Seeds From India

February 20, 2018 | by: Heather Boyd-Kinnie

The Hubballi Diaries continues with:

Seeds from India, 2018, Written by Kathy Whynot

Flowers in the lobby of Clarks Inn, Hubbali, India.

“Chance to travel to India,” read the subject line of an email from Rosamund Mosse, of Noulab (a Pond-Deshpande Centre program) one grey day in December 2017. She elaborated in the body of the email that, yes, I had read the subject line correctly, and, so, in that instant, my love affair with India began. I had never imagined I would travel to India, just as I had never thought I would teach in China until my friend and fellow teacher, Cathy Cummings, keyed me in to the opportunity several years ago. I will be forever grateful for both these amazing opportunities I have had to experience life through perspectives and views different from my own.

I became thirsty for any information I could gather about India. Would we have opportunity to meet Gururaj (Desh) Deshpande (co-founder of the Pond-Deshpande Centre and part-time inhabitant of his hometown, Hubbali, where we were headed)? What kind of sessions would we see at the Development Dialogue Conference? Would we have the chance to interact with students (my biggest hope)?  Though they answered the necessary questions, our organizers remained mostly reticent on the details, stating that they did not want to take the first-hand exposure and experience away from us.  I am so grateful now for their diligence in protecting our reactions.  And, after all, India, and the experience one will have there, is hard to describe.

India is everything all at once. Intense beauty, simplicity, chaos, sincerity, possibility, barriers, confusion and clarity. Above all, India, to me, represents open hearts and open minds, connection and community. The lack of hidden agendas, the freedom from power plays, and the sense of camaraderie in the students and teachers I met was downright refreshing, even emotional. I witnessed what hard work, motivation, and grit look like, circled with support, and vibrating with innovation. I was moved to tears on several occasions by the visceral sense of hope that beamed from every young (and not-so-young) face.

One of the student mottos I noticed: “Your dreams don’t work, unless you do the work.”

One of those times, after visiting a rural, government-operated school, and seeing the kids proudly display their skills and openly connect with me with their eyes and hearts, I did not think I would be able to stop crying.

I think about our students here in New Brunswick and I wonder how I can connect them with the feeling that there is opportunity everywhere, and if you work together, nothing can hold you back. India is a young country (with an average age of 24!) and the youth understand and have embraced that the future of India is theirs to develop, protect and propel. Have you ever questioned the intangibility of the slogan, ‘Dream Big”? Have you wondered what it means, what it looks like and how it is done? My friends, you need look no further than India.  Youth, entrepreneurs and community-minded leaders are making (big!) things happen every day.

Consider the Akshaya Patra Foundation (TAPF), an NGO in India that runs the world’s largest school lunch programme. This food program started in 2000 with the goal of feeding 1500 hungry youth every day. The reason behind this innovation was, and continues to be, simple: hungry youth cannot focus on their studies, and often do not even come to school. Daily nourishment entices them to come to school, and enables them to focus on learning.  The programme embraced the vision that, “No child in India shall be deprived of education because of hunger.”

After humble beginnings eighteen years ago, Akshaya Patra has now grown to feed 1.6 million youth from 13 839 schools every single day,with the goal of feeding 5 million every day by 2020.

Akshaya Patra Foundation, mid-day meal program.

This is part of the magic of India. If it is needed, they will find a way, though it seems impossible.  Visit their webpage if you want to know more and/or want to contribute to their inspirational work.

Is India perfect? No. Are there changes to be made? Of course, even really urgent ones. But, the same can be said of any country, including Canada. What I want to highlight is the truth that every Indian speaker at the conferences, and every student who connected with me, shared: opportunity becomes present when one is open, connected to family and community, and genuinely supportive of others.  We are all in this together. The other themes heard time and again centered on innovation, working hard, and thinking outside the box.  In this reality, an Indian businessperson can sincerely say to me, after asking what I thought of Akshaya Patra, “The smiles of our visitors are what keep us going in this important work,” and in the next breath remind that, “Our goal is to feed 5 million by 2020.”  This belief – which appears to be cultural – in the “art of the possible” for “the good of all” seems to me to be unparalleled throughout most of the world.  Carrying an abundance of hope and love, and a huge capacity for courage, they move quickly, take big risks, and seem to be reaping great success.

As someone who works with, and for, newcomers to our province, I could not help but connect my experience in a new country to theirs when first arriving in Canada. Remarkably, though we may first appear to be very different, I never felt like an outsider in India. Instead, I felt warmly welcomed, even cherished. Again, the open hearts and open eyes made connection possible whenever I needed it (and even when I may have been craving solitude). I noticed in myself that I wanted to know the codes of behaviour, I wanted to do everything right and not offend, and I loved the difficulty of it, the learning curve.  I recognize that I was able to feel this way because I was in touch with supportive people at every point: I could ask any question and be given a clear answer, and I could make mistakes that would be corrected but not judged.  It is important to note that some of my comfort came from the fact that I was always able to speak my own language, and therefore, understand and be understood, as myself.  Many newcomers to our province feel lost, at first, without this ability. Caring and supportive listeners make an immense difference in the creation of welcoming communities.

Students heading to school.

Despite my embrace of the learning curve, the new experience, and the relative comfort I experienced every day, I still felt a noticeable sigh – a sense of release – when I could eat familiar food and be surrounded by familiar things. This reaffirms my resolve to do everything I can to warmly welcome and support new Canadians as they transition to their new homes in New Brunswick. A hard moment, day or month can be made so much easier if one sees a helping hand and a smiling face when looking up.

Here in Canada, it may be easy for us to form opinions or even pass judgment – based on snippets we have seen, heard or read – of other cultures, particularly the cultures present in developing countries. What I have learned over the years is that humans are humans, with all the individual complexities that culture, family, social class, identity constructs, and more, create. Connection is a human-to-human task, no matter where you are from, and judgment is best left unused. I follow Rumi’s belief that, “Yesterday, I was clever and wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I’m changing myself.”

In summary, the take-aways, the “a-ha moments” (I was coined “Oprah” on this trip, after all) are too numerous to detail, yet I would like to reflect on a few additional points before closing. One reflection, both of myself and of the students I have met, is that people bloom not where they are planted, but in ground that is watered. Personal and professional growth opportunities are everywhere, even though, sometimes, we

Blessed by an elephant named for Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, fortune and prosperity.

have to be creative in finding and recognizing them. I am so grateful to my employer for whole-heartedly supporting this opportunity when it came my way, and to all my teams (I am lucky to count myself a member of many) for being supportive, genuine, open and always motivated to do better. I am blessed (literally).  I feel supported in my current work, and because of this, I have been able to do things I did not know I could do. (As a teacher and a parent, I also reflect deeply on the ramifications of the vice versa of this realization).

To make my journey to India even more impactful, I had the honour of travelling with eight energetic and inspiring entrepreneurs and social change-makers from New Brunswick. Their obvious and genuine compassion, humour, drive, thoughtful analysis and shared perspectives coloured my experience in ways they will probably never truly know. I am so grateful for the value that travelling with a group – in particular, this group – added to my learning journey. Pond-Deshpande Centre leaders, thank you for bringing this group together and therefore supplying such a poignant personal and professional growth experience for me, and I believe, for all of us.

I am left pondering how to bring this learning experience to students in New Brunswick schools. I have learned about ‘cultural competency’ on a personal level, I have seen ‘dream big and work hard’ in action, and I have thought about entrepreneurship in a new way. How can I connect the young New Brunswick entrepreneurs I met with our K-12 students, in a meaningful way?  Might it be useful to set up connections between Indian students and teachers, and New Brunswick students and teachers, and, if so, how might we best do that? How might we “dream (even) big(ger)” in our province? What must be done that we have not yet tackled because our cultural constraints hold us back from thinking that it is possible? What I saw in India taught me more convincingly than any other experience in my life that, a group of passionate and supportive people, working together toward a common and clearly defined goal, truly can achieve anything.

“Thank you for all the gifts you have given me.”

India, like Canada, is a beautiful mosaic of colour and vibrancy. I am still reflecting on all that I learned and all the ways in which I expanded my understandings. I am so grateful for the many wildly successful people, from all around the world, who sat down openly to chat with me, and others in our group. Development Dialogue is a special kind of conference. There is a sense of equality and openness amongst the participants that allowed for true connections to be made person-to-person, not position-to-position. I met many mentors that I hope to continue connecting with for the rest of my life. The message I leave you with, one that was shared time and again (explicitly or implicitly), is that your health and wellbeing, your family and friends, your dignity and passion, your gifts, are to be protected, cherished and cared-for, more than anything else in your life. If you do this right, success will surely follow.

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