|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.