HAVE A LITTLE FAITH IN ME
It is not easy for me to write a story of resistance, much less of my life. Not because it awakens painful memories, or because I don’t think it important to reflect on the past, but because I feel the readers expect a linear story, a series of cause-and-effect experiences to explain where and what I am today. Something that fits together like perfect puzzle pieces to explain the question that puzzles everyone, "You left all of that for this?!? You left an upper middle class life in America, a Harvard education, the prospects of earning US$100,000 a year, of having a nice car, nice clothes, modern luxuries… You left all of that to come to India, to volunteer in a peoples’ movement, to live simply, to ride a bicycle, to work for social justice, harmony and a meaningful life for all peoples? How is that possible?"
It is not only possible; but it is the only thing that makes any sense to me. It is natural, normal, clear… in fact, it doesn’t even seem like resistance to me. It’s more like irresistible.
Of course, I realize that many others look upon my choices as alternately wondrous, ironic or stupid, depending on their particular perspective. For example, those people sympathetic to such impulses themselves, but lacking the courage to act on them, marvel in awe and surprise at my decisions. "I can’t do it myself, you know, but it’s great that you are, Shilpa." Others are simply shocked, overwhelmed by the irony they perceive. "But you went to Harvard…" they trail off. And then there is the segment that outright condemns me. "It’s completely stupid — you could be rich and successful. Instead, you want to do social work?" they reproach, disgust in their voice, irritation in their eyes. Maybe they feel betrayed.
To conjure up an explanation that will satisfy all of these different audiences is indeed a challenge. Because I don’t think where I am or who I am is particularly amazing, contradictory, or foolish. Nor do I consider my work to be ‘social work’ (in the common definition/connotation of the term, as in "helping neglected groups to fit into society"). Rather, having unmasked the system at least partially, if not fully, and having confidence in my self and the common sense to know right from wrong, I cannot imagine another path.
I close my eyes. The first word that pops into my head: faith. It all hinges on faith. My faith in certain avenues or possibilities broke down; my faith in others strengthened. I began to place more trust and hope in faith — in my soul /heart /gut — instead of relying on rational frameworks, cost-benefit analyses, pros and cons tables, etc. to guide me. Faith also enabled me to get over a fear of the future, to free myself of the need for ‘security’, which so many middle-class youth and adults use as their excuse for inaction. Continuously reorganizing my faith, forsaking old assumptions and embracing new conceptions and possibilities — that may be the single best descriptive to explain my journey, my choices and my resistance.
I am 10 years old. It is the summer of 1987, normal in all ways. I am with my friend, Anshal, whose parents, like mine, emigrated from India to the US over 15 years ago. We are swimming at a pool near her house, having a great time, jumping off the diving board, finding pennies in the deep end, eating junk food on our ‘rest’ break. Two older kids, a white girl and boy, approach: "Go back to your own country, you stupid Hindus!" They taunt us and run off. We don’t know what to say or do, except to imagine snappy replies to put them in their place. But they are already long gone. Flash forward in the future: the same scene repeats itself, in a parking lot, in a shopping center, in school. Despite my perfect American accent, the right clothes, my cool shoes, I will never be a real part of the U.S.A. I’m not white. And if you’re not white, and/or if you’re not rich (as I learned later), you will never belong. Incidentally, this criteria excludes 85% of Americans themselves, who are either not rich, or not white, or both.
If I tell you my background, I have a feeling that my story of resistance will seem ridiculous to you. Let’s take school: I was a straight-A student for 12 years; I was sent to ‘gifted’ classes from first to eighth grade, and then to honors and advanced placement classes all throughout high school. I won awards in all different kinds of subjects and activities, from science to good citizenship to public speaking to tennis. I graduated third in my class, was accepted to Harvard University, and voted ‘Most Likely to Be a Millionaire’ by my classmates (which goes to show you how much they knew). In the standard language that plagues our society, I was a ‘success’. Everyone expected me to go on and do BIG things (read: make BIG money).
But here is the catch: Such school success did not really mean anything to me. Although many people may equate A-grades with intelligence, I certainly didn’t. Scoring well on tests just came easy to me; I didn’t have to put forth serious effort. While many of my classmates would work long hours, struggle and suffer to get high grades, I would quickly breeze through my homework and be in bed by 9:00 p.m. So why should I feel I had accomplished anything? I didn’t. The whole arrangement was just a game.
And it seemed to me an inherently unfair game. First, it was highly selective. Because I scored well on some random tests in the first grade, I was given chances to do interesting things for the next 12 years, while the vast majority of my classmates, who didn’t score as high, were condemned to dull monotony for 12 years.1 I would get to research current affairs and come up with creative solutions to problems; I would get to read powerful literature and challenge myself with neat puzzles. My classmates, however, would be stuck doing repetitive problems in math workbooks or reading the boring stories of textbooks. Why weren’t they given these chances?
I knew my classmates weren’t average or stupid. All of them were gifted in diverse ways — at making friends, resolving conflicts, playing sports, making people laugh, drawing, etc. — but that didn’t seem to matter at all in school. These talents were classified as either extra-curricular, or they were deemed disruptive/distracting to the effective management of the classroom. They weren’t measured by tests, so they didn’t count in the school framework. And so most of my friends and classmates were made to believe they weren’t ‘smart’. They were taught to think less of themselves and, as a result, would either become withdrawn or aggressive over time. But I knew that their qualities/gifts were important for the functioning of friendships and of life. Without them, school would have been completely unbearable for all of us.
Another part of the game was competition, which I completely hated. Competition pervaded schooling and then spilled over into all other aspects of living. We children and adults were compared and ranked in everything, from intelligence and beauty, to height and weight, to money and possessions, etc. In fact, it seemed my peers and I would constantly be placed in this race towards the top (or away from the bottom, depending on how you look at it). But I despised this endless fixation with superiority/inferiority. It was a cruel and unforgiving game that I did not want to play, because I hated how it would make everyone feel. The myth that ‘competition brings out the best in you’ is total nonsense! Competition only brings out the worst of the ego: conceit in the winners, self-loathing in the losers. I am sure my sensitivity and aversion to competition comes, at least in part, from my upbringing as a brown-skinned minority in a racist country like America.2 But whatever the root of my repugnance, the extraordinary emphasis on competition gave me yet another reason to doubt the purpose and process of schooling.
School was not something I enjoyed or took pride in, but something I had to do. It was a compulsory task that, at its best, was an irritation. But I was lucky in a way. Because school came easy to me, I didn’t have to waste too much time on it. Therefore, I had time in my childhood and adolescence to do things I really liked: reading fairytales, creating art, writing poems, making up new games, dancing, etc. I had a wide and diverse range of friends, of all ages, races, religions and backgrounds, and learned so much with them/from them about cultures, knowledges and friendship.
With the support of my parents, and especially of my older brother, I also traveled and worked in different places. At age 11, I began to help my father do the computerized billing for his water cooler business; by age 14, I did it on my own. When I was 15, I spent the summer in Italy with a host family. It was a wonderful experience — my first time traveling alone. I found myself speaking the Italian language without a teacher or formal instruction, navigating in new places, from the big city of Rome to small villages in the countryside, and making many new friends. I realized then that I could do a lot of things by myself.
The independence was intoxicating, I must admit, and when I returned home, it led to several clashes with my parents and teachers. I wanted to be free to learn and do as I saw fit, but felt confined by the schooling system and social expectations. It wasn’t that school became more difficult; it just became more time-consuming and stifling. As I got older, I was given more homework, exams, etc., and didn’t have the time to pursue as many of my other interests. One of the great losses I felt was in the area of art: I couldn’t draw or paint or create as much as I used to, because I was expected to concentrate more on ‘practical’ courses, like science and math and English. So I searched for other avenues through which to express my interests and creativity. In the latter years of high school, I became busy for at least three hours every day in extra-curricular activities: tennis, public speaking, school newspaper, inter-cultural club, social service work, environmental concerns club, human rights issues.
It was in these latter activities that I was able to give expression to my urges for justice and a better world. I remember that my concerns with women’s issues, violence, poverty, environmental damage, racism and human rights seemed unusual to my peers or teachers (they called me a rebel, feminist, etc.). But over the years, I began to realize that the outlets I had to express these concerns were incomplete and ultimately futile. No matter what I did, no matter how hard I tried, the same problems would keep materializing, or the situation would become even worse. In fact, because I tried to work within the system — using its tools, strategies, programs, institutions — I went through several stages of hope and disillusionment in my search for social justice.
I began by doing charity work, serving the elderly and poor, collecting food and clothes, raising money for other resources and services. But after a year or two, I realized that these activities did not do anything to change the system that neglected poor and elderly people. Charity simply tried to alleviate their sufferings by giving them ‘things’, by redistributing material objects, instead of supporting peoples’ skills and talents so that they could make a better life. I also found these activities to be too micro-focused, with little attention being paid to the big picture. Social service workers tended to see ‘problems’ as isolated phenomena and concentrated on individual shortcomings or difficulties. They failed to connect these to larger political-economic institutions and forces.
After understanding these gaps, I thought it would be better to try a different approach. The problem was not with individuals; it was that these institutions were malfunctioning. They just weren’t working for all people. So what we needed to do was to reform the system — to fix its failures, so that it could benefit everyone, not just a few. After all, the civil rights and women’s rights struggles in the US were about changing the government’s laws and policies, so that everyone would have a fair chance to succeed in the system. I then began to focus more energy on environmental and human rights issues. I thought that by writing letters to government officials, both in the U.S. and in other countries, and by supporting legal cases, I could voice my concerns and help to initiate changes in laws and policies. I thought this was what democracy was all about — making the political system more fair and just for everyone. But this belief also shattered.
I remember when I wrote to then-President George Bush (Sr.) in 1992, urging him to attend the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. I listed all the reasons why it was important for the US to participate, given its tremendous use of the earth’s resources and the ill-effects of its industries. I also described how the U.S. could be a world leader of a different kind, by seriously curbing CFC and CO2 emissions, thereby protecting the ozone layer, as well as preventing the greenhouse effect. What did I receive in return for my impassioned plea? an autographed picture of George Bush, standing at the Grand Canyon (a US National Park), squinting at the camera, and a canned reply letter from one of Bush’s secretaries, stating that his advisors were considering if U.S. interests would fit with the goals of Earth Summit. Needless to say, under Bush’s orders, the U.S. delegation undermined the entire Summit proceedings. That cured me of my illusion that the ‘democratic strategy’ of letter-writing/ petitions/ campaigns could fundamentally alter government policies. Clearly, there were bigger power games at play. I also began to see that "U.S. interests" were something separate from the interests of Mother Nature, the world’s majorities, and even most U.S. citizens.3
I then thought that we could address the failures of the political-economic system if we started earlier, before the ‘problems’ began. We could use the world’s best institution — education — to make a difference. If children and young people got a good education, then maybe a better and fairer system would emerge for everyone.
This theory was tested in college, where I was involved in a program called CityStep. Each year, my college classmates and I worked with five different groups of children, ages 11-13, from different schools in the area, using dance to build their self-esteem, creativity, and teamwork. Each year would be amazing: kids who were shy and withdrawn would come out and be expressive in performance; new friendships were made; confidence restored. But this was only for one or two years, and only for one hour, three days a week. What about the rest of the time? What about the constant onslaught these children faced ¾ through the cruelty of schooling, through an idiotic media fixated on rampant consumerism, and through problems of abuse/ divorce/ alcoholism in their families? CityStep might temporarily boost children’s immunity against this onslaught and heal some wounds. But it couldn’t challenge or resolve what was causing loss, hurt, pain, turmoil, conflict, in the first place. That suffering would not only remain, but it would grow more powerful over time.
Slowly, I began to understand that all the well-meaning activities allowed by the larger system — charity, letter-writing/petitions, extracurricular programs — were only ‘reforms’. They could temporarily fill the cracks in the system (or disguise them), but can never remove its rotten core. In the last several years, I have to come to realize that what I saw as ‘failures’ were actually evidence of the dominant system’s ‘success’. Its tools, institutions, strategies, personnel, etc. are structured such that they must produce these individual, social and ecological crises.
I am 18 years old. It is the summer of 1995; a blistering heat wave has swept over the city of Chicago, setting new records for high temperatures and killing over five hundred elderly people and children, who suffocated alone in their dreary apartments. Like almost all cities in the U.S., Chicago has a high rate of violence, particularly among the poor and marginalized. I am working with surgeons and nurses in Cook County Hospital, the largest public hospital in the city, on violence prevention issues. I decide to spend one night in the Trauma Unit, to learn more about the medical side of violence. This, of course, pleases my mother (a doctor herself) since she hopes it will encourage me to pursue a career in medicine. That night, a thirty-year-old Latino man is brought in with a gunshot wound to the arm. I enter the operating room and watch as the surgeons begin to remove the shrapnel from the wound, clean and stitch it. My mind wanders: Why is this man here? Why was he shot? What is going on in his community, in our society, that we shoot each other, that we allow violence to be an acceptable response to our problems? What are these problems and where did they come from? My mind clears and I realize: Medicine cannot answer any of these questions. I no longer consider becoming a doctor. I pursue the social sciences more vigorously, seeking ideas, knowledges, possibilities, to answer these questions. My mother, unfortunately, is disappointed in my choices.
I have often wondered how people can do something they know to be wrong or cruel or pointless or irrelevant. Don’t they get a sick, horrible feeling in the pit of their stomach, like I do? If I persist in doing or condoning what I know is not right, that dull ache in my gut becomes unbearable and I vomit. Like I did for three days in Morocco4 , when it hit me that international development projects were a sham.
Of course, I had already learned, from my summer internship in Washington, DC, that international development was mostly about making money for U.S. companies and consultants. But I was still hopeful that, despite the emphasis on profits, maybe individuals were still trying to do good things. I had been sent by my consulting company to Morocco, in order to assist in the administration of a girls’ education project, an effort by the U.S. Agency of International Development and the Government of Morocco to put more girls in schools and keep them there. I met many Moroccans, both in the countryside and in the capital city of Rabat, and spent a lot of time in the project office. After several days of interacting with both groups of people, the Moroccans and the Americans/Canadians, the reality of Development dawned on me.
Development operates on the same principles as racism. It classifies people into categories of ‘developed’ and ‘undeveloped’, or ‘educated’ and ‘uneducated’, i.e., ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’. It then uses this classification to destroy peoples’ self-esteems and cultures and to replace them with lifeless, soulless imitations of the West.5 Development suggests that what you are (inferior) is nothing in comparison to what you can be (superior). Your state of being (defined primarily in material terms) depends simply on how well you accept the prescriptions/ institutions/ attitudes of the existing superiors. (Note: ‘you’ can refer to individuals, communities, or countries). Development is thus one of the ways in which Euro-American institutions, like governments, militaries, and corporations, practice exploitation beyond their own country’s borders.6
What makes Development even worse are its agents. The majority of American and European consultants/administrators I met were arrogant, conniving and self-serving, out to gain fame and fortune under the convenient missionary-like guise of ‘saving the wretched of the earth’.7 Although some people did not fit this description, I never found them engaging with the deep-rooted problems of Development. Instead, they enthusiastically carried out their work in accordance with a confused belief: "If I have good intentions and am a nice person, then whatever I do in Development could only be for the common good."
This mindset is most visible in those who advocate Sustainable Development, the latest plastic buzzword/oxymoron in the international junket. I do not doubt that these folks were (and still are) earnestly concerned for people, but to be convinced by this kind of logic is naïve. Clearly, the sincerity of our intentions does not absolve us from analyzing the impacts of our actions. It is that sort of bizarre logic that allows the World Bank to write "Our Dream Is A World Free of Poverty" on the wall of their Washington office, even as their actions ensure greater disparities in material wealth and resources worldwide.
Of course, if World Bank officials, as well as other Development organizations’ agents, were to seriously and critically examine the effects of their policies and projects, they might be unable to live with themselves. If they acknowledged the kinds and amounts of damage that occurred to individuals and communities, to ecosystems, to diverse languages and knowledges, to self-sufficiency and creativity, to balance and justice, as a result of their programs, they might be forced to leave their institutions and search out a different life8 (i.e., give up their luxury cars, designer clothes, five-star restaurant dinners, electronic gadgets, exotic vacations, etc.).
This kind of self- and institutional-reflection is maybe most necessary for those preaching Sustainable Development today, as they have failed to recognize it as a complete contradiction. To "sustain" Development, what is required is more of the same destruction and colonization: How can a country’s economy continue to grow, its standards of living continue to rise, without further industrialization, urbanization, and institutionalization? To demand more schools, hospitals and roads, as Sustainable Development professionals are apt to do, not only misses the larger agenda, but actually wreaks further havoc in the lives of the very people they are trying to "save."
My work on gender issues/women’s rights is an example of how I personally have had to negotiate my own intentions with the impacts of my actions. Women’s studies was the interdisciplinary course I took up in college (along with political science), and much of my work in Development focused on girls’ education (as well as community participation). I was deeply concerned with the injustice women were experiencing on global and local levels. In my initial understanding of the system, it seemed that the root problem lay in claims of superiority and inferiority according to social constructions, like gender, race, class, etc. Uprooting such constructions, and then ensuring that everyone had an equal place in the system/world, then appeared to be the best recourse for eliminating injustice.
However, despite my good intentions, I eventually had to come to terms with the actual impacts of my logic. Just like the mainstream feminist discourse, what I was suggesting put women in a ceaseless race to "catch up" with men. My desire for ‘equality’ or ‘parity’ did not radically challenge the institutions, attitudes, and goals of a political-economic system, fundamentally based on exploitation and injustice. It just made sure that more people fit into it. For example, like their predecessor Colonialism, today Development and Globalization are encouraging brown and black women to escape their ‘patriarchical’ cultures, to become more like their modern Euro-American sisters. But the laws, policies and projects being suggested spell the same disaster for them as they have for their ‘liberated’ sisters: more dependency on external experts, more alienation from one’s self, family, society and nature, more consumerism, more disintegration of life, etc. - or less self-and collective-discovery, less creativity, less meaningful action, and therefore less justice.
This is not to say that women and girls are not experiencing tremendous levels of exploitation and injustice today. There is no doubt that levels of violence against women are rising, that opportunities for girls to explore their full potentials are disappearing, that women’s self-sufficient livelihoods are being quashed, that the consumer cult of beauty and body is destroying both beauty and the body... But what I see now is that for women and girls to experience justice, so must men and boys; they are interdependent and the roots of their crises are the same.
Unlike what most in the Indian women’s movement might say, justice will not come in the form of income generation, reproductive rights, or education programs. Instead of manufacturing micro-credit schemes for women, we must fundamentally renounce those institutions and attitudes that set men and women against one another in a fierce competition for ever-scarce resources and power. Instead of asking women to solve the ‘population problem’, we need to question elites’ and the middle classes’ needless production, selfish consumption and tremendous waste. Instead of forcing more girls to go to schools, we need to collectively dream and create different kinds of relationships and communities, which enable each of us to unfold our full human potentials and live lives more in balance with nature, with each other, and with our most beautiful human spirit. A new vision of gender will only emerge when dominant systems/frameworks of Progress are unlearned.9
Exposing the myths of Development and Gender were almost as powerful as becoming cognizant of the hypocrisy and elitism of Harvard. But while the treachery of the Development Industry unraveled before my eyes in only a few months, Harvard’s maya took me nearly four years to comprehend. I have to admit, I was late in realizing the absurd self-indulgence of academia. Though early on I saw that Harvard was filled with incompetent professors and anti-intellectual students, I still hoped it could be a place of deep learning, radicalism and activism. But by the time I graduated, I began to see it for what it was.
For one, Harvard subscribes to the same narrow notions of intelligence and talent as mainstream schooling does. Indeed, it defines itself by these notions. It capitalizes upon competition, selecting only 1 of every 15 people who apply for admission ¾ people who are already among the top 5% of their classes. Most of those accepted mistakenly believe they ‘deserve’ their admission; it is their just due for their hard work. Indeed, few ever think to question the validity of the schooling system, especially since their entire lives they have been told they are successes in it. As a result, they come to Harvard, like I did, full of enthusiasm and energy, but also with selfishness and arrogance.
At Harvard, we then learn to fine-tune our elitism. Our position on top is constantly affirmed; in speech after speech, we are told how we are the best, the brightest, the cream of the crop. It is seductive and often leaves one feeling giddy with power. In fact, even as we would be further classified and cut down throughout our college experience, most of us still believed the world was ours. We could do anything and be anything we wanted, and we would be in control. A Harvard degree was a one-way ticket to the elite bastions of politics, business, professional services, and academia. We would be the experts, presidents, and CEOs. Who were we to question the system? We would run it and rule it.
Of course, rarely is this articulated so openly. Instead, Harvard claims it has a noble goal: to continuously make significant contributions to the body of human knowledge. As students, we are made to believe in this goal. It justifies our spending hours, days, years, in deep study of some obscure piece of info-knowledge. We are preoccupied with writing papers, reading old texts, completing problems, absorbing, constructing and deconstructing knowledge. All of it seems very good and important. But in this time-consuming process, most of us would become distanced from the world and more selfishly fixated on our own selves and our own (economic) futures. Rarely, if ever, did this info-knowledge challenge current injustice and exploitation. In fact, we weren’t even exposed to it. It was only after I left Harvard that I discovered how many brilliant critical social thinkers never made it to my professors’ syllabuses.
In putting forward such an outspoken critique against Harvard, I realize I risk alienating a number of people, including many of my friends and former classmates, who still believe that Harvard is a good place for real learning. I should qualify what I wrote above: I did learn a lot there, but not in the way that many of you might expect. It wasn’t information or knowledge that I acquired there; I can recall less than 5% of what I studied. But I did meet some amazing people, who feel passionate about their work and who continue to struggle to live in accordance with their deeply moral beliefs. (Of course, I have met such people everywhere; they reaffirm my faith in the ubiquitous-ness of the human spirit.)
At Harvard, I also had a chance to truly see the system, not for what it was theoretically supposed to be, but for what it was. For that I am grateful. The rest — the elitism, the selfishness, the rigid belief in info-knowledge and rationality, the arrogance — I have had to unlearn and I am still unlearning. It isn’t easy but it must be done.
After graduating from Harvard, and finishing a year of trying to unmask the Development industry in Washington, DC, I came to India, to Udaipur, Rajasthan, to be a part of Shikshantar Andolan full-time. In my first year here, I began to understand the idea of an integrated life. Of doing work that one loves and believes in, that brings joy while struggling against pain, that blends all aspects of one’s being and personality into a coherent whole. That first year at Shikshantar was laughter and art and intellectual rigor and sweat and persistence and new friendships and hand/back/leg work and travel and surprise and energy and love. My work itself was a mix of research (on conflict, creativity, Rabindranath Tagore) and action (supporting workshops, facilitating discussions, working with children and youth on art, theater, new games). I had the chance to investigate and understand real-world crises and conflicts, from struggles against big dams to the death of the small farmer. I also was blessed to meet extraordinary people who, maybe by others’ standards, might be called just ordinary. But in them, from them, I saw wisdom, dedication, and firm belief in the true and good. They, like I, am positive that the world can be a better place — more just, harmonious, beautiful, meaningful. And their actions were consistent with these beliefs.
Unlike my activities in high school and in college, my work with Shikshantar is all connected to larger critiques of the system and to regenerating new possibilities for living and learning. Here, we are not trying to fix the system’s ‘failures’, because we understand that the system is succeeding with what its architects and followers intended it to do: to control, to loot, to dehumanize, to destroy, to fail the majority of the world’s people. If we remember this ‘success’, then each action/research we undertake, both personally as well as socially, can dent this system and make space for something different. In this way, these actions will not be attempts to reform or put a band-aid on something that is so dreadfully sick; rather, they will name this sickness openly and search out ways of healing our minds, hearts, bodies and spirits and keeping them healthy.
My life that first year with Shikshantar gave me faith in a process of learning as living and living as learning.
I am 23 years old. It is the summer of 2000, a drenching wet washes over Washington, DC. I am working on a critical study of a World Bank project in Bangladesh that provides scholarships for girls to attend secondary school. The problems I have uncovered with the project are blatant and disturbing; yet I know that the World Bank will ignore my study and go ahead and fund the second phase of the project. After all, the World Bank is an international money-lending institution that works for the benefit of industrialized countries to maintain control over the South. Its agents are ultimately loan officers who want to make money. Their ignoring my study is to be expected.
Anyway, I too am making a decision this summer: do I go to graduate school to complete a masters’ degree in education, or do I return to India, to continue my work with Shikshantar? On one hand are the expectations set forth by the educational establishment and the larger political economy — namely that a degree means ‘I am qualified’. It represents expertise and opens up greater prestige, not to mention higher paying jobs. I hear my parents’ voices ringing in my ears. On the other hand is my voice of reason, my conscience. I don’t believe a degree means anything — it’s just part of the game I’ve known all along. When I have a choice not to play it, why should I? Though I agonize all summer, weighing real and imaginary pros and cons, the decision comes to me one morning in a flash: no graduate school, no expert future, back to India, back to being the me I know I am.
Is this resistance? Isn’t it just natural? To believe that I have the capacity to learn things in life with ‘regular’ people, to know that I do not need to be sheltered in ivory towers and elite circles, to have faith in myself and my potential — isn’t this the foundation of human life? I know I don’t need credentials as proof I have learned something, just as I know that many people who label themselves ‘experts’ and ‘professionals’ are doing the worst kinds of damage to individuals, communities and nature. Instead of hiding behind such a designation, claiming an illegitimate superiority, I know I can set up and follow through with my own learning interests, even if they seem bizarre or insignificant to my family or friends.
Like in August 2001, I spent two weeks working on an organic farm, Angelic Organics, in Illinois, USA. What an amazing place. Like being in India with Shikshantar, I felt whole, full, renewed and, at the same time, eternal. My hands were in the dirt, in the earth, planting, weeding and harvesting. And from the earth came sweet and beautiful gifts: peppers, corn, melons, onions, tomatoes, greens, herbs. I saw a rainbow almost every day. I slept outside, in a tent beneath the stars, with the crickets lulling me to sleep. I milked the goats, brushed the horses, fed the ducks and chickens. I laughed with new friends, listened and spoke of struggles in everything from globalization to love. It was magical, this farm and its simple spell. It reaffirmed my faith that there are amazing people in the world, who stand by the strength of their convictions to live honestly, with integrity and whose concern for life and living come through in every step and breath.
A few weeks later, two planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City. And a month later, the US launched a war on innocent people, mainly because their country’s despotic government (once favored by the US) insists on blocking multinational corporations’ access to oil and natural gas reserves. Is this the same world? I asked myself.
As many times as my faith is shaken, it is renewed. Sometimes I feel like despairing. When I acknowledge World Bank power and multinational might, when I listen to biased and moronic media, when I see and feel the devastation wrought by the schooling system, or when it seems thousands more are going to die for America to salvage its ego and continue its greed. All seems dark and horrible.
But then, as if sent by a higher force, I meet someone or go some place where it is not so, where people are struggling with the system, challenging it and standing up to it, unfolding their lives in new ways, demonstrating that we can be different. Then my faith returns; it is transformed and rejuvenated. There is hope and I am part of it.
Maybe some of you are thinking, "Well, that’s great, Shilpa. You can afford to do this, to make these changes. You grew up in the U.S.; you had money and possessions. You can afford to give it all up. What about those people who don’t have so much? What should they do?" This critique comes most often from my middle class friends and family, who don’t belong to the category of people they seem to express concern for. But rather than get angry or become defensive, I want to let them in on a little secret: They can afford it too.
I won’t pretend it’s easy to make such changes in one’s lifestyle. It certainly hasn’t been a smooth road for me; my parents, much of my extended family and many of my friends cannot understand what I am doing or why I am doing it. They think that I should make a lot of money now while I’m young and do ‘social work’ only when I’m old. They see the accumulation of material possessions as a worthwhile pursuit — "We all need money to survive" "I like nice things!" — and do not know what to make of my lack of interest in earning money and consuming. Some of my friends and relatives have gone so far as to cut me out of their lives, while others put me down or mock my choices.
While not having everyone’s support can be difficult and hurtful, I do understand that it is to be expected. After all, they too have been corrupted by the same political-economic-social-educational system. And while I respect them and know that they have my best interests at heart, I also know I cannot stray from my convictions or suppress my faith.
But here is where I see the most hope: If many more of us give up our support of the system, if we unmask it for what it is and refuse to abide by it, then I guarantee that such concerns and assumptions (about there being enough for the poor) will no longer be relevant. It is because of us, the members of that 15% of the world’s population who consume 85% of its resources, that the majority of people in the world do not have so much. Not because they don’t work hard, not because they don’t deserve it. Far from it. But to see this, we need to let go of blind faith in an inherently flawed system and stop kidding ourselves about its potential to provide for everyone.
The least that I have learned from my diverse experiences is that pursuing this type of Progress is not only selfish, but self-destructive. If we persist, we risk not only killing ourselves, but taking the entire living planet down with us.
But if we recover our faith in each other, in our questions, and in our own potential, and have the courage to act on this faith - like I believe each and every human being can do - then the possibilities are infinite.
1I say 12 years, because students are tracked heavily in America’s schooling system. That is, a child who is deemed ‘smart’ in the first grade is placed in a track that is said to be appropriate for their intelligence level. This track usually consists of challenging classes, higher level materials and special opportunities. Similarly, there are tracks created for ‘average’ and ‘stupid’ children. Once in a track, it is very hard for a child to break out of it, because a) the system is very rigid and does not like to make changes and b) the tracks are self-perpetuating. If one is consistently told that she is ‘smart’, that she can accomplish anything, then she believes it. Her work reflects this belief. On the other hand, if one is told he is ‘average’, or she is ‘stupid’, then they believe this and their work reflects it. The initial ‘prophecy’ thus fulfills itself.
2Some readers may not be aware of, or may be surprised by, racism in America. They need to recall that the U.S. ‘superpower’ is built on genocide (of the native ‘red Indians’), on slavery (of Africans) and on exploitation (of immigrants, first from Europe, then from Asia and the rest of the world). Race is a social construction, defined primarily by color of skin: white, black, yellow, red and brown. Racism is deciding that someone is superior or inferior, based on their skin color, and then treating them accordingly. It has always been a part of the American experience. While there have been civil struggles to fight racism, many people believe that racism is institutionalized in America; it is enshrined in the very laws and structures of the country. The USA’s racism also extends overseas, through economic/political/military/educational institutions and policies.
3George Bush, Jr.’s (a.k.a. Dubya) current war on terrorism, which has first terrorized innocent Afghanis and now is seeking to do the same with Iraqis, is another example of this point.
4Morocco is a beautiful country located in the north-western corner of Africa. It was a French colony that became independent in the 1950s. The people of Morocco draw their ancestry from Mediterranean Europe, central Asia, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.
5Three years ago (1999), my experiences led me to this gut feeling. Since then, I have read a number of studies which have deepened and expanded my understanding. These include works by critical thinkers on Development, such as Ivan Illich, Vandana Shiva, Wolfgang Sachs, Claude Alvares, Helena Norberg Hodge, Majid Rahnema, Munir Fasheh, Gustavo Esteva, Madhu Suri Prakash, as well as their predecessors: Mohandas Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Vinoba Bhave, Steve Biko, Malcolm X, etc.
6Aside from Development programs and projects, these countries use other avenues for exploiting worldwide, including biopiracy and ‘free’ trade, unilateral air strikes and economic sanctions.
7Graham Hancock’s Lords of Poverty (1988) and Mike Maren’s Road to Hell (2000) unveil this guise in detail.
8Several prominent Development critics have done just that, including S.N. Nagarajan, David Korten, Graham Hancock, Walden Bello, etc.
9I have elaborated on gender in a recent article, "Engendering New Visions of Gender" (2001), available at www.swaraj.org/shikshantar