Thursday, October 18, 2012

Strengthening Your "Corps"

Every year thousands of 20-something Americans embark on a mission to change the world. Or at the very least, their world. I was one of them.

Through programs like Americorps, TFA, Peace Corps, AIF, and in my case, Indicorps, we enter the development workforce to expand our worldview and serve communities that we've come to know as underprivileged. We want to connect the news we read, the anger we feel, the textbook definitions, the blessings we're given, the ideas in our minds -- with the real world. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it really, really doesn't.

There are a lot of critics along the way. Inexperienced teachers in the Bronx are reprimanded for learning on the job, with 4-year-old minds at stake. Middle and upper class Americans are warned of pushing our own idea of success and social progress on a very different community abroad.We're criticized for cultural insensitivity if we wear our own clothes, or for cultural mimicry if we adopt local customs. And for good reason -- it's a difficult, blurry line to navigate, and there are many mistakes along the way that can truly hurt people in a vulnerable state.

But I don't think the solution here is to eliminate service-based programs and replace fellowships with experienced field social workers or researchers. The impact of these programs does need to be measured and improved, but for the most part, I have to believe that young people go with open hearts, minds and a sense of adventure that can refresh NGOs, schools or offices at every level. The thing is, we have to be hyper-aware, realistic and sensitive about our role. And we have to work our butts off to make sure that role produces more than what we will, inevitable, consume.

There are a few guiding principles that I learned before and during my fellowship year that I found, and continue to find, extremely useful.

The first is an essay by Ivan Illich called "To Hell With Good Intentions". Illich, who is a great mind of dissent in many ways, addressed a group of young Americans working in Mexico and warned them of the hypocrisy, superficiality and danger, of their work. He emphasized that an "us" versus "them" mentality (rich vs. poor, haves vs. have-nots) creates an unfair dichotomy that breeds subtle colonialism rather than empowerment. No, having the girls in your community trade in their kurta-pyjama for jeans is not progress, and teaching English, the seemingly innocuous service activity, should be relevant and thorough.

One major take away from the essay, and a line that stuck with me throughout my year, in India, was: "If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work with the poor who can tell you to go to hell." 

I try to approach things with a little more sweetness, but I completely agree that people should be wary of working in places while practicing a language and culture they only partially understand. Human connection is stronger than just a common language, and people learn fast, but I find it demeaning to impose your inability on a community with usually very urgent needs. My Hindi was, and is, far from perfect, but I understood every word the families I worked with said to me. And after hearing plenty of things that hurt deeply, I'm glad I did.

Another idea with which I approached my fellowship year was one of Indicorps' favorite quotes, attributed to an aboriginal activist group in Queensland: "If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together." 

For me, the idea to start a journey like this focused on the "them" that Illich talks about. I saw the begging hands on trips to India, I watched the heartbreaking infomercials for charity organizations, I felt very strongly about sharing my wealth. Then I got to India.

Suddenly, the trip was about me. It was about my health, and why my hair was falling out. Whether I could go from being a novelty to a member of the community. It was about blogs I wrote, bus rides I took at midnight, and being fearless And could I help anyone? Or would I return to the U.S. with new insight and all the benefits of street cred, but without leaving behind anything sustainable?

It wasn't until mid-year that it became about us. The impact of my life choices, like buying clothes, on a person I didn't know. The ability of one of my students to focus on college so that she could pave the way for others and even out the playing field. I began to understand that our success at the community center relied on each person recognizing their own power, and simultaneously, their part in the bigger puzzle. Nobody in my community needed me, specifically. They just needed, as I did, to bridge a gap of access and knowledge.

My last mantra during my fellowship year was that there is no end point, no final goal. A year (or two) is too short a time to know or do very much, and if any of us base our life's service on less than twelve months, I don't think we would ever sleep at night. But that shouldn't stop you from setting goals, meeting them, and setting more. 

To that end, my year with Indicorps has become a point of reference -- not to tell stories about living in a slum or feel guilty every time I buy cheap Made In India clothing -- but as a standard for the meaning and depth I'm struggling to translate into articles and relationships for the rest of my life. Sometimes I do stay awake at night thinking of the mistakes I made, the misunderstandings, the mornings I should have woken up earlier, the gifts I shouldn't have taken.

With that awareness to check us every step of the way, I don't think there's any better reason for unleashing determined 22-year-olds into the world with high hopes. We might stumble a lot that first year. But if we fall responsibly, the scope for change in the long run is beyond imagination for everybody involved.


Lem A. said...

Wow , Ankita. There are some really powerful ideas spelled out here. As Americans, too often, we do tend to venture out into the world and view it from our standpoint which causes us to do for the wrong reasons and in the wrong settings.

I also believe in the strength of human connection. I believe that if we can recognize and uproot the us and them mentality, the subtle colonialism, and our biases, we can then realize the potential for life-changing exchange.

Oftentimes the gift we receive is remembering how to be a little more human with people. Yes, we do have a lot of stuff, but we lack much substance- the gap of access and knowledge on an interpersonal level, a gap of differing wealth.

The quote "...But if you have come because your liberation is tied up with mine, then let us work together," is a great takeaway. Thank you for posting

Dena Patrick said...

This is absolutely brilliant, Ankita!

My daughter is in college, interested in following a similar path as yours, so I shall forward this to her.

This quote gave me goosebumps:

"If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together."

That is it. Right there. That is indeed the takeaway. It's not about charity, it's about justice...and the recognition that we are all truly in this together.

I look forward to reading more of your thoughts and insights.

Best wishes,


Chummilu said...


Your insight and thoughtfulness is a lesson for all of us. I also love that your writing style is such a bare reflection of your personality; soothing, firm, and just plain beautiful. I need to read this everyday!

I touched on a similar topic in a post on my blog from when I was in Indicorps: