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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Final Reflections

I have had an incredible experience. I know for a fact that I will come back home a changed person- stronger, wiser, and braver in the physical and emotional sense.

I have learned to withstand hundreds of mosquito and ant bites, leaky faucet showers, and the South Indian heat. I have tested the courage I didn't even know I had last night when I shooed the biggest bug I have ever seen in my life out of the window, even though it took me an hour. I have faced countless ethical dilemmas regarding myself, who I am and the privileged circumstances I come from, while working with this community that has been ostracized from the mainstream society for generations. I have had to remind myself that it's not about gaining recognition for the work I'm doing, but about impacting the community that I was sent here to serve.

I am inspired by all of the people that I've met here. It's absolutely mind blowing that I'm leaving in two days, and that I will eventually, inevitably think less and less about the Narikuravar gypsies as my own life and all the responsibilities that come with it will slowly start to consume all of me.  I can honestly say though, that in the last two months, I have been 100% invested in this community. I've spent nights thinking through the many issues and obstacles that this community faces, and reached many frustrating dead-ends in my train of thought. I have been frustrated more times than I can count, but to think that I will leave in two days and never have to directly deal with the community problems again makes me really think. I am in a place where I can just leave, but this is their life. When I start to think this, I almost don't want to leave, like I shouldn't leave; it's not ethical for me to just leave. But I have to. Development is about finding a sustainable solution to poverty, one that the poor can take their own control over. Leaving the people to be empowered and take over their fate themselves is a part of development. It is what i must do, even if I personally feel wrong about it.

I have enjoyed writing in this blog alot. I've never kept a blog before, and I was really worried that I'd be a horrible, boring writer, but thanks ya'll for reading and accompanying me on this journey :)

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Local Market Research

I began to learn about the local market for Chidiya’s jewelry products as soon as I met the women in Chidiya. When I started to ask questions about their lives and businesses, I learned early on that the local market conditions are very poor, which is why the women must travel far distances within and even outside India to sell their products. Even during the religious festival season, the only time when the demand for their traditionally made jewelry is considerably high, the women must still travel. The travel and raw material costs make it even more difficult for the women to make a decent profit, while some of the time they even struggle to break even. This is also caused by the undercutting of each others’ prices; every family in this Narikuravar village (there are 5 or 6 in Tamil Nadu alone) makes a living by making and selling their jewelry products.

Nest is currently Chidiya’s only client, besides the Yala partnership that was recently established. Chidiya does not receive any orders from retail stores or companies in India. I thought it would be really helpful for these women if they can find some local clientele, which will increase their income and further stabilize their lives, as well as allow the cooperative to take more ownership of their business. I started to ask about where their products were currently being sold. The women explained that they usually sell their traditional mala necklaces in front of temples. I immediately thought of the gift stores or stands that I saw in front of Rock Fort temple, the most famous temple in Trichy. I discussed the possibility of approaching the shop owners in front of the Rock Fort temple on behalf of Chidiya, but the members and the loan facilitator told me that they have already tried. The competition and undercutting of prices is so fierce that the rate that the shop owners ask for is simply unprofitable.

I later learned that the local demand for Chidiya’s style of jewelry is very low, but appeal very much to Westerners. I thought of the personal order that I was planning to place from Chidiya, consisting of jewelry that I wanted for my personal use as well as gifts for my family and friends, when it suddenly dawned on me: Chidiya can target foreign tourists visiting India. I then thought of the time I had dinner with the other interns at a really nice hotel in Trichy, where I saw Westerners and a gift shop. I discussed my plan to visit hotel gift shops in Trichy to see how making orders from Chidiya would be received with the cooperative, and the women explained that this seemed like a great idea. I learned that the culturally appropriate way to approach something like this is to simply drop by the store and ask to see the manager; I amusingly learned that you don’t make scheduled appointments in India.

I decided to try the hotel with the gift shop that I’ve been to before. I took some Chidiya samples and two NEWS Staffwomen to help translate if need be. We went inside the hotel gift shop and asked to see the manager, to find out that he wasn’t there. We talked to the shop workers about what we were going to pitch to the manager, and asked them if his boss might be interested in something like this. The shop workers exclaimed that this wasn't their call to make, but they said that the jewelry that they do sell in the shop are all natural stones and of the highest quality, unlike the samples that I showed them. Nonetheless, I got the manager’s business card and planned to stop by the shop again the following Monday when he would be there. 

I called the Manager the following day to try to set up a meeting with him, but he simply told me that he wasn’t interested. I decided to still try other hotel gift shops in Trichy, and received some positive feedback at the next hotel that I went to, called Hotel Sangam. The man who was in the gift shop was not the manager, but told us that the gift shop is actually managed by a larger company that owns gift shops in hotels all over India. The company is based in Delhi, and is called “Cottage Industries Exposition Ltd.” I didn’t see any jewelry in the shop, so the company might be interested in making orders from Chidiya, which would be in bulk since they have shops across the country. 

Unfortunately, the other hotels that we went to either did not have gift shops, the manager was not there, or there was no interest. I learned from one of the NEWS staffers (Tintu) who worked with Sarah Lee, the Skillshare worker who helped to start Chidiya, that the local market in India is really tough to break into. Sarah Lee tried all over Trichy and did not meet much success, except for one potential breakthrough that fell through because there was no one to follow up. Tintu even tried in her native Kerala but did not have such luck.

It seems that if Nest can make a partnership with this company, Cottage Industries, that has hotel gift shops across India, Chidiya would be greatly benefited. Approaching this one company would be like approaching hundreds of gift shops at once. I unfortunately did not have the time to look into this opportunity, but I would highly advise someone working with Nest or Chidiya to do so.

Another group that might be worth targeting consists of the civically minded citizens, like the local Rotary Club. Rachna and I were invited to the annual initiation ceremony where the local Rotary Club of BHEL (an industrial company) presents its newly appointed officers. The president of NEWS, Samuel, was the president of the Rotary Club the last year. The members of the Rotary Club are interested in giving back to their community, as they engage in many education and health projects on behalf of the underprivileged. I feel like those that are more socially conscious might be more willing to purchase jewelry from Chidiya if they know that they are helping to provide an income to these women which in turn goes towards feeding and educating their families. This is the audience that Nest caters to in the United States as well, so why not in India? :)

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Busy Bees

Boy, do we have a busy last week ahead of us. Rachna and I have to finish teaching the business curriculum this week and have a graduation party (with cake! yummm), WHILE the women work on the Yala order that just got increased again with another 300 bracelet order! Yikes! The samples for American Eagle also have to be finished ASAP, hopefully before Rachna and I leave which is T-MINUS 6 days!

Kannamal just got back from Delhi with the rest of the beads for the Yala order. She had to spend almost a week traveling to and from Delhi to find and purchase the beads that the women need to finish the order. This is a huge impediment and obstacle for the women, the fact that they have to allocate the time and MONEY to travel so far in order to run their business. We've tried to talk about alternatives for the women, like ordering from the stores and have the materials delivered to the colony to minimize travel time and costs, but the women weren't so keen on the idea. They exclaimed that they don't trust the ordering process because the stores might send the wrong or poor quality beads. They would much rather see the materials themselves before buying them. I am kind of worried though, because Kannamal wasn't able to find the neon colors that American Eagle wants for their Spring 2012 line. Oh, what to do...

 I think it's really difficult for these women to cater to Western standards because they are so different from what they are used to. The designs for the Western market are also so much more complicated than their traditional designs meant to be sold in front of temples and during religious festivals. Fulfilling orders for Western customers is difficult for Chidiya because of the strictness in choosing the right color, the right design, and following quality control standards to the utmost degree. This is my worry for Chidiya. There is no Nest facilitator that is here permanently to help them along this process, and I worry about how the women will do when we leave. This is why I must be extra careful to help, but in a way that will be sustainable for these women. I can't just do everything for them, because when I leave, they will be even worse off if they become dependent on me. I must do my best to teach them so that they can complete the necessary tasks on their own, well after I leave.

I can't believe my stay in India is almost over. I'm excited to buy my first Sari this weekend when we go shopping on Saturday with the UK interns. I have already bought freshly ground coffee to bring home and brew, and also a bunch of fancy sticker bindis :)

Until next time!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Challenges on this Emotional Journey

When anyone says development work isn't easy, they really mean it. I'm beginning to think it's even harder than performing a complex operation on someone's brain. Okay, maybe it's a different kind of difficult, but the work is challenging all the same. Answers and solutions are really hard to come by. Even when you think you have identified the problem, it's hard to truly understand since there might be so much history behind the issues and because of your position as an outsider to the community you're working with.

I've faced a number of challenges while working with Chidiya, the cooperative of gypsy artisans that Nest makes orders from and makes partnerships on behalf of, all for the purpose of trying to provide these women with a higher and more sustainable income. I've been living with this gypsy community for almost two months now, and I have seen and even lived through the poverty that they face. I have learned about the deeply embedded internal issues that the community has faced, due to the great changes that they have endured in the last generation alone. Before Seetha and Mahendiran started NEWS (the Narikuravar Education and Welfare Society), the Narikuravar gypsies had virtually no literacy among their population. Since Mahendiran took over the abandoned school in their village, he has revitalized the building and encouraged most of the village children to attend. This change comes along with the fact that the village was only recently founded 40 years ago, and was the first time that these gypsies had their own permanent homes. In one generation, the gypsies have been given access to housing and education. These are great steps forward for these people, but these successes were not made without any setbacks.

Due to this takeover of the school by NEWS, Seetha and Mahendiran have become leaders in their community. However, I have recently found that their role as leaders is not widely accepted by everyone in the village. But then again, how often do you really see a leader that is liked by everyone? Seetha's role in the education projects that Mahendiran has undertaken seems to have been meshed with her role in Chidiya. Half of the women in Chidiya have expressed their concern that they don't always feel like they have a voice in the way that their cooperative is run, that their loan facilitator, Seetha basically runs the show. This to me, sounds like this cooperative is not truly being run like a cooperative if all of the women aren't making collective decisions and if information is being withheld from them. Hearing this negative feedback has been emotionally conflicting for me personally, because I have formed a close relationship with Seetha. I live in her house and have grown close with all of her family. This is one of the many ethical dilemmas I have faced while I have been here.

When Rachna and I first got here, the women explained that they did not get enough orders and that they can make more money through their personal businesses. We completely understood the lack of incentive for the women to come if they were only going to get 3 orders of 100 necklaces a year. But, what is really confusing, is how there is this huge Yala order of NINE HUNDRED necklaces, and still only half of the members come to work. The work has come, the women have the need, but they still don't come. It is for this reason that Rachna and I really wanted to explore why half of the women weren't coming. From our one on one discussions with all the women, we have found that the reason the women don't come circulates around the community's perceptions and views of Seetha and Mahendiran and their takeover of the school. The wider community's historical issues inhibits half of the women from coming to work, even though they need the help. It's really hard for me to wrap my head around the power dynamics within the community, but the women who don't come have issues with the way Chidiya is managed (by Seetha) and because of past misunderstandings. The half of the women who don't come got this idea, this MISidea, somewhere that they were going to receive 10,000 rupees of materials EACH by Nest. Because they haven't received anything, they automatically assume that the loan facilitator is withholding these materials from them. It seems like the women have been thinking this way towards Seetha for a long time, even if their opinions are misguided by false information. The task of re-educating these women so that they can really understand the conditions of the Nest loan and processes truly seems daunting, because it is really hard to get them to believe something different.

Nest has an amazing program, this awesome idea of microbartering that can really make a tangible impact on womens' lives, but because of community wide issues and power politics, some of the women in Chidiya have not been able to be helped by Nest even though the help is there. This has been emotional for me to deal with, because there is so much potential for this cooperative of women, but because of cultural issues that I can't fully understand, their potential is blocked.

Rachna and I are living with this community of Narikuravar gypsies in their village, so we have been given the valuable opportunity to really learn about the challenges they face. We frequently talk late in the night with our amazingly sweet India facilitator, Shaina, but being on our own here was quite mind-blowing once we started finding out about everything. From our conversation last night with the oh-so-insightful and positive Shaina, I learned something really important: Development work is not easy. Nest's program is not going to work for each woman, but be inspired by the women that are being helped. This is when I think of the other half of Chidiya, the women that do come to work and are making bank since they're doing the work that the other half of Chidiya should be doing on top of their own. These women are being impacted by Nest, and they will have made a significant amount of money once this order of 900 necklaces is finished. They will use this money to feed their families and cover medical/educational expenses. These women have personally expressed their gratitude towards us and Nest for getting them this order.

It was absolutely wonderful to sit down with one of our most talented and artistic artisans, Nithya, this past Sunday. I still can't believe she is only 24 years old and already has two young children, along with her three younger siblings that she also has to look after since both her parents passed. Nithya has invested in Chidiya's success, as she is one of the most active members and one of Chidiya's best designers. Shaina has notified Rachna and I of American Eagle Outfitter's interest in seeing some samples made by Chidiya that will be for their Spring 2012 jewelry line. American Eagle- are you kidding? That's a HUGE company. & to think, I'm going to be helping the women to design jewelry samples from the color palette for Spring 2012 that AE has sent us... I almost feel like a real designer! It was really exciting to work with Nithya in designing our very first sample. We picked out the colored beads for her and made a suggestion to use thread on the bottom half and metal for the top half, and then we just watched Nithya's creative juices flowing as she worked! She is amazing. She personally thanked us for the Yala order, because if it weren't for the order, she would have faced a financial crisis since her family would have run out of money this last weekend.

I must remind myself that it is for women like Nithya that makes development organizations like Nest all worth it. The implementation of development is rarely ever going to be perfect, with every individual positively impacted. But even if there is only one life changed, one life helped, that is worth everything. I have had the most fulfilling summer of my life here, and I can't believe I only have one more week left. I'm so thankful for the women that I've learned so much about, the women that I respect for their ability to remain strong under the harshest of circumstances. They are survivors on behalf of their children, working so that their children can have easier lives then they did. These are women I can really look up to.