During a field visit, a woman with light gray hair and a forest green sari strolled up to me and began jabbering in Kannada, a local language in Southwestern India, throwing her arms about her thin frame. Nidhi, my translator, stood beside me giggling, testing me on the Kannada greetings she had taught me earlier. I was helpless. All I could comprehend was the word “eat.” The woman brought her fingers to her mouth, mimicking the act of eating. She patted my belly and laughed gregariously. “Have you eaten lunch?” Ah yes, that’s it! That’s what she was trying to say. “Uta Ita” I responded, embarrassed by my inability to speak the local language. She stepped back, waggling her head, the typical Indian way, and seemed satisfied with my response, at least for now.
Through a Fulbright-Nehru research scholarship, I conducted action research in South India for 8 months with a social enterprise called Pollinate Group. I spent most of my days doing ethnographic field work with women entrepreneurs living in informal settlements in metropolitan cities like Bangalore and Kolkata. These informal migratory communities often lack energy services and clean cooking facilities and women grapple with deeply ingrained gender dynamics. The inhabitants migrate from rural villages to work in cities because climate change has made yearlong subsistence agriculture untenable.
I hoped to understand a women’s sense of agency through her involvement in entrepreneurial activity, selling household products, but most often small-scale solar such as solar lanterns and fans. The products women sell have many life-saving and time-saving benefits: families no longer have to deal with toxic and dangerous kerosene lamps, children can study with a solar lamp to light up the darkness, and with clean cookstoves women can cook without inhaling smoke from firewood they had to take the time to collect. In the process of selling these products, a woman begins to develop business skills and enhances her bargaining power in the household. She also creates a stronger sense of community and challenges gendered norms that a woman’s place is in the home. I was fascinated by this process of empowerment, what it means for a woman, and how that agency could be enhanced.
After an interview with a women entrepreneur, Nidhi and I set out to leave the informal settlement while a group gathered around us. The woman in the forest green sari crouched on the ground in a malasana squat. She looked up at me with her sparkling eyes and began to ask questions excitedly. I explained I was from America, there doing research. Her eyes grew wide. “America!” she shouted and looked up to the sky. She rubbed her fingers together to symbolize the great wealth of Americans. “Rich!” she yelped. She said she’d like to come back to the United States with me as she smiled innocently.
But how could I make her understand the truth of San Francisco’s streets, overflowing with persons without a place to call home? I considered the rising inequalities within U.S. cities where many people can’t afford their rent and commute for hours to save money. I thought of the racial gaps in education, healthcare, and the for-profit criminal justice system. How could I make her see that not all U.S. citizens are wealthy and not everyone has been welcomed into the “American Dream?” It’s not a perfect place, nowhere is perfect.
Before I had time to respond, the woman in the green sari grabbed both of my arms with a force and pulled me down into a squat alongside her on the orange-red dirt. I had felt a barrier between us, as I stood looking down at her while she squatted below me. But I didn’t bring myself down to meet her at her own level. It was she who had to pull me down. While I squatted there, it became clear to me that I could not expect to understand this woman’s perspective while looking down at her. I could never fully understand the complexities of her experience as an Indian woman living in a migratory informal settlement. But, by listening deeply, I could try my best to understand. And so, I gently lifted the woman up to stand by my side, and her eyes sparkled brightly in the mid-day sun.
It was through interactions such as this, that I learned the importance of mutual understanding that the Fulbright Program facilitates. This lesson, of the importance of participatory action research in the context of mutual understanding and of transcending the power dynamic that often exists as a foreign researcher from the United States, stands out to me. We can’t attempt to understand the lived experiences of others from a position of power. We must learn to bring ourselves to the level of those we interact with, with genuine wonder and loving-kindness. I find this incredibly important as a white female working in a development context, working with women who look up to me for the color of my skin, because that is what they were taught to value. Constantly aware of my identity and positionality as an outsider, I was vigilant about creating safe spaces for women to share their stories while being very transparent that my research was meant to benefit their lived experience of agency. To ensure my research was meaningful, I collaborated closely with my host organization, to focus on community needs rather than just my own intellectual interests. I was able to provide an action plan based off my research insights that my host organization could implement to enhance the agency of the entrepreneurs they recruit. Such iterative research is a bottom-up process, informed by the participants and their needs, rather than a exploitative top down process. During my Fulbright research, I was confronted with questions such as: Who am I doing research for? And what do I hope the impact of my research to be? These are questions that all researchers must continue to be mindful of, especially those working abroad and with vulnerable populations.
As I waved goodbye to the colorful group gathered at the edge of the informal settlement, I internalized this valuable lesson. I challenge myself to be more aware of bringing myself to the levels of others and to continuously lift others up. As a researcher and activist inspired by my Fulbright experience, I will continue to uplift the voices of women at the margins, hoping to build capacities and create a flourishing sense of agency for all humans.
2019 Fulbright U.S. Student to India
Update: After an abrupt end to her Fulbright in March, Bennett recreated stories of the resilient women she worked with through her research. Bennett created a manuscript of creative nonfiction stories and now is in the process of applying for graduate programs.