Tia Gustafson’s Post. There were technical difficulties with her (my) account.

Today marks 30 days until I am home. That is so crazy and scary and I can’t believe our time went by so fast. The semester has been so challenging and difficult and I’ve felt completely overwhelmed at times.

There are 4 weeks left in the semester and we leave today for Delhi. I’m going to try to make the best of it. We’re finishing up our papers for the Environment, Ecology, and Sustainable Livelihood course.

So, in the environmental spirit, here are some reflections on farming:

For fall break, (what seems like eons ago) I and four other SJPDers spent a week on an organic farm. The farm is owned and operated by a 79 year old man Narayana Reddy.

Our introduction to farm life in India began with the trip to Wayanad in Kerela four-ish weeks ago (which is when I should have posted this… oops.) We met with a group of farmers on a farm inside the city of Wayanad. Granted I only saw one angle of the property when we approached, but the farm seemed inside the city. Super cool! Anyway, we walked up a few stairs from the busy Indian street and into a farm.

The farmers we met with were very pessimistic about the future of farming in India, saying such thing as there is no future for farming. They said that years ago people believed in investing their money in land and gold, but now families are investing their money in their children’s education.

Reddy had the complete opposite position. He believes that in twenty years 80% of farmers in India will be organic farmers. His crop yields are incredibly high (coconut trees with at least a hundred coconuts) and he is willing to teach any farmer who is interested how to stop using pesticides and synthetic fertilizers and to rely on micro-organisms.

Staying on Reddy’s farm for even that short while really makes me want to farm. I was thinking out loud about my future farm and said something along the lines of “All I need is one acre. Just a small garden,” and someone else (who escapes me) said something like “Ha! One acre is small?!”

Indian farms are quite “small”. The farmers we met with in Wayanad had a ½ acre. If I remember correctly…

In the environment course, we talked about Community Supported Gardens and how people grow veggies in their yards and how that’s enough fresh produce to feed several families.

So inspired! I probably don’t even need the acre afterall.

Anyway. I have to finish packing and get ready for our next adventure.


-Tia Gustafson

Let the One Month Countdown Begin!


                Though this week was a short one, we managed to keep ourselves busy! We had classes and a few short field visits last week, and mainly worked on our course papers this week. This course has focused on the Environment, Ecology, and Sustainable Livelihood aspect of SJPD. We’ve watched a few documentaries on war, collective community action, and media’s role in advertising. With all the documentaries we’ve been watching over the last few months, several of us have decided to purchase external hard drives so that we can bring them home to share with all of you! I know I’m really excited about this as we’ve talked at length about ways that we can share our experiences when we get back home. Some of the topics we discuss can be pretty difficult to bring up, so I am hoping that sharing certain documentaries will spur some great conversations!

                Besides working on papers this week, we also had a session on Warli Painting. It was nice to be able to sit back and take time to be reflective while also channeling our energy into more of a creative activity. I’m excited to share my Warli attempts with family when I get back home!

                Today we wrapped up our course by presenting our papers to the class, then breaking them down and reflecting on different themes that were prevalent. Following the paper discussions, we had a few creative-work assignment presentations. I think I can speak for the whole SJPD group when I say that we have really enjoyed the opportunity to think outside of the normal paper parameters and reflect on the course content in our own unique ways. It has been fun to see different creative styles coming forth. It is always a pleasant surprise to see what people will come up with! Two of our girls, Hannah and Leah, also facilitated a theater workshop for us today. This is something they have done for each course. Again, it’s a great way to collectively process different recurring themes or ideas in an environment outside of the classroom. Hats off to them for their hard work and smooth sessions each week!

                Tomorrow we leave for our two-week field visit! We’re looking forward to it, but I think it will make our remaining month go by quickly. It’s hard to believe that at this time in one month we will be on our flight home! Our field visit is broken down with 3 days spent in Delhi (& Agra), 4 days in Varanasi, and 6 days in Bhopal. Of course each day will be filled with its own adventures, one of them being the Taj Mahal. We don’t do a lot of tourist-centered things, so it will be a change-up to go experience it. We also found out that we’ll be spending time at the US Embassy in Delhi! I’m sure we will have a lot to report back on by the time we return. It will be weird to not be home for Thanksgiving, but I’m sure we’ll all be thinking of you! I’m giving you all an excuse to eat an extra piece of pie in our honor J (I won’t judge if it’s a big one…)

                We found out tonight at dinner that our hostel is used while we are gone, so we all got to spend a little bit of time (or a lot of time) packing all of our belongings to keep in Martin & Laura’s cottage while we’re away. It was a daunting task, but I’m glad that I was forced to do it. It was a good run-through to see how much space I have to work with… which turned out to be a very small amount.

                We leave for the airport before 10 am tomorrow and will be back to Visthar on December 4th. More to come! Thanks for taking the time to read my ramblings! Happy early Thanksgiving! I’m so thankful to all of you for all of the support you’re sending our way! We’ll see you soon!



Reflections on Theater and Liberation

I have always had a love for theater so when I found out that there was an opportunity to see a show here in India I jumped at the chance. After a long drive, we arrived at the theater. I was surprised to see that it was part of a gated luxury apartment complex. We milled about in the lobby with other expectant audience members who all looked to be a part of the middle to upper class. When the doors opened, we filed into the theater and sat down to enjoy a production of Ms. Meena. I was actually familiar with the general plot line since it was based on a German play called The Visit that I was in during high school. This show took the story and placed it into an Indian context. Essentially Ms. Meena tells the story of a rich film star coming back to her impoverished home village to shoot a film about her life. The villagers hope that she will share her wealth to help rehabilitate the town. She agrees to this but with one condition. They must kill her former lover in revenge for his abandonment. The play examines how power and wealth can lead to corruption. It also addresses themes of gender equality, revenge and forgiveness.

I believe that theater can be a powerful medium to address injustice. Since learning about Sarah Longwe’s framework for levels of empowerment, I am starting to understand how different types of theater can help people progress towards acting as an agent of change, the highest level of empowerment.   

Shows like Ms. Meena can help its audience members achieve concenziation (the third of five steps in reaching full empowerment). In other words, shows that address social justice themes can help us (as the audience) become aware of the existence of these issues. They have the potential to help us recognize the issues we see on stage in our own communities. By choosing the Indian telling of the story instead of the German one, the audience of Ms. Meena was encouraged to make these connections. 

However Ms. Meena and shows like it have the hardest time getting their audience members to make these connections and become “conscious”. This is because the audience member has a passive role. As Augusto Boal, theater artist and activist, points out there is a wall that has been put up between the actor and the audience. The job of the audience member is to sit quietly and listen to the story and then perhaps chat a little with their friends about what they thought. With out an invitation to do more the audience will have a hard time making connections, or even realize that there are connections to be made.

This begs the question of what more looks like. It can start with something as simple as telling narratives that are based on the true experiences of their audiences. For example during our second field visit we met with a few people that had worked on a show about the Adivisi (indigenous people) struggles in the area of Wayanad. This play was written and preformed by Adivisi artists about real problems that the community faces. It helped to start a conversation in the community that recognized this oppression. Boal also offers a framework for participatory theater where the theatrical experience is more of a workshop than a performance. These are only two examples, and I have no doubt in my mind that there are many more that can further invite the audience into the conversation, move them to participation, and finally to full empowerment. 

I still believe shows like Ms. Meena and even ones that don’t directly address social justice issues still have a place and are important. It is important to tell stories even if they are complete fiction. It is important to bring beauty and creativity into the world. Theater can provide an escape; it can provide joy and bring hope. However I also believe that theater can be a powerful tool that can be used to find empowerment in order to resist oppression. 



Meaning Matters

On any given day an adult uses an average of 16,000 words to communicate. Clearly words are important to us. They form our opinions, our questions, and shape the way we see the world. Words are natural to many of us, so much so that we often take them for granted. We have become accustomed to each word having a common definition. Meanwhile, we forget where the word and it’s meaning comes from, and don’t account for the connotations and implications that are socially tied to certain words.

We are nearing the end of the second week of this course entitled Globalization and the Ethics of Development. Even still, I am still struggling with the definition of development.  What does it mean to be developed- as an individual, a society, or a nation? By definition, if there is a state of development, there must be an end point of being developed and a beginning stage of not being developed. We use terms like developing or under-developed to describe other’s who are different from us, such as “developing countries.”

Currently, the U.S. tends to define development based on the value of goods produced over a one year period, the accumulation of stuff, and technological advancements. Instead development should be framed as the advancement of justice within a given place. Development should mean the expansion of freedoms for all. This shapes development as a constant process, not a means to reach an end point of being “developed.” It also leaves room for each society and each country to develop in its own way.

The meaning around the words we use shape the outcomes of our actions. By continuing to see development as a positive term and a goal to strive for, and by seeing ourselves as a developed country, we perpetuate the oppression is a result of forced global development. The connotations we attach are important. The meaning of words matter. This semester we’ve been forced to think of the meaning behind words so commonly used in discussing the political, economic, and social issues of our nations.

This week we’ve also spent time focusing on some of the economic outcomes of globalization and what this means for social justice. While many of us are far from expert economists, our group has explored wage inequality, labor unions, workers cooperatives, factors of the 2008 economic crisis, and more. It has given us each a new opportunity to understand how the decisions of the U.S. effect other countries throughout the world. It is incredibly frightening to know that our country, with all it’s turmoil, has so much power over global issues. However, this also means that we have the ability to begin working towards social change. It is with this in mind that we prepare ourselves for the remaining semester ahead and the many things we have left to learn. All the while we will be called to think critically about the words we use to shape our understanding of social justice and why the meaning of those words matters.


The Importance of Place

My grandparents on my mom’s side live about two hours north of my home. As a child, when I went up to visit or when we would meet to celebrate birthdays, we would go to a restaurant at the halfway point between the two homes. A few years ago, the restaurant closed. I felt a pang of sadness to hear the news—not because the food was particularly great, or the service outstanding, but because the place was so significantly connected to happy memories.

Aside from such fleeting memories, I do not often think about the importance of place. Yes, I think of my childhood surroundings with nostalgia, associate special memories with certain places, and appreciate the beauty of the land. But I, like many others in America, have shallow connections to the place I live and the land I occupy.

This is not true of every culture. Last week, we traveled to Wayanad, a district in the southern state of Kerala. As recently as the 1960s, the indigenous people of that district, who once thrived on a sustainable, nomadic lifestyle in the forests, were forcibly removed. On a bright day last week, the 15 of us sat cross-legged in a small Adivasi (indigenous) hamlet nestled near the river. As we listened to Balan, an activist, describe the land grabbing of the colonizers, I was surprised to learn that these people had been repeatedly pushed further out of the forest until they were shoved up against the banks of this river. Though the setting was picturesque, it was not their home. Their home, the forest, had once provided not only food and shelter, but also was the key to their culture, rituals, and religion. Without the forest, there are no means (literally, they do not have access to the necessary places and materials) to continue significant cultural and religious practices. The forest was essential to their way of being.

Some people, like Balan, work to fight for the land rights of the Adivasi in Wayanad.  They seek to hold the government responsible to the Forest Rights Act of 2005 which guarantees each Adivasi household 5 acres of forest land (though in Wayanad they are pushing for just 1; 5 is currently too much to hope for). They carry out protests and build homes on what was once their land (but is no longer theirs, according to the government of India). And yet, despite this resistance, the situation looks bleak for the Adivasi of Wayanad. Another Adivasi activist we visited offered the dismal projection that his community would not exist in 20 years. For these people, forcible removal from their homeland is rapidly resulting in loss of culture and community.

It is important to remember that the Adivasi of India are not alone. Americans can look within our own backyards to find similar histories. Take a moment to consider what was lost when Euro-Americans forcibly removed the indigenous peoples of America from the land we now occupy. Sadly, the world is filled with stories like this one.

Wonders of Wayanad

Hi everyone!

We’ve just returned from the hilly countryside of Wayanad (in the southern Indian state of Kerala) and it was AMAZING. This visit marks the beginning of our next course, titled Globalization and the Ethics of Development. We took a 2.5 hour train ride and then a 4 hour very bumpy bus ride to get there, where we stayed with a wonderful NGO called RASTA – Rural Agency for Social and Technological Advancement – in cozy rooms of seven people each. The small RASTA campus was beautiful – stone moss-covered steps, hibiscus and other flowering plants, and so much greenery.

Wayanad is nestled among gorgeous hill-mountains – I shared some photos my friends took on my Facebook page. It was stunning. We spent the week meeting with Adivasi (indigenous) farmers and activists, as well as a women’s self help (advocacy and empowerment) group. They were all so inspiring, especially the women’s group- they worked together to save money for shared projects and there was such a strong sense of sisterhood.

The Adivasi activists talked about their struggles to reclaim land and to fight stereotypes – objectives shared by many Native American groups in the United States. And the farmers discussed the increasing pressure to use harmful pesticides on their land, which is also a problem in  the US. With all of these visits, I thought about my role in the problems they face. I began to examine my part in the farmers’ struggles and how I can be an ally to Native peoples in the United States.

On one of our visits to an Adivasi town, we drove up beautiful hills. On other visits we had deep conversation about feminism and education and oppression, which are the best sorts of conversations. I am so happy with the group I’m traveling with – they are truly amazing people and they inspire me to think critically! We also hiked to Eddakkal caves, which host beautiful moss-covered prehistoric stone carvings. And when I say hiked – I mean HIKED. First we walked up a very steep paved path for a long time, then climbed a neverending set of stairs to get to the caves. It was intense. But the views at the top were breathtaking.

We drove back Friday night, stopping at Mysore Palace, which had been the home of the rulers of Karnataka up until Indian independence. It was one of the most opulent places I’ve ever been, but it raised questions: was the full history present on the audio tour or just the sterilized and glorified version? Is it right that the palace was so full of splendor although, both when it was built and currently, people in the area are starving? Whose land was it built on? How was the labor to build it obtained? These are questions that we can ask about any historical site, in the US or abroad. 

On the subject of splendor, on Saturday evening our group got to attend a wedding! Before Wayanad I had bought a beautiful aqua and royal blue sari, and it was amazing to get to wear it – our group all got dressed up together and some of the women on the Visthar staff helped us drape the saris correctly and secure them. We didn’t stay terribly long at the wedding itself, just long enough to have a wonderful dinner of rice and beef and parota (seriously the best bread ever) and to meet the bride and groom. The bride wore an elaborate sari and a veil of flowers – guests would walk up to the stage she and her family were on and present her gifts. It was a beautiful experience.

I’m signing off for now, but peace and love!


Cyclone Update!

Hello family and friends!

 We’ve been receiving some frantic messages lately due to concerns over Cyclone Phailin. Rest assured that everyone here is doing well, and the weather here is lovely. Phailin hit Gopalpur (on the eastern side of India, we’re more toward the west) and headed north. Please keep those affected by the cyclone in your thoughts, but there is no need to worry about our safety.

enABLEing Justice.

As our group focuses on notions of Identity, Resistance, and Liberation, we splurge in the opportunity to meet a range of individuals with diverse identities. From activists who support the rights of the LGBTQI community to those supporting the rights of individuals affected by class, caste, race, and gender, we are beginning to see the importance of each movement. We see how each connects with each other, and if we want a brighter world, we must support all who remain oppressed. What some of us might not have initially seen, however, was the vitality in supporting the rights of people with disabilities.

We met yesterday with a man who became blind after college and who now fights for the recognition and granting of human rights for those with disabilities. People across the world presume people with disabilities are either defective and need fixed, deficient and need compensated, or diverse and need to be recognized as humans and cherished for their differences.

Fifteen percent of the world population–one billon people–have an impairment. Fifteen percent. And they still face exclusion and are seen as burdens.

It is time we stop seeing people with impairments as “disabled.” They’re only “disabled” because we have socially constructed the notion of barriers that create handicaps. For example, when a building is built it will be seen to need windows, fans, central air, etc. However, if we are to suggest putting in a ramp, we would be told it is an extra charge that cannot be afforded. By saying this, we take the stance of the dominant group and say others’ needs are not normal and cost too much.

If we wish to see social change, we must serve this abled fifteen percent justice, and include them in society, include them in the discussion of human rights, and include them in the fight for a better world.

Homestays and Cloud Atlas

“By each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.  Our lives are not our own, from womb to tomb we are bound to others, past and present.”-Cloud Atlas

The above quotation is from the movie Cloud Atlas, which I have been watching small segments of at night when I should be doing something more productive, such as homework.  But, none the less, I have been pondering over this line as it relates to SJPD.  This past weekend, the whole group split up and went on home stays where each small group or individual stayed with a family in Bangalore from Friday night until Monday morning.  Experiences were different for every group.  Some groups stayed with Muslim families, some with Hindu families, and some with Christian families.  I was at a Muslim home with Meishon and Michaela, and we had such a fabulous time.  There were some awkward moments, but there was also lots of love and laughter.  We ate constantly and the food was delicious.  The other groups also reported this.  It was such a blessing to get to see into the life of someone living in Bangalore. 

A young 24 year old girl, Harmine, was my group’s main hostess and she was extremely welcoming and kind (and a fabulous cook!).  She and her family answered all of our questions and asked us questions as well.  We talked quite a bit about politics and daily life.  I personally enjoyed the ice cream and the henna that Harmine and her friend drew for us.  But most of all, I loved getting to know Harmine, her family, and her friends.  I was able to see how, although we lived thousands of miles away, we were really not that different.  We both did not live perfect lives and did not epitomize the stereotypes of our nation, religion, or culture presented in mass media. 

I strongly believe in the connection between all humans and our responsibility to one another.  Connecting with Harmine’s family helped me to realize this.  Society tells us that there are barriers that differentiate or separate people, but through connecting with the people we see as different, we can see how we are really not that different after all.  Through this connection, I am able to realize how I and all of human kind will always be bound to others, as the quote above says.   It is my belief that through making connections, and acting in kindness towards all of humanity, we can create a better future. 

Thank you for reading and have a wonderful day!

Art for the sake of art


This week the SJPD group has gotten to meet several incredibly intelligent and passionate resistors of social injustices.  Laxmi Murthy, an activist for the Indian women’s movement, shared her expertise with the group through a presentation of a history of posters that have been used for different aspects and periods of the movement.  A group of four LGBTI activists from an organization called Sangama spoke with us about their lived experiences and taught us some of the history of their struggle in India.  Saraswathi, an author who sees herself as a bridge between the women’s and dalit’s movements, shared her work with us through one of her stories and shared her opinions with us through a discussion.  These people all shed light on different pieces of social justice movements in India and widened our perspectives in ways they would not have been from reading a book and separating representations of events from the people who made those events happen.

            The experience from this week that I found the most moving was an exhibit by Franciose Bosteels.  Franciose is a prolific artist who lives on the Visthar campus and who many of the students have had a chance to get to know.  When she was a girl she fell sick and was bedridden for two years.  Her mother told her that she should do something with her hands in order to cope, to recover, and to express herself, which she did.  Franciose found great joy in creating and has never stopped.  Her work has changed through the years, and now she creates dolls.  Dolls that tell stories.  Dolls that depict stories of lives she has seen or been told of in India.  Stories of everyday life, of despair and of hope, of social injustices and of liberation.  Her dolls are paired with poems that reveal poignant aspects of their stories contributed by other artists.  Her exhibit tells many stories at once.  A doll obsesses over her looks, a doll hangs herself, two dolls sit happily in each other’s company, two dolls wish to escape their abusive relationship, and many more stories converge in a single setting.  They highlight the variety of life while facilitating discussions of the injustices depicted in these life stories. 

            This exhibit is only one of the ways we have been witness to incredible people pouring their lives and creativity into tasks intended to alleviate social injustices.  Saraswathi, another woman who uses her art for social critique, told us that she couldn’t appreciate art for the sake of art.  Only when it serves humans can she really appreciate it.  What of work for the sake of work?  What does it mean for my life?