The last four months in India have taken all of us in SJPD to a wide variety of locations, introduced us to inspiring people working for social justice, and built a wonderful, supportive community around us. Even after so many miles traveled and people met, however, it is still our very first field visit to an urban poor community that struck me the most.
Walking through Bangalore–still fighting jet lag, but bright-eyed with curiosity and wonder—felt adventurous, new, and exciting. As we wandered down the winding alley ways, a women muttered, “We are so poor, and no one cares. They come to see, and then they leave.” Her comment, spoken in Tamil, was not intended to be understood by us, however, our guide heard her and translated quietly to us.
At the time, we all wondered what the people in the urban poor community must have thought of us. As privileged Americans walking into the slums of India–how did they perceive us? It’s hard to say, but despite the reputation of Americans, no one asked for money, hassled us to buy their goods, or showed us a piteous face. They were hard at work, playing with their children, pious, or joyful. The most anyone asked for was a name, or a handshake, and in return they openly shared their lives and stories with us. One woman took us into her home, barely large enough to fit a full sized mattress, cleared space for us to sit on the bed, and offered us tea or juice. The woman showed no shame in her home or her situation. Her inner strength and integrity struck me deeply.
Since then, I have been struck daily by the strength, integrity, compassion, and love shown by people of all classes, faiths and races both at Visthar and while traveling. All of us in SJPD came to India for different reasons. We wanted to immerse ourselves in a different culture, gain a broader , more complete understanding of the world we live in, or deepen our knowledge regarding social justice. Regardless of our original intentions for applying for SJPD, I think I speak for everyone when I say that what we gained from this study abroad experience far exceeded our expectations. Physically , mentally, and emotionally, it has taken us places we never knew existed.
The woman’s description of us coming, seeing, and leaving, was accurate at the time of her statement. We didn’t really know what we were doing in India. We wanted to see an exotic culture, were fascinated by the colors, smells, sounds, and people. But I realize now that that was not really seeing. Three and a half months later, we have peered into our selves and our own lifestyles, and realized that change is in order. We live in a culture that thrives on exploitation, and acknowledge that we cannot fight injustice unless we ourselves are willing to change. Although many injustices continue to go unnoticed by us, we have learned how to look at ourselves, our communities, and our nation more analytically, and at the same time, with more compassion.
We have come, we have seen, and we are soon leaving. As we prepare to go home, however, we owe it to the woman in the urban poor community not to simply depart. We must keep our eyes open, and continue to see the injustices around us. We must inch our way towards a brighter, more just future, by internalizing all we have learned so that it shows in our every action.
While I was trying to decide whether or not to participate in the SJPD semester in India program, I would frequently pull out the program brochure and pour over the description, photos, and quotes. The brochure concluded with a quote from a Catherine Keith, who participated in SJPD two years ago. It read: “Going to India on the Social Justice, Peace and Development Program was probably the best decision of my life.”
At the time, I remember thinking that her quote could not possibly be sincere. Study abroad programs are great, but the best decision of her life? Doubtful.
Many months later, I’ve changed my mind. The SJPD program is unlike any study abroad program I have ever heard of. If we are open to it, the program has the potential to inspire drastic life changes in all of us. It has the potential to be the best decision of our lives.
For me, and many others, the SJPD program has changed the way I view myself, the way I view others, and changed the way I view my future. We came to India, we saw, we learned, and we grew. We saw injustice. We learned how important it is to step out of our comfort zones to break barriers, and to reach out and build communities. We grew into human beings who see others as equally human.
The woman in the urban poor community could not see anyone who cared about the injustices she faced, but we have grown into a community of students who do care. We care deeply.
As we head back to the United States, we must remember that we are part of a broader community of people who care as well. Those at Visthar, at the NGOs we visited, the nuns we stayed with, and the activists we spoke with all care. Although spread out around the world, we are one community of humans dedicated to not just seeing and leaving. We are a community committed to seeing injustice, and fighting for what is good and just.