“You lead English prayer?” The request, by the exercise instructor at the end of the morning session set off a series of UU heart palpitations. I had no idea what the girls at this school usually prayed and I had no idea what to say in a prayer in general. However, when I paused, he prompted me with “You know, the last.” Our morning exercise sessions often include We Shall Overcome in English or Marathi. I had never considered that song as a prayer before. As I looked into the eyes of these 160 young girls – most of whom are the first people in their families to get a formal education and who are part of an anti-oppression movement – and sang the words “we shall overcome” I felt part of a bigger moment.
A few weeks later, I was asked to lead the song again. This time, it was in the context of many dalits (untouchables), tribal people, and others who were gathering to stage a massive protest. The government had gone against the wishes of 53 village councils and incorporated them into a municipal corporation. Villagers from these villages and others blocked the main highway, masses participated in protest marches, and a handful of leaders went on a hunger strike that continued 3 days until the government agreed to review the decision.
I had met Vivek Pandit, the co-founder of Vidhayak Sansad, when he came to St. Paul in 2007 by invitation of our ministers Rob and Janne Eller-Isaacs. Vidhayak Sansad (Constructive Parliament) and its sister organization Shramjivi Sanghathana (the People’s Union) work for socio-economic empowerment and development of the deprived sections of the society like tribals, dalits, women, child laborers, and landless laborers and released bonded laborers. The Unitarian Universalist Association Holdeen India Program has helped fund more than 90 groups in India since 1984. One of the Holdeen Trust partners is Shramjivi Sanghathana.
I am a teacher and each summer I like to travel somewhere in the world in a capacity that will allow me to get to know something of the local place, people, and life. After learning about the anti-oppression work of Vidhayak Sansad, I thought I could use my skills as a teacher in a bilingual school in this small corner of India. Laney Ohmans, also from Unity Church in St. Paul, went to Usgaon (one hour north of Mumbai) in 2008 to teach at Vidhayak Sansad’s residential school for girls from the Katkari tribe. After hearing about her experiences, I was even more enthusiastic about volunteering at the school.
I usually learn at least a few phrases in the local language, but I had no Marathi upon arrival. To my relief, there is a system of commonly understood gestures that I could quickly pick up based on my experience with sign languages. I used that and my slowly (word-by-word) increasing Marathi vocabulary to communicate with the 160 students in 1st to 7th grade. I like to think that my stumbling attempts at Marathi gave the girls more enthusiasm or courage to try their English. However, their joy for meeting and getting to know a new person (especially one crazy enough to dance the Hokey Pokey which they had learned from Laney-teacher) and their enthusiasm for sharing about their lives probably played a more important role.
Besides endless verses of Hokey Pokey (even including “put your teeth in…”) and other favorite American children’s songs with motions, my days were spent in two capacities. I taught the 5th-7th graders daily and rotated through the younger classes, which led to enthusiastic requests of “Teacher, teacher” and a number shown by fingers or pointing to a classroom by the younger students until I learned the words for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade. I also worked in the Vidhayak Sansad office to help write two annual reports for funders. In this capacity I was able to meet and interview a number of dedicated activists and organizers of Shramjivi Sanghathana and learn about the challenges and success they experience in the field.
This summer, I learned a lot about love, dedication to social justice, and joy of living. I can only hope the students learned something from me as well.
- Wendy Harris