In 2020, AIF quickly pivoted to address the critical situation in India and the United States. In India, AIF leveraged its programs’ infrastructure on health, education, and livelihoods via its wide network to address the needs of the nation with ventilators, PPE, and other interventions in order to save the lives of vulnerable Indians from COVID-19. Read the report here.

In 2021, India recorded the world’s highest daily tally of 314,835 COVID-19 infections on April 22nd, as this second wave sent many more into a fragile health care system, critically short of hospital beds and oxygen. Working with our partners, hospitals, and governments, AIF has launched a three-pronged Phase 2 Emergency Response Strategy to address this crisis. Here is an overview.

The American India Foundation is committed to improving the lives of India’s underprivileged, with a special focus on women, children, and youth. AIF does this through high impact interventions in education, health, and livelihoods, because poverty is multidimensional. AIF’s unique value proposition is its broad engagement between communities, civil society, and expertise, thereby building a lasting bridge between the United States and India. With offices in New York and California, twelve chapters across the U.S., and India operations headquartered in Delhi NCR, AIF has impacted 6.7 million lives across 26 states of India.

A Narrative of Vicarious Traumatization and Vicarious Resilience in Prisons

“Without community there is no liberation”. -Audre Lorde (1984)

Ever since I was young, I experienced life as an empath, I could take others’ perspectives while being self-aware of my surrounding. Over the years my life took its natural course and I decided to pursue psychology with an aim of learning more about myself and others. However, the theoretical nature of the course and a focus on quantitative methods made it difficult to achieve the understandings and realizations I aimed for.

Hence, I chose to create opportunities for myself in the field which can help me create meaningful experiences and lead to positive changes in the lives of others and mine.

Being an AIF Fellow at Turn Your Concern into Action (TYCIA) Foundation, I had the opportunity to meet amazing and resilient colleagues who have worked in arduous circumstances in prisons for multiple years. It has been a privilege to observe the empathy, kindness, compassion shown to inmates and ex-inmates the team works with.

Nothing is a better teacher than lived experiences. I have been fortunate enough to gain these experiences by visiting, observing, facilitating, and monitoring workshops with my teammates in Bhondsi prison in Gurugram, Haryana.

During a span of three months from January to March two pilot projects under rehabilitation and reformation were executed in the prisons. I was primarily involved in the reformation project in which six peer fellows were recruited amongst the inmates. They were trained to conduct weekly sessions around themes such as toxic masculinity, power, sex, privilege, sexual consent, patriarchy, domestic violence, sexual abuse, etc.

My main interactions were with these peer fellows who came from diverse backgrounds and were equipped with several skills to conduct these sessions. They were trained for around 50 hours and conducted sessions for around 74 hours in the barracks during this time.

During the orientation, a question posed by one of the fellows to our team member was “As an outsider, what do you think about us?” There was such vulnerability in this question which led to subsequent interactions in the training sessions. I was familiarized with intense and ambiguous feelings, emotions experienced by the inmates. The facilitator of these workshops, Eleena George, is the founder and curator of “Project Unlearn”. She was able to create a space for the fellows that made them feel at ease to discuss their struggles, lives, and ways of connecting with each other in prison.

Ours is a culture that especially denies the nuances of trauma and given the fast-paced city life; we experience a blatant disconnect with our minds and bodies. This becomes especially true for service providers who are working relentlessly with vulnerable groups.

I would like to talk about experiences of vicarious traumatization and resilience. I have been fascinated with these concepts for a long period of time and I would describe their impact on my AIF Fellowship.

According to researchers, vicarious traumatization has a negative impact on the service provider’s mental and emotional health. It is a result of the prolonged exposure to the beneficiary’s emotions, thoughts, feelings. These effects include compassion fatigue, burnout, feelings of a loss of sense of safety, formation of negative worldviews on the service provider (Howlett & Collins, 2014; Puvimanasinghe et al., 2015).

Vicarious resilience can be described as the strength, growth, joy we derive from working with vulnerable groups. The accounts of vulnerability, perseverance, resilience positively impact us and can serve as an antidote to the negative experiences (Puvimanasinghe et al., 2015).

I can never say I can ever understand what someone goes through while imprisoned. The moment we walk into the facility, there is a change in energy that reverberates throughout your body. We experience the constriction, the force, and the importance of order in a way that we do not experience in any comparable magnitude in our daily life. Over time, we see how people in positions of privilege such as police officials and I move with liberation, protection, and safety.

 

Shivranjani with her colleagues in front of a Gandhi-ji mural near the prison entrance.
My first visit to Bhondsi prison in Gurugram.

When I speak to the fellows, I sense the helplessness of not being able to see their families, being unable to understand the repercussions of the pandemic as they are detached from the world, rage at their current situation, and despair at not being able to resolve it. I have only had a glimpse of these conditions and I again reiterate I can nowhere understand what a person goes through while being imprisoned. However, my observations led me to become frustrated, feel inadequate, reconsider my views on justice and fairness in society. Our team became a channel and space for the inmates to discuss their struggles with their role and their life in general.

The peer fellows, despite these challenging circumstances, were resilient to volunteer for the opportunity to teach and learn from others. They focused on enthusiastically being present in the classes and aimed to share their life experiences to empower their students. They used this opportunity to create a routine for themselves and worked towards gaining new skills for themselves. The enthusiasm with which they spoke of the classes and their experiences was infectious. The connection and positive energy between the peer fellows were palpable. They knew each other incredibly well during their time in prison and depended on each other.

On the last day, the fellows and other inmates welcomed us to another part of their world: the music room. We ended up getting mesmerized with the fellows singing songs of our choice and I remember vividly that everyone was just smiling throughout and didn’t want that day to end.

These two sides of the coin made my experiences as a service provider working with the prison population draining and exhausting on one hand yet very meaningful, worthwhile on the other. All I feel is that in all this, one thing is clear: despite all obstacles, humans are resilient and we always do our best with what we have even when we don’t see it.

 

References:

Howlett, S. L., & Collins, A. (2014). “Vicarious Traumatisation: Risk and Resilience Among Crisis Support Volunteers in a Community Organisation”. South African Journal of Psychology, 44(2), 180–190. https://doi.org/10.1177/0081246314524387.

Lorde, Audre (1984). “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. 110-114. 2007. https://collectiveliberation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Lorde_The_Masters_Tools.pdf.

Puvimanasinghe, T., Denson, L. A., Augoustinos, M., & Somasundaram, D. (2015). “Vicarious Resilience and Vicarious Traumatisation: Experiences of Working with Refugees and Asylum Seekers in South Australia”. Transcultural Psychiatry, 52(6), 743–765. https://doi.org/10.1177/1363461515577289.

Shivranjani is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with TYCIA Foundation in Delhi. For her fellowship project, she is designing and implementing a long-term impact monitoring and evaluation strategy to further the organization’s criminal justice reform work. Being a social and cultural psychologist by training, Shivranjani has developed a deep inclination towards several social and contemporary issues that can be researched and solved at an interdisciplinary level. Her passion for applying to the AIF Clinton Fellowship emanated from her personal and professional background. Her experience of working as a counsellor and life skills trainer with young people from different backgrounds has given her insights into the subjective lived realities of youth in India from an intersectional perspective. As a primary component of her Master’s degree in social and cultural psychology, she has lived, worked, and studied in four geographically and culturally distinct countries in Europe and Asia. These experiences have facilitated her process of understanding different migration systems and cultural systems in different countries through a gendered lens and given her a holistic perspective on the work conducted at TYCIA Foundation, her fellowship host organization. She is looking forward to serving as an AIF Clinton Fellow as it will provide her an invaluable opportunity to create a more empathetic, hopeful, and kinder society through action research by strengthening the projects to reduce recidivism and induce integration.

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