Samantha Bennett – India 2019

Samantha Bennett – India 2019

Lifting Others Up Through Action Research

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.

-Samantha Bennett

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.

September 14, 2020 0

Alumni Profile – Steven Darian

Alumni Profile – Steven Darian

10th Century Tibetan Monastery in Ladakh, in the Indian Himalayas, 1987

I’ve been lucky enough to have had 3 Fulbrights: to India, Uzbekistan, & Ukraine. Apart from 30 years teaching at Rutgers, I’ve been an incurable traveler, with other long-term assignments in Saudi & Turkey, Afghanistan & India, China & Indonesia. These things become part of your identity. When doing my website, I had to ask myself for the first time: What is my identity or identities? My answer was: Writer, editor, and interculturalist.

Children of the Station––Bombay/Mumbai, 1971

And of course interculturalism––is the core of the Fulbright experience. It is without doubt, a many-faceted word. It involves adding to your institution, adding to your host country, and expanding your understanding of yourself and the world.

My Fulbright to India (along with several other stays in-country), enabled me to write the book I had always dreamed of writing––A Ganges of the Mind––a popular book on the river and people I met while traveling from its source in the high Himalayas, to the Bay of Bengal: beggars and pilgrims, scoundrels and scholars.

Mausoleum of a Sufi Saint––Samarkand, 1997

Plus a scholarly book on the river, as well. It was a time when the journey to the East was in full spate. It seemed almost everyone was going to India for something; yoga and meditation, philosophy, theosophy; you name it. I also connected up with several colleagues from the University of Calcutta, and was later able to mentor several of their students who later traveled to America to study.

The Fulbright to Uzbekistan pulled me into the world of Islamic history and culture, and led me to write a historical novel set in 14th century Samarkand––one of the greatest centers of culture & learning of the Islamic world. I called the book The Illuminator, and spent the following two years studying the Islamic tradition, as background for the book, and for my studies in comparative religion.

The Fulbright to Ukraine resulted in a collaboration on two books with a Ukrainian colleague––Dr. Olga Ilchenko––of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. It was a collaboration that has lasted a lifetime, and also resulted in my currently serving on the editorial board of a Ukrainian journal. My stay also resulted in meeting my wife.

The Buddhas of Bamiyan (6th century), 1964

Istalif––Afghanistan: 1063, 1963, or 2063?

Two years of teaching in China also yielded a collaboration on two books, with a Chinese colleague. And finally, two years teaching in Turkey, that gave me some insights into that amazing part of the world, whose history disappears into the mists of time. My travels have enabled me to visit the ancient sites: Borobudur in Indonesia; stations on the Silk Road; the Buddhas of Bamiyan, before they were dynamited by the Taliban. Gaur: once one the greatest cities of India; and today, the haunt of birds and monkeys. As well as the clay soldiers of X’ian––probably the greatest archaeological find of the 20th century, and to imagine the last days of the emperor’s retinue, who were buried alive with his dead body, beneath the giant mound of earth.

From these wayward journeys, I’ve been able to cobble together a book of my wanderings; called, ça va sans dire, The Wanderer: Travels  & Adventures Beyond the Pale, that pulls together my experiences from 9-10 countries I’ve lived and worked and studied in; and with a cast of characters you can’t forget: swinging swamis, At the Lama’s Table (Sikkim), A Jewish-Christian-Moslem, Sasha and the Maharaja (Pakistan), and Drinking with the Russian Second Secretary (Kabul); to name but a few.

There are great travelers from all lands & all times: Ibn Battuta and al-Muqaddasi, Marco Polo and Magellan, Xuanzang & Zheng He. Here is a wonderful piece of advice from Chuang-tze, on The Inner and Outer Journey:

 

Lieh Tzu was fond of traveling.

The adept Hu-chiu Tzu said to him: “I hear you are

fond of travel. What is it about traveling that pleases you so?”

“I travel,” replied Lieh Tzu, “in order to observe the endless

variety of things, and in this way come to understand the universal.”

“When people travel,” replied Hu, “they see merely the outside—the

husk, the shell. They learn little about the essence of things, which

is only learned from the inward journey.”

After that, Lieh Tzu never went anywhere.

“Now that you understand this,” said Hu, “you may become

a traveler again; realizing that the greatest traveler does not know

where he is going, and so is open to all experience.”

 

Steven Darian – The Author in Banaras, 1987

In a way, the most important thing to pack with you for the journey is––the diary. Keep it under your pillow at night, and try to write something in it every day; about people, places, experiences. And of course, your reflections. Remembering always that: life is people, whether you’re a poet or a physicist. Let me leave you with a parting thought; something I’ve learned from several aeons of travel, umpteen years of writing, and 10 years as a professional editor: Connect with the heart…and the head will follow. Whether you’re a poet, or a physicist.

 

-Steven Darian
Fulbright to India: 1992-1993
Fulbright to Uzbekistan: 1997-1998
Fulbright to Ukraine: 2001-2002

July 27, 2020 0

Virtual Conversations: How to Talk to Your Community Abroad About Black Lives Matter Protests

Virtual Conversations: How to Talk to Your Community Abroad About Black Lives Matter Protests

Students at SMA N 1 Sangatta Utara watch the Oscar Winning Short Film Hair Love as part of their lesson on narrative text

Since arriving back to the United States, most mornings I wake up to a flurry of WhatsApp messages from my students. Typically, these messages read “Miss what are you doing?” or “Miss how is the pandemic in America?” prompting casual updates on our shared experiences in quarantine. Recently, these messages have taken on a new urgency, with the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests happening in more than 2,000 cities in the United States​. Worldwide people are demanding justice for the killings of Black Americans by white police officers. The killing of Black Americans is a systemic problem in the United States and requires action beyond police reform and prosecution.

These morning messages are now filled with voices of concern and confusion. Students are now asking “Miss why are people protesting in America?” Social media and the world wide web allows worry for my safety, and while I myself am not in any immediate danger, I struggle to put into words the long history of racism in the United States and what these protests mean beyond me as an individual.

The Indonesian ETAs host a virtual end of grant ceremony in place of their in person end of year conference in Jakarta

TikTok is a social media application that many Indonesian high schoolers rely on for global news and honest portrayal of experiences beyond their grasp. On such a platform, posts are spread at the swipe of a thumb, offering little pause for reflection and making misinformation rampant. The Black Lives Matter Protests in the United States of America have not been exempt from the consequences of fake news. For instance, a Tiktok of President Donald Trump supposedly mocking the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police has been circulating. The clip of President Donald Trump standing in front of a crowd exclaiming “I cant breath, I cant breath” was taken out of context. It was originally from a rally held in ​Colorado Springs where President Trump was referring not to George Floyd’s death, but to former democratic primary presidential candidate, Michael Bloomberg, fumbling with his answers during a debate. Students were shocked by such a seemingly insensitive act on the matter of race in the United States.

How do you explain how such a video was taken out of context without denying the reality of which we currently exist over WhatsApp? How do you summarize the complexities of the history of race in the United States through language and cultural barriers? How do you explain the larger backdrop of a United States that still has confederate statues to a student who has never traveled beyond their hometown? To answer these questions, I turned to the support and creative brain power of my cohort. While social media platforms can accidentally cause students to promote misinformation, they can also be a teaching resource. Here are some suggestions I gained from the collective man power of my 2019-2020 Indonesian ETA cohort.

A student practices her English writing while learning about famous Black Americans

Use your social media platforms to share, repost and send information to your host community. Try to engage in the post before posting in order to make sure you yourself are not also spreading false information. When sharing posts, consider translating some of the information, making it even more accessible to your students. There are many social media accounts currently explaining the Black Lives Matter movement and protests in America. Reshare a post on your story or personal accounts that is visible to your students. Also, many social media accounts share free books and resources that you can also repost and share with your community abroad. Many social media platforms allow you to post polls or host a Q&A with your followers. Make the most of these functions by allowing your community to ask you questions and providing answers on your story. For members of your host community that may not be on social media, share articles and posts to any WhatsApp groups you are still a part of as well. This will broaden your reach of interaction with your host community to anyone who might be curious and not sure how to ask you.

Similar to when you were teaching grammar and vocabulary to your students and would have to review the material and create an age appropriate lesson, you can review the information about the Black Lives Matter movement and create a lesson plan to teach your students. Your lesson plan can include explaining the history of police brutality in America coupled with videos of people protesting and the reason why they are protesting. You could end the lesson with an activity where you ask students to create a poster they would carry to a Black Lives Matter protest. There are several online resources that also provide lesson plans to teach students about the Black Lives Matter movement that you can lean on. Take a look at the “For Children” tab on websites like, blmresources.net, for children’s books on race that may be more appropriate for students where English is their second, third, or even fourth language.

Another way you can approach conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States is through comparisons to your host country. An article posted in the Jakarta Post highlighted how systemic racism is not unique to the United States. While the history and cultural contexts differ greatly, ​this article​ discusses the hashtag #PapuanLivesMatter, a spin off of #BlackLivesMatter trending in Indonesia, calling for Indonesians to reflect on their own history with racism and oppression. Papua is an eastern region of Indonesia notoriously exploited for its abundance of natural resources, while simultaneously being denied basic public amenities. This offers a starting point to both improve your understanding as an ETA of the political climate in your host country as well as have students draw their own parallels and make their own conclusions on the Black Lives Matter movement.

From this, I was able to meet my students on a common ground of understanding, allowing us to share about how racism persists in our respective countries and what we can do to combat it as individuals. Similarly to how the shared experience of social isolation once prompted conversations around COVID-19, recognition of racism across the world has facilitated meaningful WhatsApp conversations.

-Lucy Srour, 2019-2020 ETA to Indonesia

-Ammarah Rehman, 2019-2020 ETA to Indonesia

June 29, 2020 0

Alumni Profile: Jinan Banna

Alumni Profile: Jinan Banna

I visited Doka Estate with Professor Carmen Pinto from Universidad Veritas to learn about how coffee is cultivated and processed.

I spent a few days in Mexico for the Congreso Latinoamericano de Nutrición, hosted by the Sociedad Latinoamericana de Nutrición, and am pictured here with colleagues.

My research focuses on obesity prevention in underserved populations, particularly during critical periods in growth and development such as adolescence. In addition, as a large portion of my time is dedicated to instruction, I have also engaged in scholarly work related to development of effective instructional strategies. These areas of focus reflect the current needs in the state of Hawai‘i, as obesity remains a pressing problem. Further, there are higher rates of obesity and associated chronic conditions in underserved populations such as Filipinos. To address high rates of chronic disease and existing health disparities, it is crucial to provide high-quality training to budding nutrition professionals, which drives my research on instructional techniques. Health promotion for chronic disease prevention is a topic of great interest in the US and is a large component of the courses I teach at my institution. As obesity rates increase around the globe, examining strategies to encourage maintenance of healthy weight in diverse settings is of paramount importance.

My interest in serving as a Fulbright Specialist stemmed from an interest in applying the knowledge I have gained in performing studies in the US to other settings to address the needs of underserved populations exhibiting similar chronic health issues. The problems populations in the US face with regards to nutrition are similar to those many others around the globe are now facing, and the techniques I have used in performing research and teaching in the US may be applied to address these. I had an interest in working with other health professionals abroad to combat health disparities.

I met with Noel Payne at Universidad Veritas in September 2018 to discuss integration of information on nutrition into two of Noel’s courses: Sustainable Lifestyles and Sustainable Consumption and Production.

I engaged in a program to train faculty at Universidad Veritas in Costa Rica in course development. I taught a basic nutrition course for the faculty and met with faculty individually to assist them with incorporation of nutrition information into their courses. Universidad Veritas offers several courses in Health and Human Development within the sustainability focus at that institution, and faculty benefited from training in development of syllabi for additional courses to complement those existing.

The professors at Universidad Veritas kindly took me out to try local food, including to one of their favorite spots for frozen yogurt.

One of the photos captured my meeting with Noel Payne to discuss integration of information on nutrition into two of Noel’s courses: Sustainable Lifestyles and Sustainable Consumption and Production. I similarly worked with faculty to integrate resources related to nutrition into a number of different courses.

During my stay in Costa Rica, I also conducted a workshop related to conducting research in the nutrition field at the Universidad Ciencias Médicas in Costa Rica. This workshop provided faculty with tools to develop research projects and publish in the field.

I also took a few days to travel to Mexico to present my research at the Congreso latinoamericano de Nutrición (SLAN). At this meeting, I shared results of a trial seeking to promote healthy eating in underserved groups using text message.

I also had the opportunity to try a number of tasty local foods, such as pejivalle, as well as tour a coffee farm with one of the professors. In addition, I took several cooking classes to further familiarize myself with local cuisine.

Pejivalle, a very nutritious fruit often consumed with mayonnaise in Costa Rica

I continue to correspond with those with whom I connected while I was in Costa Rica, and engage in discussion on nutrition-related topics. The experience was very beneficial to me professionally, as I am able to incorporate relevant aspects of my experience into my teaching. I am able to draw parallels between the settings in which I work and others. I also gained familiarity with the structure and content of programs abroad to continue to improve the offerings for our students.

– Jinan Banna

Fulbright Specialist to Costa Rica 2018-2019

May 25, 2020 1

Alumni Profile: Addison Dlott

Alumni Profile: Addison Dlott

Teaching at SMK Padang Kala outside of Kota Bharu, Kelantan

One of the first things I remember from my English Teaching Assistantship in Malaysia was jotting down a phrase in my phone: We’re all living the same experiences, just different realities. Someone said it to me in passing, but I knew I had to remember it because I thought it so pointedly reflected what cross-cultural exchange was all about.

Meeting my mentor, Nazila, for the first time in Kuala Terengganu, Malaysia

I felt the weight of that comment when I stepped into my community. I felt transported back to high school at the semi-rural school I taught at in the state of Kelantan. A group of girls welcomed me into their circle. We hung out after school and listened to music, spent weekend afternoons drinking teh tarik and evenings slurping tom yum in front of the TV. The discussions of boys, music, pop culture and
beauty felt oddly familiar.

“Who’s a better rapper, Cardi B or Nicki Minaj?”

“Is Jason Momoa your favorite actor?”

“What face cleanser are you using?”

“You must have a favorite BTS member!”

My mother, a high school teacher back in the United States, would text me and ask how I was fairing, how school was. I told her that my days mirrored hers, just 12 hours ahead. School began at 7:30 a.m. Ended at 2 p.m. Lunch for upperclassmen happened after lunch for lowerclassmen. The library served as a place for students to hang out. After school held opportunity for sports or other extracurriculars.

The relevance of the phrase was re-emphasized when a student who I connected with over American rock music WhatsApp messaged me to wish me a Happy Easter. Four weeks had passed since I left Malaysia at the urging of the State Department. I asked him how he was, what he was up to. He said he was just at home doing homework, but having a hard time focusing, given the global pandemic.

SMK Padang Kala’s netball team preparing for the championship

“I’m a bit frustrated, bcoz it’s too much.”

I found a moment of clarity after reading his message. My family in the United States and my family in Kelantan were experiencing a collective pain over the COVID-19 pandemic. Culture, values and private lives, of course, change the way we experience the world. But at the root of it, while my former student and I are on opposite sides of the world, we are feeling vastly similar emotions, just in different contexts.

Eating homecooked tom yum with students

Back in my childhood home, I’ve spent the last few weeks reflecting on my time in Malaysia and mapping my next steps. While I am unsure what the future holds for me, I will continue to pursue creative and personally fulfilling opportunities. And though my alumni status came earlier than I had hoped, I’m thankful for the short time I had to build these bridges of greater understanding. And I believe those bridges will continue to build, even amidst COVID-19, though it may look a bit different than what I initially expected. I messaged him back.

Meeting to say goodbye to students in the afternoon before flying back to the United States

“Same, honestly.”

 

At the end of the day, we’re all just living the same experiences, just different realities.

 

Addison Dlott
Fulbright ETA Malaysia 2020

May 18, 2020 0