Goodebye SJPD

I have one more blog entry assigned to me and I believe I’m the last one who needs to post, so this could be the end of the SJPD blog. I’d like to use this opportunity to say goodbye and thank you to everyone that is a part of SJPD.

Leaving India and its vibrant scenery which has become so familiar to me is sad, but it’s even harder for me to see this group disperse. Back in September, everyone here was a stranger to me. Now, I can honestly say that I can’t imagine not spending every day of the week the 19 other people in this group. They’ve become like family members to me.

Combined with the sadness, however, is a sense of excitement. Above all, India taught me that real change begins at home. In this light, this is not the end of SJPD, but only the beginning. Everyone here has so much to share with the rest of the world. I can’t to see what the SJPDers do when they get back.

Once again, good bye and thank you.
Dan Larson

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Bahubali Statue and an Encounter with Privilidge

On December 6th we visited Vindhyagiri or “big hill” in Shravana Belgola. This the home the truly giant monolithic statue of Bahubali. Bahubali was a great Jain king who eventually obtained enlightenment.

The statue was truly awe inspiring and is a monument to the ancient Indian’s genius in engineering. We all appreciated seeing it, but something else caught our attention.

The temple which holds the statue is crowded. Hundreds of people pass through it everyday. Many of them are pilgrims who have come from far away to experience their heritage. Our guest professor on Jainism took us to a higher second level of the temple so he could have some space to tell us about Jainism and so that we could have a better view. A guard blocking the staircase moved aside to let us in. Simultaneously, other temple goers tried to go up so they could have a better view, like us. The guards blocked them, but continued to allow us to go up. I don’t know the details of the event, but the end result is fairly clear. The group of white foreigners were allowed go up, but the heritage travelers weren’t.

Privilege was a topic we constantly encountered during this trip. When learning about social justice, its extremely frustrating to be given preferential treatment.  Suddenly the theories we’ve been learning about in the classroom become real. The injustice becomes evident. It drives us to work for a world where the temple guard, if he is biased, is biased towards those who temple means most to and not those who are of a certain nationality or class.

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Food For Thought

Today in class two media groups screened their unit projects. Both of them were documentaries. My group, Dan, Caitlin, Brin and I, made a documentary for Ecology class. To learn about ecology, our class spent a week in Zahirabad, a dry, rural town in South India. This was our first destination in our month long tour of India. Before we left for Zahirabad, we had many group discussions on our thesis statement and topic. Each of us were a bit wary of the journey that lay ahead. I know I was worried about the inconveniences of travelling, my inexperience with filming, and the tedious setbacks we would be sure to suffer. Yet I also felt a sense of excitement. I had faith that our group would produce a good documentary. We arrived in Zahirabad after a long and hot jeep ride. My media group and I had shared a jeep so we could discuss the project. I ended up falling asleep. After we arrived at the organization that would be hosting us, we picked rooms. Brin, Caitlin and I roomed with each other since we were working together on the project. The next day we all woke up with colds. Despite our coughing and sneezing we collected our equipment and had a relatively productive day. Every evening we spent hours going through the footage we had shot that day. When we arrived in Hyderabad we finished up the last of our shooting and began video editing and recording sound. This was a challenge since it is almost impossible to find a quiet place in India. Even inside a convent there was constant noise. We heard horns blaring and dogs barking outside and our classmates echoing voices from another floor among other random noises. After Hyderabad we took a break from our project. We had finished our ecology class and begun our religion class. After returning to Visthar we made any finishing touches on our documentary and then we screened it in class. We were each a little apprehensive about how our classmates would receive the documentary. However we were met with many congratulatory remarks and positive comments. After so much hard work, I was happy that our documentary turned out so well. I now had something I could be proud to show my family and friends.

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Human Rights for All!

Drums beating, children chanting, feet marching; the celebration of Human Rights Day started off with a parade through a village near Visthar. Each year different human rights are focused on and this year awareness was raised about the rights of children. Along with celebrating Human Rights Day, Bandhavi Day is also celebrated on December 10th.  Six years ago on this day, the Bandhavi program was started. The program was deliberately started on Human Rights Day to show the Bandhavi girls how important it is to know their rights and stand up for them. Before the day began, I thought that during the parade and festivities I would see how important it is to stand up and fight for your own rights, but I was also shown how important it is for all people living in this world to fight to make sure all humans have their human rights.

The Bandhavi girls and the VCC students lead the parade through the village holding signs, echoing chants, and passing out pamphlets to the people of the village in hopes of raising awareness of children’s rights. Along with other young students from surrounding schools, we also got to take part in the parade. The energy while we were marching through the town was incredible. As the villagers heard the drums beating, they would stop what they were doing and come watch the parade. We didn’t know exactly what the children were saying, but as they yelled out their messages, we could tell the children felt empowered. The response to their chants from the village people was just as powerful. All of the women were smiling and nodding their heads in agreement as they heard the messages from the children.

As the march through the streets continued, a young school girl grabbed my hand and didn’t let go until the very end of the parade. This simple but meaningful action touched my heart. She showed me how important it is that all people unite as one and fight to ensure that we all have our human rights. This little girl made me realize that I don’t need to know someone personally in order to stand up and speak out against injustice even if the injustice isn’t happening to me personally.  We know each other because we are all human beings; that is our common thread; we don’t need any other commonalities to fight for all humans to have human rights. The value of a human life shouldn’t differ from one place to another. It shouldn’t differ if you are rich or you are poor. Human rights should be for all humans, but currently this isn’t the case. Currently, the human rights of a person in America aren’t infringed upon like they are in India, and a rich person has more rights than a poor person. This is unacceptable and must change. We must stand up and change this; we are all humans and therefore have the same human rights. Race, class, caste, age, gender, cannot play a role in who gets what human rights. Regardless of all of these things, humans are humans; therefore all humans must receive all of their human rights.

Today I not only saw children advocating for their own rights, I was again reminded that I too have a role in making sure all humans have their human rights. Though December 10th is the official Human Rights Day, we must work towards ensuring all people have human rights every day. Whether we are strangers or sisters, whether our own rights are being violated or not, we must unite on the level of humanity and make sure everyone receives their rights as a human.

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Valedictory Speech

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.

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Inaction: The most telling form of action


I have always believed what I was told.

I have never been the girl interested in politics.

            I believed that conflicts in Africa, Indo-China, and especially in the Middle East were too complex for me to ever understand. I believed that the United States had nothing to do with these conflicts abroad, and that we were only becoming involved to protect the ideals of freedom and democracy across the globe. I believed what the media told me and I believed that politicians really did have the ideals of America at heart. I possessed a very distorted vision of the current global realities. I believed the stories I heard on the nightly news without question and I rejected reality that wasn’t painted for me in a euphemistic light.

             My life and my reality was one I’d worked for and one that was free to anyone who wanted it. I accepted what the news anchor said as truth, and therefore, I found no other motivation to search for truth myself. I had heard that politics were being corrupted, but what did I have in common with the suits and ties in Washington? I was not responsible for their actions because I was not them. I did not vote them into power and I did not approve of their actions. So I washed my hands of the matter. I thought that this was “just the way things worked”. I was wrapped up in my own life; I saw little connection between foreign politics and my life. I was “just not into politics” and so I forgot about it. Above all, I was apathetic.

            And then this thing happened to me. I got the chance to live on the other side of the world. For four months, I got to see my home in an entirely new light. Painfully, I had to open my eyes and see my home from across the globe. See it as it really was. I realize that it shouldn’t have had to come to this. Nobody should need to travel across the world to simply become aware of what their country is doing, and to become aware of all of that is destroyed under the name of that country. But, truthfully, it came to that in my case. I can blame my apathy and inaction on the media of my country, but that would only be half the truth. I felt apathy because I never felt connected to the problem. I never cared enough to do my homework and to search for the truth behind what my government was doing in my world.

            And that was where India came in. Through my time here I have seen, physically seen, the effects that my personal actions back home have on people outside the American matrix. We are all trained to see what nobody wants us to see. I understand that now and it scares me. I can no longer deny the part I’ve played in the injustice I see.  The suffering I caused just by buying lawn fertilizer without thinking for example. I never cared enough to find out that these very fertilizers are made in unsafe plants that are sites of unthinkable atrocities. Chemical explosions in these plants kill innumerable people, seep into ground water and cause horrendous birth defects for generations to come.  The tragic case of the gas tragedy in Bhopal, India is just one example of this. With every bag of fertilizer, I support the companies that value profit over human life.

             No, I wasn’t involved in many of the harmful decisions the government made, but I was and am responsible for them and their effects because they were made under my name. My inaction was  more telling than any other action I could have chosen to do. By going along with this system, by being complacent, being apathetic, being ignorant, I supported and encouraged these injustices to continue just as much as the politicians in Washington do. If I have learned anything through my time in India, I have learned this:

Inaction is very much an action. And I won’t complacent any longer.

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Shedding Clothes, Tackling Inequality

Monday evening I met my first naked monk. Yep, you read that right. Naked.

I tried to be open minded about the situation, but no matter how hard I tried, it was still a little uncomfortable to sit right in front of the cross legged nude man. Even harder was imagining this same man taking a stroll around around downtown Bangalore. It brought to mind some pretty strange imagery.

After listening to the monk state that attachment leads to violence, however, I was intrigued.

You’re thinking: “So what? They are just clothes, right?”

That’s what I thought at first too. And then I remembered our field visit to Tirupur, where women lost their fingers and destroyed their bodies to provide you and I with cheap clothing items. If we were satisfied with traipsing around in our birthday suits, the women in Tirupur would still have their fingers and their fertility.

In Minnesota, where the ground is currently covered in white snow, nudity is not much of an option. But the naked monk has an interesting point regarding attachment. When we are so attached our own wants that we are willing to exploit other people in order to fulfill those wants, we cause violence through inequality, exploitation, and oppression.

Maybe nudist colonies are on to something 😉

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Shravanabelagola.  Try saying that five times fast.  Yeah, most of us can’t either.  On our last field visit of the semester, we travelled a few hours away to the town of Shravanabelagola for a crash course on Jainism.  Meaning ‘the white pond’, this holy city of Jainism boasts two major hills where much of the Jain history can be found.  Knowing next to nothing about Jainism, I looked forward to adding this to our repertoire of Indian religions.  So far having covered Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, this marked the last stop on our religious and spiritual journey throughout India.

After dining on a delicious lunch, including a magnificent chickpea sauce critically acclaimed by all, we met with Professor Jeevan Kumar who acted as our window into the religion of Jainism.  We started class that day by first shedding our shoes at the base of the small hill and beginning the climb up to the top.  Walking with all manners of people from children too young to walk to elderly people, we panted our way to the top.  We made a pit stop next to one of the sites of the hill to get a little background on Jainism.  The professor began with the historical side and as we tried to follow the Sanskrit terms, we learned about Chandragupta, thirthankaras, and the flourishing of Jainism in South India.

As we progressed to the main temples, or bastis, of the small hill, these terms began to come together.  Chock-full of Indian history, this little hamlet of temples boasted innumerable examples of ancient architecture and inscriptions.  Each temple was centered around a single, nude statue of a man in either a sitting or standing position.  These men are known as thirthankaras, or path-showers.  Flanked by both a male and female attendant-god these imposing figures are representations of the men of Jainism that have achieved liberation from the rebirth cycle.  When people come to bastis they worship the attributes of the thirthankaras that have allowed these religious figures to achieve the level of liberation.  The five truths of Jainism make up these attributes: non-violence, non-stealing, non-possession, celibacy, and truthfulness.

We wound up our tour of the temples just as the sun began to set.  Looking down from the hill we could see the mist rising up from the town.  With our brains mulling over Dravidian architecture, paths to liberation, and the enormous spider we spotted outside a temple, we began to make our way back down.  The professor sped us along as the town of Shravanabelagola (Have you tried saying it out loud yet?) eats dinner before sunset.  So if we wanted more chickpea sauce, we had to hurry.  Upon reaching the bottom, we reclaimed our shoes and proceeded back to refuel and continue our exploration of Jainism.

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Layers of Tragedy

As we study the structural injustice that is the Bhopal gas tragedy, it is important not to forget that there are hundreds of thousands of people who are still affected by the disaster.  This was made very clear to us in our short meeting with an organization called the Bhopal Gas Pedith Mahila  Udogh Sangathan.  It is also known as Swabhiman Kendra or a self-respect center.  This group provides rehabilitation services for people who are disabled as a result of the gas leak.  The members are trained to hand make items such as clothing and paper bags.  The decision to make paper bags is to discourage the use of plastic bags because Dow Chemicals is a major producer of plastics.

This rehabilitation program provides help to thousands of members, many of whom pay five rupees per month as a donation to the organization.  This group receives no outside funding and relies solely on personal aid from the community.

One important aspect which we have heard in multiple places, is that there is not only one Bhopal.  There are many small to mid size chemical plants just like the one in Bhopal all around India and the world.  The gas leak happened about twenty seven years ago, and still no safety regulations have been tightened for existing plants.  This tragedy is not confined to one city in India, this is only an example of the danger that this type of operation presents.

Corporate greed caused carelessness and a disregard for the lives of the people in Bhopal.  This must call us to question the amount of power and value that corporations have in the United States and the world.  Dow chemicals has yet to be prosecuted in either American or Indian courts.  IT is allowed to continue to generate a huge revenue, while giving minimal compensation to the people of Bhopal.  Each effected survivor was given a compensation equal to about 1,000 US dollars, a fraction of what was asked for and what is needed to pay for medical treatment and damages.

Swabhiman Kendra reminds us that a disaster such as this is so tremendous it calls us to action on three levels.  First, the immediate needs of affected people cannot be ignored.  Thousands of people continue to be born mentally or physically disabled.  Working directly with them through the rehabilitation centers we have visited has immense positive effects on their lives and the lives of their families.  Second we must look a the broader aspects of the issue.  The Indian government has yet to give any aid to the area and the American government has refused to even acknowledge the disaster.  Law suits have been filed against Dow Chemicals with few results.  A fight must take place on this larger, governmental level as well as a local, personal level. We must demand justice and compensation from both the government and the company because rehabilitation efforts should not have to rely solely on personal donations.  Finally, we must question why this situation was able to happen in the first place.  Why is it that the Indian government is siding with an American company rather than its own people? Dow Chemicals has bribed government officials to allow chemicals which are banned in the United States to be produced in India.  Dow continues to claim no responsibility for the issue and the US government has yet to acknowledge that it has happened.  The third level we must think about is the priorities in our modern society.  We now live in a world where a corporation’s interest is more important than hundreds of thousands of lives.  We must work for this structural change, if we want to have any hope of having a government which remains accountable to its people in the future.

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Factory Visit

On Tuesday, we visited the abandoned factory responsible for the 1984 Union Carbide gas explosion. Although we had been learning about the incident for a few days beforehand and had met with survivors the day before, it was extremely sobering to visit the site itself. The nightmare I had been learning about became considerably more real the moment I stepped onto the premises and saw corroded pipes, holding tanks, and broken windows. In a way, it felt like I was in a ghost story—but this was not a story at all, and it continues to be the chilling reality for hundreds of thousands of Bhopalis still living with the effects of the leak, more than 25 years later. We stood in silence for a while, looking up at the factory piping and imagining the 32 tons of toxic gas that escaped from the pipes that night, spreading as a dense fog across the landscape. Dabish, an employee at a local NGO who accompanied us to the factory, explained that Union Carbide’s emergency plan had six different security measures, all of which were grossly ineffective. Some had malfunctions—and a few were not even in operation at the time of the incident. It was revolting to stand at that site, knowing that Union Carbide’s willingness to cut corners contributed to such a catastrophe. For me, the most disturbing part of all is the fact that it’s still not cleaned up. Lurking under the very ground we walked on was the untreated toxic waste Union Carbide buried under the site—the waste that is now responsible for the contamination of the drinking water of more than 200,000 people. We walked through one of the research and development labs, where bottles of chemicals still remain beneath a workbench, covered in a thick layer of dust. I knelt down and read a few of the labels. Methyl tetrachloride. Chloroform. Potassium hydroxide. These are all extremely harmful reagents—to the environment as well as to the human body. Yet here they sit, abandoned, a chilling reminder of the greatest industrial disaster the world has ever seen. It’s so frustrating to see this with our own eyes, knowing that CEOs are sitting in the United States, unbothered, with their wealth intact. It is estimated that giving proper compensation to the victims would amount to a figure around 7.1 billion dollars. This sounds like a lot, but it’s less than two percent of the company’s annual profits. If corporate greed and neglect caused a disaster like this in the United States, there is no question that the victims would be compensated almost immediately. In fact, all victims of 9/11 were compensated within a year. But here we are, 25 years later, and Bhopal is yet to see justice. This is grotesque inequality in its purest form. The victims of the incident are not a random sampling of people. It is no accident that the factory was erected in a slum area, inhabited mostly by impoverished Muslims and Dalits, none of whom benefited from any of the products manufactured with Union Carbide’s chemicals. Yet citizens are still living with the effects. The nightmare continues. And until the ground contamination is cleaned up, it’s hard to imagine how things will ever get better.

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