriously about the issues they faced daily and also shared laughs as I made jokes (all via a translator and miming, of course). That day, I also had a conversation with my host. By Day 4, I was feeling much more part of my team. I also felt more comfortable in my research village. I walked around confidently, hitched rides on tractors and motorbikes, and conversed with community members. I changed my approach and outlook on how I would interact in the village. I invested my time where it personally mattered most.
The most important connection to me was the relationship with my host family because I wanted to feel welcome in my host’s home. Because I was meeting people very briefly in the village, I knew that I could not overcome the racial barriers during the timespan of a short conversation. However, I spent each morning and evening at my host family’s home, so I had time to build some rapport.
Each day the barrier broke down a little. I engaged with my host in little ways. I showed interest in her sewing business and her cooking methods, and lent a helping hand where possible. My host began showing me hospitality that she had initially reserved for my colleagues. On Day 5, I felt the most welcome. My team and I were invited to celebrate her co-sister’s birthday. Her co-sister had directly invited my Swed colleague to her birthday, so I was feeling a bit anxious about going as I did not feel welcomed. Before arriving, I had prepared myself to meet people who would inevitably ignore me, but I was excited for cake (please reserve your judgments haha).
The party kicked off with the cutting of the cake. We started to sing happy birthday and then all of a sudden people started popping balloons. The room became chaotic. Laughter, singing and very loud balloon popping filled all the spaces in the room. Everyone was so joyous. I started laughing and couldn’t stop. I was not expecting these series of events. Then the kids sprayed foam all over the room and everyone in it. I laughed even more hysterically. I was having a wonderful time. The time came to cut the cake. The birthday girl cut a tiny piece of cake and fed it to her husband. Her husband cut a piece and fed it to her. Then she cut a piece and fed her parents, in-laws, kids. Her kids and my host fed her cake and spread icing across her face. She fed me and my team cake. It was absolutely beautiful and wonderful. This was all that was needed to break the ice. I came out of my shell and decided to enjoy myself regardless of how others might treat me; might being the keyword, as I was welcomed by everyone. We took pictures together, danced, ate, laughed, and had an overall great time. The next day, my last full day in the field, the bonding continued as we laughed about the happenings of the party.
I left the next day feeling the complete opposite of when I arrived. I felt good. The field visit was not a complete disaster and I was able to break through to some people. If it was a matter of time, my contagious laugh, or a word put in by my colleagues, I don’t know what sparked the change, and for now, I’m fine with that.
In terms of figuring out if I want to work in the field or not, I recognized that I will always have to work to gain people’s trust and sometimes it won’t feel good. It will require me to reflect deeply, un-learn to re-learn, and be wholly uncomfortable. I still don’t have an answer, but I love making connections with people, so the answer is far from no.
Until next time. Namaste.