Lessons From India

Leaders singing Dalit freedom songs at a Dalit Foundation workshop in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India; photo by Abby Bellows.

Lessons From India:
a new context for community organizing
by Abby Bellows

After five years of organizing clergy around social justice issues in the Bronx, I headed to India intensely curious. Would the grassroots leaders that the American Jewish World Service Volunteer Corps matched me with find my practice of community organizing relevant? Would I be able to extract lessons from the Indian social movements that had long inspired me? After four months of teaching and learning from Indian activists, I was amazed by the fruitfulness of our exchange. I discovered that many Indian organizing practices can nurture the Jewish community’s swelling interest in organizing.

Take Risks – When Strategic

As I entered the site of the Chengara Land Struggle in southern India, accompanied by Indian leaders I was training, I noticed colorful flags hanging from the trees. They gave way to black plastic tents; wiry children within stared out at us. Some 20,000 Dalits (formerly “Untouchables”) and indigenous people had occupied these 6,000 acres for the past three years demanding land that they were legally due. By doing so, they had prevented this government land from being turned over to a rubber company. One of the leaders explained to me that when the government tried to evict the landless families, 25 Dalits climbed trees, fastened saris to branches, and tied the other end around their necks. They threatened to jump to their deaths if the police forced them out. I realized with a shudder that the fabrics at the entrance to Chengara were these same saris – their battle flags.

I found myself singing under my breath – Mah nora ha’makom ha’zeh, How awe-inspiring is this place. All the Letters-to-the-Editor and demonstrations I had helped organize in college, in the Bronx, and with my synagogue could not compare to the risks these Dalit leaders had taken.

At the same time, I worried that the Indian leaders I was training would resort to dire measures too quickly. I had already met several leaders on hunger strike for “Dalit rights” who could not articulate a specific demand, deadline, or the names of relevant decision-makers. They had passion and courage but little strategy.

I taught them organizing strategy as I had learned it in the US – analyzing power structures, picking winnable goals, and escalating pressure. As they jotted notes, I realized that the methodical strategies we use back home could benefit from their boldness and vice versa.

Beyond Give a Man a Fish…”

When I led trainings on Methods of Social Change for Avodah or Jewish Funds for Justice, I contrasted direct service and organizing. Direct service – volunteering at a soup kitchen, for example – addresses vital needs today but does not address the scarcity of good jobs that drives the same people to the soup kitchen tomorrow. Service is often done by a “provider” to a “client,” whereas organizing aims to be driven by the people most affected by the problems at hand. Admittedly, the workshops I led were slanted toward organizing. Like others, I was concerned that so many synagogues focus solely on Mitzvah Day instead of also tapping into the Jewish community’s power for lasting organizing victories.

Social change in the Indian context unravels this whole paradigm. If a social worker helps a village secure food today, this “service” will have little lasting impact. If, on the other hand, the social worker helps the village secure land suitable for farming from the government, this “service” can have the lasting impact associated with organizing. Furthermore, rather than assume that a service-provider encourages dependency, the question in India is what approach the provider takes. If a social worker fills out land applications on behalf of residents, they remain dependent “clients.” However, if the social worker trains community members to see government land as their legal right, as it is in India, and together with them files land applications, then long-term leadership has been built.

Therefore, the devaluation of direct service in parts of the Jewish social justice world must be reconsidered. Certain types of direct service, if done the right way, can produce the lasting change and leadership usually attributed to organizing. This can inform the type of direct service that Jewish communities engage in as well as the relationship between various methods of social change.

One of the street children who participates in Khoj, an organization that builds the skills of children who live in the street medians of New Delhi. On this day, the children made butterflies.

Insist on I-Thou Relationships

The first step of community organizing is usually connecting people to one another. Whether in large synagogues, transient colleges, or a neighborhood of Russian immigrants, building relationships is a precondition for identifying common concerns and amassing the people power necessary to produce change. Nonetheless, this stage can also be exhausting.

So I was thrilled to discover in India that connecting people to each other was often unnecessary. In a country where 70 percent of the population lives in villages, people in a particular community already know each other.

For instance, when I made a field visit in Haryana, a local leader called an impromptu meeting and 50 people showed up that evening. I had never seen such an easy mobilization before.

However, I found that simply being connected is not a recipe for social change. The best illustration comes from Pandiyan, a Dalit leader in Tamil Nadu. He visited a Self-Help Group, the term for a village savings collective. For five years, the same women had come together every week to do financial transactions.

“What is the impact of the group?” Pandiyan asked them. They responded enthusiastically, “Now we are economically sound because we save together.”

Panidyan asked whether their children were in school. The women said some were, but some grazed goats for money.

“But you just told me that you’re economically sound!” Pandiyan exclaimed.

There was a long silence. Eventually one woman spoke up. “My husband is an alcoholic,” she explained, tears starting to well up in her eyes. “He stands outside our meetings – he is waiting around the corner right now – and when I leave the meeting, he takes my money to go drink. When I protest or try to spend it first, he beats me.”

“Have you tried to go to someone else’s house to cook for yourself and your children and not feed him, as punishment?” Pandiyan asked.

“Yes,” she replied. “I cooked at a friend’s house and did not make any for my husband. But when I got home, he beat me even worse.”

“Did you try to go to the police?”

“I can’t,” she said. “I would be terribly ostracized if any man saw me there alone.” After some time, she continued. “It’s not just me. All these women have alcoholics as husbands. They beat us and we can’t go to the police.”

The other women slowly nodded. Others started to confess. It was a huge problem in their community, and for all these years they had never talked about the fact that the money they dealt with each week in the Self-Help Group was not really going toward their family’s well-being or their economic independence.

After listening for a time, Pandiyan asked, “What do you want to do about it?”

It was as if he had released a cork. They began coming up with strategies to address the problem. “We could invite a doctor to talk to the men about the medical consequences of alcohol abuse. We could convene our husbands for you to talk to them, Pandiyan. They might listen to a man’s advice about how to be a good husband. We could ask the NGO to file police charges on our behalf to avoid going publicly to the station.”

The room buzzed with energy. As Pandiyan helped them develop next steps, he realized they had been connected for five years but were not organized around the issues that really kept them up at night.

I realized that, in this case, the Indian context was more similar to the American Jewish context than it seemed at first glance. Perhaps we know each other’s names but not our deeper stories. We can all strive toward Buber’s ideal of personal and honest I-Thou relationships.

Those trusting relationships are what enabled the landless people of Chengara to tie those saris around their throats as the police approached. Their strength and resiliency can inspire us to deepen our organizing, enriched by cross-cultural insights.

Abby Bellows works at Jewish Funds for Justice, where she runs a campaign for more constructive public discourse focused on Glenn Beck. Previously she was the director of congregational organizing at the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition and is active in independent havurot and minyanim.

This post is from the just-released PresenTense Jewish Social Action Now issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.