- Personal Reflection
“Any work done with a community is only successful when you look at their needs and their expectations.”
Indigenous Knowledge and communities was a course about traditional knowledge, narratives, and grappling with the question of what it means to revive one’s cultural identity. This class had two parts: the first part involved learning about the Adivasi communities and the judicial history involving Tribal people in India, and the second part was working with, and conducting fieldwork in the communities.
I have learned how historical injustices perpetuate themselves in the present. How pre-colonial and colonial oppression of Tribal people occur today, yet are incredibly invisibilized. I have learned that injustices facing the Adivasi communities are not simply a result of a ‘colonial hangover,’ capitalism and current social, economic, and political forces purposefully maintain the dichotomy between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ I have learned that the Tribal communities are facing pressures to assimilate, which is causing a break in knowledge between the younger and the older generation is/has occurred. This is causing a sense of cultural identity loss among the communities.
After thoroughly question ourselves, examining our own social position, researching the Adivasi communities in Pune, the Forest Rights Acts, as well as examining the theoretical concept of ‘development,’ we began our field work with the communities. Our fieldwork method consisted of social mapping exercises, semi-structured and un-structured interviews, and sharing of ‘cultural practices’ such as singing and dancing.
We entered the communities with the initiative of ‘retrieving their stories.’ However, it was clear that before any dialogue or in depth conversation could take place, a deep sense of trust needed to be established. In the end, we had to let go of our own initiatives and preconceptions in order to see what the communities for who they are, and what they need. In listening to the communities, it became clear that what they seek from us is aid in creating new sources of livelihood. Thus, the challenge became: how can livelihood development initiatives merge with the ‘cultural practices’ and cultural identity revival. We brainstormed ideas and watched a video of a community that used weaving as a method of expressing their narrative, their stories, as well as a source of livelihood. Unfortunately our course was soon coming to a close. To documents our leanings, and create a foundation for future students to move from, we decided to create a website.
There were many successes in this class. Our preconceptions of Adivasi communities, of Tribal people were shattered. It may sound trivial but we saw that the communities had paved roads, electricity, and modern technology such as cell phones and music players. We learned that oppression may not manifest as visibly as we thought. The forces of political and economic oppression are subtle and easy to miss if one does not take time to search for facts and review history. We learned that the number one factor in working with communities is a willingness to commit to a project.
There were also many things that we would do differently. We would better plan and structure our time in order to ensure that the communities receive something from our time with them. Our class was unable to produce anything to give to the communities, which is a major problem. The one thing the communities asked for is a chance for the younger generation to visit FLAME campus. Due to poor planning, and administration difficulties, we were unable to follow through with their request. Looking back, I think we should have worked as hard as possible to bring the young community members to FLAME campus.
Also, it would have been helpful to begin our conversation with the communities earlier in the course. Due to poor weather, and again administration difficulties, our first visit to the communities was postponed for many weeks, which left us with many weeks of stagnancy and waiting.
Reflecting on the experience now, I question whether our class was able to successfully work with the communities. As I quoted in the beginning of this paper, “Any work done with a community is only successful when you look at their needs and their expectations.” Did we look at their needs? Were we able to free ourselves from the ‘development’ mentality, form the want to ‘help’ the communities connect with their cultural identity? To be honest, this class has left me with even more questions that we began with. I have learned that community work is incredibly complex, with no straight lines or easy decisions. I am left even more critical of people who seek to enter into community spaces to retrieve knowledge or to implement development initiatives. We entered with the most sincere intentions of learning and listening to what the communities needed, however our intentions did not prevent us from facing incredibly challenges, uncertainty, confusion, and self-doubt, and at the end of the day I am left wondering what we achieved.
However the communities want to keep moving forward. They have told us that they want to keep working with Professor Neeti and future FLAME students to think of different livelihood opportunities. The young girls at Beliv and Kaanav still want to experience FLAME, and they want to keep developing friendships with FLAME students. My only suggestion for the future is for the Indigenous Knowledge and Communities Course to keep running.