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.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Week 3: Rebecca

JC, Analakshmi, and Rebecca (L to R)
SST employs a holistic approach through addressing economic, health, education, environment, agriculture and infrastructure development. Social workers are therefore responsible for a host of overlapping service areas. On Monday, Analakshmi took us to a busy intersection where she and other SST staff were vaccinating and selling chicks to SHG members (a micro-enterprise women’s cooperatives) and local farmers. Last week she helped complete anemia testing and awareness training in a nearby village. She also assists SHGs to better negotiate with creditors and collaborates with village panchayats (local governing body). She exemplifies what a social worker should be: advocate, organizer, leader and, most importantly, ally.

What I find the most remarkable about social work in this context is how much a part of the community social workers become. Social workers are members of the community. They live in the area, buy goods from the local economy and develop close friendships with individuals in the community. Analakshmi lives in Padavedu and returns to her home village once a week. There is very little separation of personal and professional, yet it does not seem to bother anyone. In fact, I think it eliminates many of the barriers between ‘outside helping professional’ and the community. This appears to create a deep relationship of trust and mutual commitment.

At first I could not understand why Analakshmi is not “burnt out.” She has been working in the field for 7 years, she works long hours, travels often, and barely has time to eat, let alone cook. She is clearly passionate about her work, but this is not enough to prevent burn out. I think what prevents internalizing the stress that can come with this profession is the feeling of shared commitment and collaboration. Analakshmi has a vested interest in empowering the people of these villages because she knows them personally as well as professionally. The rapport she has with individual villagers, especially animators, enables her to instigate change and elicit information in ways that an outsider could never breach.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Week 3: JC

Rebecca (in blue) and JC (in white) with SST Staff Members
SST operates Monday through Saturday. On Sundays Annalakshmi sleeps in, does laundry, watches Tamil TV, and prepares a homecooked meal if she’s up to it. During the week she eats exclusively from the village “tiffin” shops—run by SHG members—since she’s too busy to make food herself. This Sunday Annalakshmi takes me and Rebecca to Rajamani’s (an SST community animator) home for lunch. It’s a pleasant 10-minute walk past the Padavedu market and across a small river abloom with too much algae. Annalakshmi makes a point of saying that she usually rides her two-wheeler to Rajamani’s. Village residents take full advantage of her first time on foot, eagerly asking about the two foreign visitors and insisting we eat at their houses. Annalakshmi deftly declines the invitations. As an aside to us she smiles and says, “All of these people are our SHG members. They’re so nice, I like them so much.”

Annalakshmi’s relationship with the people she serves is inspiring, and her commitment to social work no less than admirable. When Annalakshmi leaves the apartment with her bags packed at three in the morning because SST has asked her to visit a project site 7 hours away, I think about how social work is much more than a 9-5 job. It reminds me instead of being a doctor always on call, and more of a general practitioner than a specialist at that. Annalakshmi and other SST Community Development Officers (CDO) wear multiple hats that transform them from direct service provider to case manager, project manager, and advocate all in one day. Providing financial counseling for an SHG, facilitating a partnership between villages and the Department of Forestry, or supporting residents as they petition for the removal of a corrupt local government official all fall under the CDO job description. Whereas social work in the U.S. has largely drifted away from its settlement house roots, I’ve noticed that community development in this context retains the principle that living amongst those you aim to help greatly enhances service effectiveness. Although to portray Annalakshmi as the Indian equivalent of Jane Addams would be overly romanticizing, it is fair to say that she serves in the same spirit. It is also fair to say that she could benefit from some personal “self-care.” I wouldn’t want Annalakshmi to burn out one day on account of working too hard.  
SST Office and Padavedu
I often read The Hindu newspaper at the SST office. It is filled with social welfare stories, some of which are similar to issues in the U.S. and others that are culturally specific. Recent articles have covered a job fair for tribal youth, government issued higher-education loans for girls, the number of homeless families in urban centers, government commitments to providing safe drinking water for all, efforts to stop land-grabbers from preying on senior citizens and widows, and new services to students with disabilities. Dedicated social workers like Annalakshmi are a valuable resource in this complex social landscape. They are also in short supply in India.  Annalakshmi's graduating class size was 30 students. Although both the number of MSW programs in India and their graduating class sizes have increased since the early 2000s, the numbers are hardly enough given the country’s large population.

Not all of SST’s CDOs are MSWs. Other CDOs hold degrees in anthropology, criminology, and engineering. Many employees are retired government foresters. This past week SST hosted three groups of young engineers from Sundaram Clayton Limited (SCL) as a first step in getting SCL employees to work as CDOs in the future. The point being that social work is not the exclusive domain of MSWs and can be done by anyone interested in improving peoples’ lives. It can even be done—and should be done, in my opinion—by whole businesses (SST is the social arm of SCL and the TVS Motor Company). Unlike many corporations that appear to take on social projects for publicity’s sake alone with no regard for sustainability, SCL and TVS are consciously working on sustainable development through SST. So far I haven’t been able to spend much time with non-MSW staff but I hope to do so. I wonder how their community interactions compare given their differing subject backgrounds and expertise. It’s exciting to be working with such a multi-disciplinary team.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Week 2: JC

SST Animator demonstrates honey collection
After saluting the government appointed guard at the gated entrance we begin our winding drive through the Jadhavu Hills. This is a designated “tribal area” and the landscape varies considerably from the “plains area.” Here millet replaces sugarcane, goats and sheep supplant cows, and thatched-roof houses are still the norm. Villages are so tucked away that standard staples of development such as roads, medical care, and educational facilities are relatively recent. Access to markets and hospitals located outside of the hills continues to be a problem for these communities.

We park our car on the hillside and pack up our provisions. It is still another 3km descent on foot into the hill valley where monkeys and wild elephants are known to live. Today we are accompanying Baskar, an MSW and SST community developer. Baskar has been partnering with “community animators” – village residents who act as liaisons between SST and targeted communities—to promote improved honey collection techniques through awareness and training. Yesterday Baskar explained the new method and today we have come to observe whether village residents can practically apply the information. The men put on the bee suits correctly, collect the comb, and extract a half-liter’s worth of pure honey. But still I question whether the community will continue practicing this new technique when the equipment isn’t new anymore and they no longer have an audience. The village took part in an agriculture training several months back but still the majority of millet fields are not spaced properly. Will something similar happen with this training?

SST staff tells me that progress in the plains communities is easier and faster than in the tribal areas. Why is this the case? As a student trained in ecosystems theory I am aware that the reasons are multiple and complex. Relationship-processes happening across generations and system levels have contributed to tribal communities’ structural and social isolation, suspicion of outsiders, and hesitancy when it comes to accepting development schemes. I spend my days here trying to understand these relationship-processes and how SST enters into them. Using a strengths-perspective I think about how farmers are not acting irrationally or stupidly by refusing to readily adopt new development schemes. Rather, they are exercising the highest prudence and risk-management. Why would a poor farmer, who has everything to lose, invest in something that he is not absolutely sure will be profitable? It is natural to want someone else to try it first.

The onus is not on the farmer but on the developing agency to find effective strategies to help communities discover for themselves whether technique X or scheme Y is worth doing, despite the risk. But what makes a strategy effective? Trust—in the message or the messenger—is a definite ingredient.  So I observe the animators, studying what makes them effective community organizers. Going back to social work basics I try to see if and how the three facilitative conditions of the therapeutic working relationship—empathy, authenticity, and positive regard—are employed in this context. Is there a way to improve the working relationship here so that change occurs faster?
Jadhavu Hills, Tamil Nadu

Week 2: Rebecca

At CUSSW, we are taught that self-awareness is essential to social work practice. It helps us identify our biases, develop our identity as practitioners and better understand the communities we live in and work alongside. With this in mind, I’ve been thinking about my relationship to Padaverdu (the village we live in), to SST (the host organization) and to India as a whole.

What is my role as both outsider and helping professional? We’ve spent two weeks becoming familiar with SST and the surrounding villages, but like any society the nuances and customs which define a culture are intricate. Right now, I see my role as observer, soaking in information and seeking understanding. I am not sure how my social work education relates to a rural context but by observing community development in practice, I see the importance of relationship-building, trust and cooperation.

Clearly, I stand out as a foreigner here. Everything from my size 10 sandals to my bright red hair sets me apart from those around me. I knew that people would be curious about me just as I was curious about them, but I had never felt the scrutiny that comes with being analyzed. At first, I felt ambiguous about my “otherness.” I was uncomfortable being examined, but wasn’t the very reason I came to India to study another culture? Although I look very unusual here, it’s curiosity which has overcome this difference.

I am learning that showing interest and demonstrating respect earn you some serious outsider "brownie" points. If this means I need to clear my plate regardless of what or how much is put before me, then by all means pile it on. The more I ask, the more people answer. The more Tamil I mispronounce, the more people laugh and gently correct me. At first I worried about being too intrusive or butchering the language but it honestly does not matter, as long as I show enthusiasm and demonstrate care.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Week 1: Rebecca

India is a profound country. When I stepped off the airplane and into a mix of auto-rickshaw drivers shouting for fares and family members eager to embrace loved ones, the raw energy of so many people packed into the walkway of the Chennai Airport overwhelmed my senses. Amidst this sea of people, I nervously searched for something that signified that I belonged here. I found a driver holding a small sign with my name in fine print and we headed towards his car. The ride was a blur of persistent car horns and darting 2 wheelers.

A day later I am sitting on the roof of our apartment in Padaverdu watching a woman dry and sift grain. Behind me are the Eastern Ghats, petite rocky mountains which surround the area. The village is busy with activity and it is only 6 am. On the patio, a young girl is having her hair braided by her elder sister. Young girls often wear their hair in looped pig tail braids accented with sweet smelling jasmine flowers. Middle aged women wear a single braid that extends down their lower back.

Spice filled aromas fill the apartment during meal time. Our mentor/guide here, Lakshmi, is busy mixing and crushing vegetables and spice into a commonly served dish, sambar. We try to watch and learn; however, the vastness of flavors and mastery of culinary technique is not easily absorbed by foreign eyes. I find myself mesmerized by daily life here, whether it’s cooking a mid-day meal or preparing for the school day.

Week 1: JC

Padavedu and surrounding villages
Padavedu village is located about 2.5 hours outside of Chennai in the  state of Tamil Nadu. Villages here are moderately sized (400-1,000 families) and packed along the thin paved-but-potholed roads so that it’s easy to walk into an entirely different village without knowing you’ve done so. Banana, sugar cane, rice paddy, and coconut palm fields—each their own vibrant shade of green—fill in the gaps between villages. Padavedu has no less than three temples each dedicated to different Hindu gods, and countless roadside and household shrines. Yogaramar temple—dedicated to Rama and Sita—even boasts its own resident elephant trained to bless temple worshipers on their heads. The small but well-stocked market sells basic food and household necessities. Snack shops, tiffin eateries, tea and coffee sellers, and one very delicious looking sweets shop line the market outskirts. Children walk in flocks to and from school wearing colored uniforms, the girls uniquely adorned with fresh flowers in their meticulously braided hair. Women wear colorful saris or churidhas (a long shirt over pants combo) of every imaginable color while men mostly wear a traditional cloth wrapped around their waist.  
We live across the street from the SST office in an apartment we share with Ms. Annalakshmi who is one of SST’s community developers. Another family also lives in the apartment building. The neighboring family, Annalakshmi, and the rest of the SST staff are extremely hospitable and have been indispensable in helping me understand the cultural practices of this region and to begin learning basic Tamil. Our neighbors are as curious to learn about American cooking (if you can say such a thing exists) as I am to learn about South Indian cooking, and the highlight of my evening is exchanging little “tastes” of our meals. One of the most interesting and challenging cultural activities is figuring out which of the million available spices are used for the redolent and healthy sambar and rasam dishes.  
This past week’s primary purpose has been exposure to SST’s development projects in the area. In a region where villagers complain of other NGOs abandoning projects or implementing unsustainable interventions, SST has a reputation for being a “model” NGO and at this point is sought out by community members themselves. SST and its community partners have also received awards from the Tamil Nadu government. In addition to basic infrastructure development (i.e. access to safe drinking water, toilet construction) SST’s foremost intervention seems to be the formation of Self-Help Groups (SHG) for which SST provides training and support. Through their participation in SHGs women are able to collectively borrow money from the bank and implement income generating activities (IGA) individually or as a group. Although anyone can form an SHG, those formed under SST have proven to have higher loan repayment rates and to have substantially increased members’ income. Members have used this new found income to construct better houses, send their children to college, and improve village amenities. So far this week we have been able to visit or hear about different IGAs including tailoring, banana rope making, shop keeping, flower garland making, milk-sweet production, and cattle raising. Through my interactions with the women themselves it is evident that they are sincere when they say that SHG participation has increased their confidence, awareness, public standing, and public visibility. As one woman put it, “We no longer have to rely on anyone else…that means our husbands!” 

Milk candy production in the village; one of many SST projects.

 Banana rope product

Tailoring project

Vermicompost project and SST staff