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By John G. Sommer
With Empowering the Oppressed, John G. Sommer offers Unitarian Universalists (UUs) a primer on the innovative people-powered justice movements that the UU Holdeen India Program has been partnering with for decades. Congregational justice programs can learn much from this approach and certainly take inspiration from the work being faithfully supported in their name.
This Discussion Guide is suitable for large groups, small groups, and even for individual use. It could provide the basis of a congregational multi-session social justice study of social change strategies, or material for short and tightly-focused reflection periods at the beginning or end of social action committee meetings.
However you choose to make use of the discussion guide, I hope that it will provide a useful entry into the inspirational and transformative work of the UU Holdeen India Program.
Rev. Eric M. Cherry
Director of International Resources, Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA)
“Where the traditional development approach has focused on ‘teaching the man to fish’ as distinct from the relief approach of giving a fish handout, these leaders are going a step further. To them, it is clear, that without free access to waters containing fish, and the absence of resources to obtain fishing nets and effectively market the fish caught, knowledge of fishing is not enough”. (p. 13)
“‘Why,’ asks Vivek, ‘are the voices of the people not heard?’ Because they lack power, of course. ‘Power can be derived from social status, wealth, political connections or muscle power. But the people we work with have none of these, therefore obviously their voices are not heard. The only potential of the masses lies in their vast numbers.’ Yet caste, religion, language, regional and party divisions often prevent them from coming together as a common force, even if they could find a way to put aside the hopelessness instilled in them by centuries of oppression. They are steeped in a ‘culture of silence’, having lost their confidence, their capacity to dream, to hope.” (p. 23)
“Whom do we hold responsible for the violation of rights? Do we believe that we have some rights or do we believe that there have to be favours? If we understand that there needs to be rejection of the system in order to reaffirm our self-respect, then are we ready to let go some comforts and individual privileges that the system has bestowed on us to keep us divided?” (p. 46)
“Whether in the cities or in its expanding rural work areas, SEWA’s role is to empower women by means of the twin strategy of labour union struggle and development through income-generating activities.” (p. 58)
“Filing an advance caveat with the courts to prevent a landlord injunction order, the villagers proceeded to take the land, with support from 1000 poor Dalit farmers from nearby villages who helped as guards. In response, however, Chennaiah says, ‘the landlord came along with his henchmen and women carrying deadly weapons to attack the Dalits. On seeing the numerical strength they used their women to put chili powder in the eyes of the supporters and the tractor driver. The Dalits then filed a police complaint against the landlord and formed a vigilance committee to protect themselves from further attack.’”(p. 72)
“DISHA’s efforts go well beyond those of most NGOs. It describes itself as ‘a mass-based and membership-based organization working toward improvement of economic and social conditions of marginalized classes like landless people, labourers, tribals, Dalits, women, etc. through their empowerment in order to influence control and use of natural and economic resources.’” (pp. 80-81)
The question, as always, is whether the power of the poor has simultaneously been built up to the extent that they can lobby for their own just needs on a self-sustaining basis in the future. (p. 93)
Pigs and goats, savings and credit, childcare centres, schools and health clinics are all necessary to improve the livelihoods and living conditions. But without the people’s feelings of confidence and power to advocate for these on their own behalf, they risk amounting to little more than mere band-aids on an infected wound (p. 108)
What is critical is that the vulnerable must be able to protect themselves; the dependent must learn to be independent; the isolated must join in common struggle; and the fearful must gain confidence through joint action with others (p. 137)
All too often, well-meaning NGOs have believed that good deeds are by definition good, almost ignoring the question of whether they actually result in lasting self-reliance, human rights and a sense of human dignity for those assisted… Similarly, groups focusing on political change have too often given inadequate attention to ensuring that the desired human outcomes of individual and community levels accompany political changes. (p. 142)
(from Empowering the Oppressed)
John G. Sommer has been actively engaged in development circles in a variety of capacities. Now an independent consultant, he has previously been Dean of Academic Studies Abroad at the School for International Training/World Learning in Vermont, USA. He has worked at both grassroots and senior policy levels with agencies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, Peace Crops, and Overseas Development Council in Washington, DC, and with the Ford Foundation and International Voluntary services in South and Southeast Asia, respectively. Mr. Sommer has also been a consultant to numerous organizations such as InterAction (American Council for Voluntary International Action), the Refugee Policy Group, Oxfam-America, the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Refugees, and other NGOs and government departments, and is a board member of several NGOs, including the Unitarian Universalist Holdeen India Program.
Mr. Sommer has previously published Hope Restored? Humanitarian Aid in Somalia, 1990-1994, Beyond Charity—U.S. Voluntary Aid for a Changing Third World, and Viet Nam—The Unheard Voice (co-authored), in addition to numerous chapters and articles in various books, journals and newspapers.
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Last updated on Tuesday, April 29, 2014.
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