Centering wellbeing in our work with communities

हा ब्लॉग मराठी मध्ये वाचण्यासाठी, येथे क्लिक करा.

इस ब्लॉग को हिंदी में पढ़ने के लिए, यहाँ क्लिक करें।

(Image description: Lekha Menon, Social Worker at Khoj, in conversation with a group of caregivers)

Stories hold people’s lived-experiences, their responses in the face of injustice, their hopes and values of being in this world – all of which remain unhidden in the face of systemic oppression, an unequal world and people’s stories of struggling through them. In the last several years, we have been exploring what does it look like to work with communities, why and how we must center their experiences and their life-stories in the center of all our work, and why centering their wellbeing in our work. 

Apni Shala’s work is ongoingly informed by Narrative Practices, a post-modern therapy practice. Narrative Practice guides us that “People are meaning makers. The meanings we give to our experiences shape our lives and the actions we take. They are influential in our lives. Stories provide a frame or lens for meaning-making; we are born into stories, we carry stories with us and stories shape life in the present and future.” With that, Narrative Practices also invites us to consider, “Stories exist in social, cultural, and historical contexts. Some stories are given more priority/value than other stories. And our lives are multi-storied. Not any one story defines us, and all of us. People, including the young and very young, possess expertise regarding their own lives and they are always taking action in response to circumstances in their lives.”  

The communities that Apni Shala works with bring alive such multitudes of stories of joy, possibilities, pain, suffering, endurance, adjustments, understanding, support, failures, struggles, and, in all this, people however young they are, taking action in response to the circumstances in their lives.

“How can we call it community work, if we are not being in community with people,” asks Shahid Shaikh, Trainer with the Mental Health team at Ummeed and an alumnus of Apni Shala Fellowship. And we agree! While working with communities towards their collective growth and development, one thing has become very clear to us – nothing about us, without us.* For people who have been intergenerationally minoritized, whose lives and existence have been structurally invisibilized, it becomes critical to center their wellbeing, while working with the communities. Through some of the stories from our lived experiences with members of our communities, we take through our ways of becoming a community with people. 

Reshma didi, a mother who has seven children, was unable to support their education as she was always worried about her husband’s drinking habit. She often travels to his workplace to get him back. In all these years the situation didn’t change. Rutika, her youngest daughter, joined Junior Kindergarten at Khoj, Apni Shala’s SEL-aligned school project. With the financial and social challenges the family was facing, Rutika’s attendance at school became irregular. During regular home visits, we could recognize that the problem was separate from the person. We recognise that their parents are not the “roadblocks” to Rutika’s learning. They are responding to their own circumstances and at the same time, they wish for Rutika to learn and grow. We tried to look for the smallest of the actions they were doing to support this wish, for example, after all, they had enrolled Rutika in the school which was the first step. Then even after regular follow-ups that may have appeared irritating after a point, they still had not taken her out of school. And there were days when Rutika would come to school without a follow-up. We picked up on these actions and our team persistently followed up on this child. We built conversations around the importance of attending school and how we can collectively make it possible. Today, Rutika’s attendance in the school has significantly improved. 

In another story of Rishabh, who brings a lot of playfulness, naughty-ness, attentiveness, and activeness with him, his primary caregivers have split up. The father formed a relationship with another person and had moved out for almost a year and a half. The mother left the little boy with their extended family and went out of the community to find her husband.  While Rishabh came to school, he started missing his mother. Later, he too moved away from the community. We lost touch with the parents and the child. After being out of school for two years, Rishabh returned to the community last year. Last whole year, the team worked together to find ways to support Rishabh and his family. Rishabh is now re-enrolled in Khoj and Apni Shala team is working on creating a support plan with the family. 

Not all stories shape up how we would have loved for them to. And still, we see how people are using their expertise of life and are actively responding to circumstances they are in.  Around twenty years ago, a newborn child was found near the garbage bin. He was then picked up by the sweeper from that area. The child was brought home and raised by this family. They named him Ramesh. Due to systemic issues of poverty and lack of access to education, the family was not able to put Ramesh through school. Neither could they legally adopt him. Poverty in the home of this Safai Karmachari (cleaning staff), didn’t leave Ramesh’s upbringing without scars. Now a young adult, he was married to a young girl, Saloni, from the village, who again had to drop out of school. This is the story of a young child’s father from our school. In responding to ongoing challenges that life had been throwing at him, Ramesh took on drinking. Dr. Gabor Mate, a renowned expert on addiction reminds us, “all addictions originate in trauma and emotional loss,” and we see that in Ramesh’s story. His family asked him to move out when the addiction started creating a lot of issues at home. He preferred staying with his foster parents in the same community, as he loved them a lot. Saloni couldn’t bear to see his addiction to alcohol which was destroying their family life. She was carrying their second child. It was becoming difficult for Saloni to manage the family expenses, as Ramesh would disappear from home for days. She would be left alone to manage the children and the household. One day, she called her brother and left for the village with her children. As a team, we tried several ways to support the family but realized, they, as a family, were responding to some circumstances that needed compassion and space. Education of that child, however critical, may not be the priority at this point. Survival was. 

Ahil loved learning, and brought playfulness and attentiveness, even to online classes, Suddenly, for some days, we noticed that he seemed scared sitting in a corner as though looking at someone with a lot of fear in his eyes and a bit lost. This was unusual of Ahil. Our team started finding out the reason for this change. His mother had started working when the lockdown opened to support the family financially. She would send the little one to a creche while she was away. We decided to find out more about the creche. The condition was really bad. Over 20 children were packed in a small room, were forced to sleep during the day so that they “don’t create any trouble”, instead of playing at a time when they were so energetic. The place seemed fearful for children. We discussed it with Ahil’s mother. We have been exploring other Creche options or places where Ahil could be when the parents are away at work. For now, his mother has decided to leave the job and is taking care of both of their children. Take a moment to recognize what kind of dilemma and emotional strength it requires for a young parent to take such a call, where they have to give up a source of income while they are financially struggling, and choose to care for the young ones? We have seen Ahil returning to his joyful ways of being in the class. In situations such as this, we often ask, what’s more right, for a young woman who was able to find some economic liberation through the job or a child receiving care in their early years? Then we ask, where’s the father and other caregivers in all these discussions? We find that people who are responding to the systemic violence of structural poverty, are responding to multiple things at once. And rarely there’s one right answer. In these dilemmas of right versus right, we often go for what’s more right. And at times, what’s less wrong. 

Aliya, a student in second grade, was on leave very often. Due to the difficult financial situation during this pandemic, the mother had taken the children and went to her mother’s place at Shahad. Regular phone calls to both the parents had Aliya attend classes online, on and off. Her father brought back the children to the community and that improved Aliya’s attendance. He had lost his job as a driver, so he started working as a coolie so that his family could sustain themselves during these difficult times. He also purchased a tablet on an instalment basis so that the children could continue learning. However, things at home were not easy as his wife hadn’t returned. Emotionally, he was on the verge of breaking down. He was feeling lonely and angry that she had left. He was also feeling the pressure from his mom to divorce Aliya’s mom and get married to a girl who could give him and his children a better life. In one of the conversations with our team, he opened up, and together we explored what could be other possibilities. Narrative Ideas guide us to hold on to people’s expertise of their lives and look out for big-little ways they are responding to their life situations. We worked together to identify our common hope, which was the wellbeing and a healthy future for children. We explore what may happen to children with shifting relationships amongst parents. Aliya’s father decided to take initiative and work it out with her mother. He went to Shahad to get her home. They both then decided that they will move to Goa for the time being to earn better and the grandmother will take care of the children during this time, with support from another family member who also lives nearby. Today, Aliya actively participates in many events that happen in class.

What have these stories taught us? That we approach community work with compassion for people who are responding to systemic challenges in their lives on a regular basis, stand in solidarity with them as they push back the oppressive nature of these systems, and find moments to share our lives together. Communities bring their expertise and we must hold on to the idea of ”nothing about us without us” in our work of development. When we are able to locate problems in structures than people’s minds, bodies, and ways of being and responding, we are able to create possibilities for a new world. We invite you to consider, as you read this, what’s resonating with you about community work? What are some ways you may be centering wellbeing in your conversations with people you are working with? 

PS: Here are some glimpses of our conversational spaces co-created at Khoj:

(image description for above two: In one of the Caregivers Meetings, we asked, “khud ke maze ke liye kya karte hain (what do you do for your own leisure?)? And thus the meeting turned into a wellbeing space for caregivers)
Image description: A workshop on emotions using Narrative Ideas for caregivers
(image description: teachers in conversations with students and their caregivers during Caregiver-Teacher-Conference about students’ learning and growth)

The above images are from pre-pandemic times. And then, we continued these conversations during the pandemic on zoom!

About the authors:

Lekha Menon works with Apni Shala as a Social Worker with Khoj Community Learning Center. She holds an M.A in Social Work with child rights from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. She comes with over 13 years of teaching experience with Akanksha Foundation and has extensively worked with Lallubhai Compound, Mankhurd Community, where Khoj is situated. Dearly called Lekha didi by her students, families, and team members, alike, she loves working with communities towards the holistic development of children. 

Rohit Kumar, through his work and education, has come to believe that schools are places for an enriching socio-cultural dialogue that can empower or subvert its pupils, depending upon how the school is imagined, designed and brought into action. Rohit holds an M.A. in Education from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, and a Masters in Software Systems from the Somaiya Institute of Management Studies and Research, Mumbai, India. However, he thinks his most important learning comes from having worked with students and educators at The Akanksha Foundation, American School of Bombay, and Apni Shala Foundation. Currently, Rohit is working as the CEO at Apni Shala and works as a consulting staff at Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity (SEED) project by Wellesley Center for Women, Wellesley College, USA where he co-facilitates diversity workshops for educators.

* Disability rights activist James Charlton traced the origin of “Nothing about us without us” to South African disability rights advocates in the 1980’s. Before that, it was used as a rallying cry among Eastern European labor organizers and in the very distant past, came from a sixteenth century law limiting the power of a king. In the present day, “Nothing about us without us” has been adopted by others fighting for self-empowerment and self-determination. But, it is best known as a slogan of the disability rights movement. (source)

Note: Names of students and family members are changed to protect their privacy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s