Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Reflections Upon Return to the US: Rebecca

It’s been a little over a month since JC and I returned from India and I’ve found it immensely difficult to explain the fullness of the experience. Everyone asks ‘so how was India?’ and there is no simple answer. I respond ‘it was great’ and explain a little about the work we did, but I always feel there are pieces missing from my description. There is something so profoundly indescribable about being welcomed into a community or invited to share a special moment. Words are simply not enough. 

But where words fall short, connection prevails. I really underestimated how much society relies on language to communicate. It was very isolating being unable to speak Tamil. I felt uncomfortable pronouncing words or rude asking those who spoke English to speak slowly. I realized, however, that more can be expressed in a gesture or a kind glance than in words alone. It became most important for me to understand the customs of Padavedu and the cultural meaning of social interactions. I didn’t need to speak Tamil to observe and reflect on how relationships are built. I will be a better social worker because I understand, with new meaning, the importance of connection.

This was my first experience in another country for a significant amount of time. For me, it was an opportunity to challenge myself in a completely foreign context. I wanted to understand my role as an outside ‘helping professional.’  I wanted to share my experiences and understanding of social work with others. I wanted to experience life in another country. As a social worker most of us will work with communities outside our own. It is our duty to understand our role, especially as it relates to power and privilege, and to find our niche as agents of social change.

Although I’d acknowledged my privilege as a US-born citizen, I understand my position in relation to the world with a new lens. My understanding of needs and resources was limited to an American framework. I cannot dismiss the reality of global poverty as I used to. Armed with a new understanding I feel compelled to act. I must acknowledge the effect of my actions as a social worker, as a women, as a consumer and as an American on people across the globe. 

Even now, as I reflect on the experience, I feel driven by emotion, not language. I sense an acute change in my interactions with others. It’s such a nuanced difference but has immense power in developing a helping relationship. I feel grateful to CUSSW for creating this opportunity and honored to have been welcomed by SST and Chairman Joshi. As a final word I would like to deeply thank those who shared their lives with us. I appreciate your willingness to welcome us and am grateful for having met each of you.

Monday, September 26, 2011

On Returning Home: JC

What is community development? The Tamil word for “community” is samudayam. It is a compound word composed of sama (“equal”) and adayam (“resource”). When Tamils talk about their community they are literally talking about their “equal resources.” I don’t know to what extent this linguistic denotation is also the conceptual understanding of the word for most people. After all, what native English speaker fixates on the root derivatives of more complex words? Nevertheless I like the Tamil construction of “community,” which to me has an inherent element of social justice not found in the English construction. Samudayam expresses something above and beyond a body of people that share similar characteristics. A community is an entity in which each member contributes to, and has a right to access, the combined products of that entity. Community development involves increasing and improving assets for everyone through, I would argue, the combined effort of everyone in that community. I wonder what the world would look like if more people adopted this progressive interpretation.

It’s now been three weeks since I returned to the U.S. Our last few weeks in Padavedu were rather whirlwind as Rebecca and I rushed to analyze and report on the results of the survey, and also take advantage of as many cultural opportunities as possible before leaving. I learned a lot about rural community development in Tamil Nadu through observing SST’s strategies for community engagement and participation. In an effort to be able to better contribute to NGOs like SST in the future, my coursework this year focuses on organizational and human resource management, program evaluation, and issues of international social welfare (with a focus on rural development strategies). Moving forward, SST will always serve as a case study against which I can test development theories learned in the classroom or during future experiences.

So much of social work involves forging relationships, and “terminating” those relationships (as one says in social work parlance) when the time comes can be difficult. I like to think that my “termination” with SST does not signify a complete severance, but represents more of a transition in my relationship with the organization and its staff members. As I learned during first year in my Direct Practice class, it is foolish to think that only the “client” changes and that the “practitioner” remains static. The “practitioner” may change just as much through her experiences with the “client.” I’d like to think that whatever changes I imparted on SST, its staff, and the Padavedu community were as positive as the changes they affected in me. I look forward to going back at some point, and that I’ll be able to learn a bit more Tamil next time.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Week 6: Rebecca

SHG  members gather at SST center to participate in survey

SHG member filling out survey
After many discussions with SST staff and faculty at CUSSW, JC and I developed a project for the remainder of our time here. We are examining the impact of SST supported SHGs on the wellbeing of women. We are assessing the level of improvement across SST’s six development sectors: environment, agriculture, economic development, health, education, and infrastructure. We also included a brief section on women’s empowerment.

Narrowing the project questionnaire was far from an easy process. When the survey was originally drafted it was a whooping 18 pages. It was too long, but there were so much content to explore within each sector that I found it hard to compromise depth for length. Knowing that a three hour survey was unrealistic for both staff and SHG members, we collaborated to prioritize certain question types.

The SST surveys we have reviewed generally assess quantitative measurements, therefore this survey could be used as a tool to also assess qualitative measures. The questions are structured to elicit responses which assess the member’s perception and priorities. 

SST staff administered the survey to a small focus group and three problems arose: length, complexity and literacy level. The main challenge was the 15 or so open-ended questions. SST staff informed us that many of their surveys are filled out by the administrator in a face to face interview, so this may be the first time participants were asked to write their responses. I assumed that the question format would be somewhat self-explanatory and took for granted that surveys are culturally specific documents. SHG members had difficulty understanding questions that asked them to rank their responses numerically. Most skipped over the open-ended questions. I thought that rating questions could be answered regardless of literacy level, however, illiterate women could not recognize the numerical values. SST staff suggested reframing open-ended questions into rating questions and to offer more assistance to women with low literacy proficiency.

The entire process was tedious and frustrating, but worthwhile. Once finalized, the survey was successfully completed by 103 participants (possibly more if it is administered today). JC and I are beginning to analyze the results for an internal report to the Chairman of the organization. I feel proud of the questionnaire we’ve developed with SST and hope the results provide insight for future development programs. None of the work over the last few weeks would have been possible without the insight of SST staff, our advisors at Columbia University School of Social Work and the SHG members, thank you all!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Week 6: JC

Rebecca and I have been developing a survey tool that SST can use to evaluate its impact on the lives of SHG members. It has been a wearisome process involving several false starts and many modifications. The first time SST administered the survey, the frequency of one entry stood out significantly in the Excel results: “NR”. As Rebecca and I examined the data we talked about the many reasons for these No Responses. A combination of miscommunications, delays, confusing survey questions, and other factors contributed to participants’ survey-fatigue and my own feelings of exasperation. With these things in mind, we then strategized with SST staff to prepare for next time. What could be done to improve the survey and the survey-taking conditions so as to encourage total question response?

I learned some sound advice about working with people during my first year studies. HBSE made me more cognizant of the way multi-level factors influence individual and collective action. In Research Methods I was taught that making one’s own measurement tool is extremely difficult, and that one should use an existing tool whenever possible. In Intro to Community Organizing students discussed ways to run an effective community meetings, such as offering refreshments as an incentive and courtesy, starting the meeting on time, and making sure that administrative tasks were delegated beforehand. Had all of these learning points been implemented perfectly, there is a much larger chance that our first survey attempt would have run more smoothly. But it’s harder than it sounds to put it all into practice. The reality on the ground is that even with the best theories behind you, and even with the best of precautions in place, unforeseen challenges may still surprise you. There’s nothing to do but to roll with it and problem-solve as best you can. The way you approach the situation can help too, as one’s expectations are culturally informed. Baskar reminded me that patience is a skill that social workers must learn, and he’s right. I would rank patience right up there with empathy. It’s frustrating for me at times to have to work through translators or to have our schedule changed last minute, but patience, flexibility, and a sense of humor have helped me re-frame these otherwise stressful situations into golden learning opportunities.

SST administered another round of revised surveys again this week. This time I had a good feeling about the results. As SST staff thoroughly explained the concept behind the Likert scale questions, Rebecca and I offered tea and biscuits to the attentive women whose time and honest answers were greatly appreciated. There were also some delays this time around but more importantly there was good participant turnout and an excellent response rate. Rather than being exasperating, the experience was pleasurable—which is how interacting with others is supposed to be.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Week 5: JC

Yogaramar Temple Exterior

Renugamban Temple Festival at night

These days SST is a well respected and trusted NGO in the Padavedu area.  The organization encountered many challenges when it first started working here ten years ago, and had to develop innovative strategies to gain communities’ trust. One of these strategies was helping communities renovate important cultural and religious sites that had fallen into disrepair. In addition to restoring temple architecture, temple grounds were also outfitted with basic infrastructure needs such as a compound wall, toilet, and drinking water facilities for visitors. Temple functions and personal poojas comprise an important part of people’s lives. For SST to recognize and act on this fact reveals its sensitivity to community priorities.  It is no surprise that working with people to preserve and strengthen an important cultural asset helped SST express its collaborative mission and become a stakeholder in the community. By partnering with temple officials, SST demonstrated its respect for existing socio-cultural leaders who—because of their standing within the community—then legitimized and promoted SST’s other projects and awareness campaigns. 

Government housing structure and SST staff member

Community toilet built by SST using government and community funds
SST now has a wonderful working relationship with temple swamis who can often be seen in the SST office. Since we've arrived here the temples in the area, especially Padavedu’s Renugamban temple, have seen an increase in pilgrims due to it being Aadi month—the month of festivals in the Dravidian calendar. SST organizes volunteers from TVS and SCL, as well as SHGs from the community, to help with crowd control, provide meals for worshippers, and take preventative measures against potential sanitation and hygiene issues. On the one hand, it is great that SST is working with the community to deal with the influx of temple visitors. On the other hand, it makes me wonder: why is the government not taking responsibility for these precautions? It reminds me of the trend in the U.S. in which government bodies step back from social welfare responsibilities and rely instead on NGOs to fill the service gap.

The Indian government has a wide variety of earmarked funds to help rural communities develop. The formations of SHGs and their linkage to credit sources is an obvious example. But other programs are not so transparent or accessible to the community. Furthermore, the relationship between communities and local government officials is often filled with tension. For instance, when I asked members of one SHG why they thought they did not get a perfect score on their government rating, they blamed it on government corruption. 

I like how SST tries to be more of a facilitative entity whenever possible. The organization strives to strengthen political and social structures already in place, thus addressing the breakdown between the development of government programs and their actual implementation. SST staff may educate SHGs about government schemes and help them apply for the funds to build better houses, construct roads, and improve their community in myriad other ways. Or they may partner with government public schools to help identify and engage “slow learners” in the classroom. But at times what the government is willing to provide may not be enough, or it may not be suited to the community’s needs. As a result, community action is the only recourse for the moment, such as in the case of crowd control for Renugamban temple festivals. In this particular case it is wonderful to see community organizing at work. I am also conscious that many years of relationship building between SST and the community had to occur in order for this action to take place.  But at the same time I wish the government were more hands-on in terms of quality service delivery. NGOs may mediate the relationship between the people and their government, but at some point the latter needs to step-up and address its shortcomings. Towards this end I see more room for macro-level political advocacy work on the part of all community stakeholders: SHG members, swamis, and SST alike.

Sweets and religious items for sale at Renugamban Temple

Temple vendor stall

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Week 4: Rebecca

JC and Rebecca present "Foundations in a Flash" to community animators.

This week SST conducted a refresher training for all the field animators at the Padavedu site. We were asked to lead a brief lecture on social work practice in the United States. JC and I developed what I like to refer to as ‘foundations in a flash.’ We discussed strengths-based practice, client-centered approach, self-awareness, transaction theory, ecosystems perspective, and holistic approach. Self-awareness was the most challenging concept to embrace, which I think is true for most social service professionals. The process of becoming more self-aware requires reflection and insight beyond our time allotment and training ability. Our goal, however, was to introduce and share a few guiding principles from our studies. We wanted to emphasize the interconnectedness of various sectors across multiple levels of intervention. I was unsure how these theories would translate (literally and figuratively) in another culture but animators were quick to participate and share examples from their practice.

During our planning I was concerned our training might come across as common sense, but then I realized how easy it is to forget. At field placement I found myself distracted by immediate concerns: does this person have housing, what is their affect, is this child safe, etc. It is a constant struggle, especially as a direct practice student, to remind myself that immediate crisis’ are correlated to community, policy and cultural ramifications. In class the connection is clear, however, in field I rarely examine the larger implications. This is the Achilles heel of social work. I worry that direct practice narrow-mindedly fixates on the (dis)functioning of an individual without addressing the root cause. Even if the practitioner recognizes the macro-level connection, are direct practice positions malleable enough to encompass community development? My experience here has strengthened my interest in community organizing and confirmed its importance in empowering others. I feel my challenge upon returning will be to fuse community development and direct practice in a meaningful way.

My favorite part of our mini-lecture was when we posed the question ‘how does society benefit from self-help groups’ to the animators. An eager hand decorated with gold bangles shot up and explained that SHGs empower women. Such a simple, almost obvious answer, but the weight of that statement in the context of transforming an entire culture reminded me that nothing is fixed.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Week 4: JC

Tamil Nadu Coastline

The Asian tsunami of December 2004 rocked the coasts of southern Tamil Nadu, the Andaman and Nicobar islands, and Sri Lanka. Americans understood the phenomenon through media images of wrecked coastlines, displaced villages, and faceless figures tallying those injured or dead. Countries and individuals were asked to donate to the humanitarian relief efforts of organizations dispatched to the scene.  Fast forward to my own experience sitting in a Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health classroom last Spring. In the Child Protection in Complex Emergencies class I took that semester, our class discussed the impact of the various organizations that responded to the tsunami.  A point was made that although international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) were better funded (a result of their “brand-name” recognition amongst international donors), their interventions were not as effective as those of local NGOs that were more familiar with the local context pre-disaster.

Last week Rebecca and I made a day trip to Chennai, the state capital, to speak with Mr. Joshi, Regional Chairman of SST. As a student concentrating in Social Enterprise Development (SEA) next year, I value these meetings with the Chennai staff and Chairman Joshi in particular because of these individuals’ insight about the challenges of project planning, program development, and human resource management. We all had lunch at a restaurant specializing in South Indian cuisine. We shared dishes from the states of Kerala, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu, each delicately spiced (the hotter the better for me!) according to regional preferences. To my American taste buds, it is miraculous how dishes made of the same spices only in different proportions can produce unique but equally delicious curries. The food was spooned onto banana leaf plates and we ate with our hands, as is customary here.

Lest this degenerate into a “foodie” blog let me say that our lunchtime conversation was even more thought provoking. I learned about SST’s efforts during the tsunami relief in comparison to that of INGOs. INGOs used their financial muscle to provide material resources (such as motorized boats) for affected fisherman. Although this may seem like a good idea, it is questionable whether the practice promotes sustainable community development post-disaster. The impression I got was that INGOs gave items disproportionately to the community’s capacity to maintain them, or that the items were incongruent with local tastes. As a result resources were disused and money wasted. In comparison, SST spent far less money with greater success at community capacity building. One of the problems in humanitarian relief is building long-term sustainability into short-term emergency-relief projects, and for this INGOs would do well to consult or partner with local NGOs such as SST that have sustainability clearly in mind.