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New Name, New Feeling

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After three months working on the Umoja Centre in Kenya earlier this year, a couple of months in the US for rest and resupply, I returned to India on 2nd July with the intention of facilitating the next iteration of Dream Class. However, my plans quickly changed after falling seriously ill the same evening the day I arrived, which caused me to reassess my involvement with the class, ultimately setting it on an entirely new path.

Dream Class, if you are unfamiliar, is a learning journey I have been facilitating annually since 2013 for a group of girls and young women from the Gandhi Leprosy Seva Sangh in Ahmedabad, an underprivileged leprosy community I have been doing volunteer work in for the past several years. The purpose of the class has been to empower its members to pursue their dreams, which in many cases, had to do with attending college. Dream Class was, in part, responsible for the first women in the leprosy community's history since 1968 to do just that, who even recently graduated from their respective institutions.

One of the unintended consequences of the class was that it normalised the idea of girls and young women pursuing their education. Previously, doing so was considered a radical act since the prevailing cultural attitude states that higher education and employment is strictly the domain of boys. This is particularly true in a community like this. College is not free, so why would a family invest their limited resources in such a vain, fruitless endeavour?

Yet, India is rapidly developing and emerging as a serious player on the world stage and, by consequence, leaving behind some of its more conservative and patriarchal values. Ahmedabad, similarly, is a fast-growing metropolis with an expanding middle class and no shortage of job opportunities, where it is not unusual to find women with careers and standing. Parents of our Dream Class participants saw two things: 1) how much happier their daughters were doing what they wanted to do and 2) the tangible prospect of them finding well-paying employment and potentially being able to lift the home out of poverty.

What started off as a somewhat controversial experiment in 2013, Dream Class has now turned into an established, valued program that is intended to be offered once in a year from July-February.

A New Direction

   Me with Dream Class members.

Me with Dream Class members.

For better or worse, I have been front and centre with Dream Class since its inception and have been responsible for its organisation, curriculum, and delivery.

I was in a favourable position to start the class because of having spent nearly three years living in the community as a full-time resident, which ended up generating a healthy amount of mutual love, trust, and respect between me and many community members. If I had tried to start a class that focused on the dreams of girls and young women when I first arrived, it would have been far too controversial—you could even say offensive. But because I already had so much history in the community, parents were willing (a little reluctantly) to take a chance on me.

Though things have always more or less run smoothly, as time went on, I realised there were a number of reasons why I was not the ideal candidate to keep leading the experience. For example, I must communicate with the group through a translator, which never felt sustainable. Though I don't like using the term, I am a foreigner and no matter how much time I spend in the country, I will never fully understand its nuances the way being born there affords. Although not a deal breaker, being a member of the opposite sex also brought with it certain limitations and subtle awkwardness.

Nevertheless, it was still my intention to lead this year's class. What I did not intend was to get so sick the same day I arrived to do so and to practically be on bed rest for about a month. I was struck with a mysterious fever that had varying degrees of intensity during the day, which sometimes had my temperature soaring to 40 degrees celsius (104F). I was drained of any ability to effectively do anything constructive, let alone facilitate the class, and I found myself with hours and hours during the day to reflect.

During these reflections and a few trips into the city — bouncing around on the crazy roads in a rickshaw — to get blood work done, it became perfectly clear there was no way I could lead the class this year. I mention the rickshaw because it takes an hour for me to reach the leprosy community this way and the journey requires you to travel through some highly polluted and congested parts of town, which leaves you feeling shipped wrecked after. In the past, I used to enjoy this commute and viewed it as a kind of pilgrimage. Sometimes, I would pack into a crowded "sharing" rickshaw with ten other passengers and half my body hanging outside, as we merrily barrelled down the highway toward our various destinations. Being so ill, I didn't see how I could do this anymore and it also seemed no longer appropriate or dignified for me to do so.

I looked into hiring a private vehicle to take me to and from the community but decided against this because it's an expensive solution, the optics of which didn't sit well with me. Plus, I would have to show up right before class and leave immediately after, forsaking valuable time I had during the day to make observations and have conversations with people. Either I turn the class over to somebody else to teach or I let go of it. Those were the two options I was looking at.

Enter Aruna

   Aruna Chauhan with 2017 Girls Circle members.

Aruna Chauhan with 2017 Girls Circle members.

I've written about Aruna Chauhan many times on this blog before. In 2011, my first year living in the community, she and I worked together on many different projects and she helped translate for me when I was particularly dependent on others for that kind of support. Aruna is the subject of a documentary film I helped produce called Seeds, and she was the primary source of inspiration for the original members of Dream Class, being the first to literally fight for her dream of going to college (which made it easier for others to do the same). Aruna has also been involved with Dream Class as a co-facilitator since 2015 and, over the past year or so, became a wife, mother, and college graduate.

If anybody could take over Dream Class, it would be her. After I got well enough to travel to the community, we sat down to talk about the possibility. 

Dream Class has "worked" in large part because of my love of it and inspiration to support the girls and young women growing up in this community. That feeling is what smoothed out the language and cultural barriers and carried the class, and is not something you can just transfer to somebody else. After explaining the situation I was in, I asked Aruna if she had any inspiration to carry Dream Class forward in the spirit that created it but in her own way. I shared that I've never really known what I was doing and would sometimes figure out the class agenda minutes prior to when everybody would arrive. Dream Class has never been about teaching or preaching but, instead, creating an inspired space for the participants to meet, share, and grow (or not) in their own individual ways. As long as Aruna had the heartfelt desire and ability to show up, I knew everything else would fall into place, as it has been doing since the beginning.

She agreed, and for the past two months, has been meeting with this year's members every Sunday afternoon for two hours and will continue to do so until the end of January, or right before exam season when studying takes priority over everything else.

   Aruna leading a session.

Aruna leading a session.

As for me, I wound up cutting my time in India short and returned to the US about two weeks ago, mainly to receive treatment for lingering symptoms from the illness I picked up in July. Each week, Aruna has committed to sending me a short summary of the class with a photo, which is a practice we agreed on to help ensure the integrity of the programme. When Aruna started facilitating on her own without me, she would double check to make sure I wasn't coming to class (as if it were hard to believe) and would ask me for some input on what to do. I told her simply to do what she wanted to do and that the doing was secondary to being with the group in a loving spirit, and that she would likely figure it out as she went along. Now, almost two months later, she has stopped asking me for advice and based on the recent updates and photos she has been sharing, it seems like we have performed a successful transition.

New Name — Girls Circle

As Aruna and I were discussing the ins and outs of her running Dream Class on her own, a new name for it sprung up spontaneously from some well in my mind.

   Girls Circle, Diwali 2017.

Girls Circle, Diwali 2017.

Instead of Dream Class, we are now calling this programme Girls Circle. This is because in a circle, there is no visible point. If there is a point in a circle, then it is a target. In a circle, there is togetherness, inclusion, and space in the middle that relates to and informs those who hold or create it.

The name Dream Class gave the class a "point"—the focus on dreams. While that still is a major theme in Girls Circle, it is no longer the only one. In fact, I would say the experience is now more like a support group that is relieved of any burden of solving a problem or pushing the members in any particular direction, even a noble one. This, to me, seemed more truthful to what we actually have been doing over the years, took some pressure off Aruna, and made it kinder to the participants since now there is no intent to do anything to me, except freely offer kindness.

There is trust built into this setup that any results will happen on their own, in the right way and at the right time. Also there is loving detachment, knowing that the journey is the destination and anything else that happens is like icing on the cake—nice but not the point so to speak.

I plan on continuing to be intimately involved with Girls Circle for as long as it continues to last, but from behind the scenes. I will offer support to Aruna, finance the programme's expenses, and drop in on the group when I travel through India.

In terms of the sustainability of this programme, we are now on a much better path.