I’ve written on my Medium about Mama Hope’s Global Advocate Fellowship, about an anti-trafficking organization in New York, and about my experience with culture shock. I’ve written in my emails to family, friends and mentors about my fundraising efforts, my travels within India, and some background information about human trafficking. Amid all this correspondence, I’ve yet to write about the people I work with every day and the work we’re doing together. That’s what this post is all about.
Before I dive into the work, let me give a little background information about Destiny Foundation/Reflection. Destiny is a social business/charity that serves survivors of human trafficking and vulnerable women and girls in Kolkata, India. The main office is also the production sight for Destiny Reflection. Destiny Reflection trains and employs women who have been subjected to human trafficking and sexual exploitation. The women make and sell yoga mat bags, wallets, scarves, home furnishing and quilts. Their sales pay the employees stipend, wages and healthcare, and extra profits are reinvested into Destiny Foundation.
Destiny Foundation has three major charitable programs. At a government shelter home called Sukanya, Destiny conducts sewing and crafts training courses for girls below 18 who have been rescued from child abuse, sexual violence and human trafficking by the state of India. Through residence in the home, the girls gain economic training and psychosocial support that ultimately enables them to reintegrate into society. Destiny also runs a hostel for working girls, which houses girls above 18 who have outgrown the age of being able to stay in government shelter homes and are vulnerable to being trafficked, exploited, and homeless. The third program is run at the Khidderpore Community Center, located in the second-largest red light area in Kolkata. At the Khidderpore center, women who are members of the community or involved in the sex trade have the opportunity to learn sewing skills, adult literacy, English language, and computer training.
So, that’s Destiny. Where do I fit in and what do I do? Great questions, I’ve been asking myself the same ones since I arrived in February.
As of last week, my work plan looks something like this:
But the schedule only tells about half the story. Here you can see two of the three major categories of my work: (1) workshops and (2) capacity building/fundraising. The third category, what I call “deep chilling,” doesn’t fit neatly into an hourly framework — it’s all the time between, before, after and instead of the formal work when relationship development and bonding goes down. And frankly, it’s the best part of every day. But before I get into the details of “deep chilling,” I’ll share about categories one and two.
Weekly workshops happen at the Reflection office and Khidderpore Community Center on topics like English language, computer training, health, nutrition, and more. Typically, Destiny interns design and conduct the workshops with support from the staff, who will translate when necessary. Before, I conducted these workshops alongside two other Destiny interns, Erika and Nancy, but April 17th was their last day, so from now on I’m at it on my own.
For the past few months, we’ve been hosting English and typing classes at the Khidderpore community center. Production has been a bit slow at Reflection, though, and the girls there have requested to also learn computer and English. As you can see in my schedule, I’ve budgeted time to do a total of four computer/English classes per week, splitting the time between both groups. (Khidderpore group gets more time to account for traveling to/from the center). The girls at Reflection also know I practice yoga, and have asked me to lead sessions. Starting next week, I’ll be taking them on the roof of the office on Saturday mornings for a short movement sequence and meditation.
At the same time, every two weeks or so, I have been conducting professional development workshops with the homestay girls. The homestay, otherwise known as the Working Girls Hostel, requires its residents to be actively looking for a job if they’re not already employed. While all the girls want to work, they’ve never gotten interview preparation, professional development advice, and support writing their CVs, which makes it difficult for them to get and maintain jobs. The workshop series I’ve developed targets these issues. So far, we’ve had two workshops on interview practice, and up next is one on professional development, then another on how to best showcase their strengths and experience on a CV.
About now, you might be wondering about the sustainability of this practice. I arrive, conduct a bunch of workshops, leave, and the training stops. That flies in the face of sustainable development and everything Global Advocates are supposed to do — right? Well, yes and no. There are two things that snap judgement overlooks.
First is capacity. Right now, Destiny doesn’t have the people-power to run these workshops with staff or local volunteers, and as the organization sees it, it’s better to have some workshops run by interns than no workshops at all. Plus, behind the scenes at the office, I’m developing longer-term curriculum plans to facilitate a smooth transition for future interns/local volunteers to carry on the workshops without unnecessarily repeating old content.
Second is listening to what our partners believe is best. The team at Destiny sees workshops not only as an opportunity for the girls to learn essential skills, but also as an opportunity for bonding and empowerment. The workshops are about the contents, yes, but they’re also about the survivors being seen, heard, and respected. They’re about building meaningful connections despite social barriers that would otherwise divide us. It doesn’t have to be an international volunteer, as even locals to India and Kolkata might have no experience with survivors of human trafficking and vulnerable women and girls. The point is, when outsiders and the women and girls at Destiny interact, both sides experience a change in perspective. For the former, their preconceived notions about those involved in the sex trade become more nuanced and variable. For the latter, their sense of invisibility to the outside world is challenged. The workshops are not a perfect fix to all the girls’ problems, but each one is a positive landmark in the girls’ journey towards rehabilitation and social reintegration.
(2) Capacity building/Fundraising
The second category of my work (all the blue on the chart) is the more straightforward office stuff, what I’ve titled “Capacity building/Fundraising.” During my time in the office, I’m working on several projects, to help streamline the business’s sales process and improve the organization’s impact evaluation. This work is done in collaboration with the local staff, who have the leading roles on these projects.
I’m also doing a bit of grant-writing for a $200,000 fundraising effort the organization has undertaken. With these funds, Destiny plans to acquire a piece of land and construct a new homestay. Building a new homestay on Destiny’s own piece of land, from the bottom up, will represent an immense step forward in terms of the organization’s long-term sustainability and impact. With this building, Destiny will not only be able to increase the number of girls housed at a time, but we’ll also have a suitable program space for computer literacy training, professional development workshops, and extra-curricular activities. Combined, the impact of a safe living space and a thorough life skills curriculum will make the world of difference for each girl served by Destiny’s homestay program and enable them to reintegrate fully into society and maintain gainful employment.
(3) Deep Chilling
The third and most important category for my work is Deep Chilling. You might think I’m listing this category cheekily, but a major component of working in a community other than my own is getting to know the people — both the beneficiaries and the local staff. In this article, Aaron Ausland describes the concept of informally bonding with community members quite eloquently; he terms it “Staying for Tea.” Over tea, he writes, “My title and position were being eroded; I was becoming real to them. At the same time, my simplistic stereotypes of them were melting away; they were becoming real to me… Over tea we built trust and became vulnerable together.”
My tea time happens at least twice daily, on arrival to/exit of the office. After settling in and unpacking my belongings, I head into the production room, where the girls are starting and finishing their days as well.
At first it was really awkward. When I first arrived at Destiny, I didn’t know what to make of the girls, and they didn’t know what to make of me. I made the mistake of spending my first week upstairs and isolated from the girls in the production room, spending time mainly with the staff. I only realized our relationship could look another way when Erika and Nancy, the other Destiny interns who were off traveling during my first week, came back to the office. The day they returned, they exchanged hugs with the girls, shared stories from their trip to Varanasi, and asked how work had been in their absence.
It was with Erika and Nancy’s support that I was able to break through that initial awkwardness and force myself to sit for at least 10 minutes in the production room every morning and afternoon, to observe what was going on and begin learning everyone’s name. What started out as “forcing myself,” though, quickly became the highlight of my day. You might expect a group of survivors of “vulnerable girls” to be glum and moody; they’re anything but. What I have seen and experienced is a group of bright, intelligent and hardworking young women right around my own age who move through life with open hearts and minds despite the trauma they’ve lived through. When we sit together, we don’t talk about their past — we focus on the now. We joke around, exchange compliments, complain about the heat and discuss our work. Sure, the English/Bengali language barrier makes communication difficult, but we get through it and we’ve bonded despite it.
Deep Chilling also applies to time spent with Destiny’s staff. During lunch, between tasks, and after work hours, we spend time bonding, chatting and exploring Kolkata together. In these moments, through observation and discussion, I’ve learned about Destiny as an organization, the backstories of individual beneficiaries, and more broadly about Indian culture and family dynamics. I won’t share all the details here, as they’re not my stories to tell, but I can assure you that these have been some of the most important, enlightening moments of my time in India.
If you’ve made it this far, you now have a pretty comprehensive idea of what I do every day, and how international volunteers fit into Destiny’s work. You might also have the sense that there’s a lot going on at Destiny, and you’d be right to think so. There’s a tiny team managing a huge, dynamic group of beneficiaries and employees, and every day brings obstacles and opportunities.
I showed you a pretty neat color-blocked schedule, but it’s a rare day that anything at all in the office goes according to plan — and that’s ok. My job isn’t to bring a rigid work-plan into a fluid and flexible organization, but rather to observe how members of the organization function at their optimal performance, and mimic that style. I have plans and schedules for the sake of my own sanity, but they’re more guidelines than rules. For the next two months, I’ll be seeing the workshops through, continuing capacity building/fundraising, and most important, making time every day for deep chilling. But if a new opportunity or hurdle comes up and priorities inevitably change, so will my work. That won’t mean I’ve failed Destiny or Destiny has failed me — rather, it’ll reflect the fact that we, and the people we serve, are human. The needs are dynamic and unpredictable, and we’ll respond in kind.