After two and a half weeks in India interviewing women in the slums of Delhi, I was overcome with thoughts and feelings. Couple those experiences with a steady intake of podcasts, scripture, sermons, and other media, and my brain went into overdrive. This resulted in a very, very long piece connecting lots of random dots. To save you some reading time, I’ve separated the blog into four pieces which flow from one to another. This is Part 2. For everything to make as much sense as possible, I suggest you start with Part 1, then return to read this installment.
Struck by the hopelessness I experienced while interviewing clients in the slums of Delhi, I started asking questions of my colleagues and friends.
It helps that they often inquired what differences I saw between poverty in other parts of the world and poverty here in India.
Usually, this question is hard to answer. Or rather, the answer is hard to articulate.
But here, now, I had a proof point.
Every single interview, everywhere I go, I ask people what they dream about. What they hope for in their futures.
Without fail, every single person gives the same answer at first: “I hope my children will get a good education.”
Yes. Of course. The universal truth. An education means possibility, and all parents anywhere want their kids to have the opportunity to thrive.
But I always dig deeper.
Because while that answer is admirable and beautiful, it’s rote. It’s the answer they believe in, but also the one they know I want to hear.
So after a bit of digging, I often hear things like: “I want to save enough to build a house,” or “I want to buy a motorbike,” or “I dream about opening my own nursery school some day.”
These are goals. These are actual future plans toward which people are working.
But not in India.
In India, trying to get these beautiful women to articulate their dreams for their own futures (not their children’s) is usually like pulling teeth.
I ask, and ask again. And sometimes, I still don’t get an answer.
So I went to my friends and colleagues and shared my observation. I told them that the difference I saw here was a lack of forward thinking, which instills a lack of hope. If they aren’t dreaming of a better future – even a far-off, pipe-dreamy kind of better future – then what’s the point of their work?
And my colleagues, being much smarter and wiser than I am, pointed to a couple possible answers.
First, Hindu religion. Second, caste system.
Things that I know very little about.
They explained to me that the combination of both of these factors leads people to accept their lot in life. In Hinduism, you wait for your reincarnation to be gifted with a better social standing. Your responsibility is to do the best you can with the life that you have been given and wait until you get to try again.
Couple that with a caste system that says that certain people groups are permanently placed at their level in society, and what are you left with?
Because why dream about a future that you know cannot happen?
Why make plans when you’re told that you are stuck where you are for life?
Of course, there are anomalies. There are amazing, incredible women working to do big things in their homes and communities. But they are notable because they are rare.
So again, here I am, with my “ugh” in the margins of my notes.
Here I am, cross-legged and barefoot, trying to understand a culture that is so fundamentally different than my own.
Because I was raised in the reach-for-the-stars, you-can-do-anything, girl-power era. I was raised to dream BIG and chase those dreams with every fiber of my being.
Going after my dreams is what landed me in India in the first place.
And for the first time, I’m not doing a good job of remaining impartial. I’m not able to keep my emotions in check. I’m railing against my three-ness.
All I want to do is lean over and shake these ladies and say, hey, you, you can dream bigger! You can accomplish things! Your work matters, but more importantly, YOU matter!
I want to turn from interviewer to motivational speaker.
But of course, that’s not my job. That’s not my role. I don’t know nearly enough to be effective, and I probably know just enough to be dangerous and harmful.
Instead, my role is to tell their stories as they are, and then do everything in my power to support the people who have dedicated their lives to empowering this particular community. The ones who actually know what they are doing, and who have spent their lives figuring out the best way to respond in this context. The ones who have come from this environment themselves.
My job is to show up and just be present. To have my heart broken. To get these ladies to giggle and smile and maybe start thinking about their dreams for the first time just by asking about them.
My job is to pray for these beautiful women.
And to love them despite of every frustrating thing I see.