Creativity Used to Empower: My Visit to Chindu

Chindu had been my first choice. When I applied for the AIF Clinton Fellowship, there were many things that I was unsure about but what I did know is that I was attracted to the Fellowship’s aim to “help to shape the next generation of leaders committed to positive change while also strengthening civil society in both the U.S. and India.” I also knew very clearly that I was interested in traveling and learning more about global development within the context of strengthening organizations from the inside out. My undergraduate studies had been in Creative Writing and Theater because I always knew that I had a niche and an interest in creativity.

After several years working within the government and nonprofit sector, I wanted to sharpen my skills to help organizations operate more efficiently, so I went back to school and received my MBA with a focus in Organizational Management. Now, I stood at a crossroads and this Fellowship offered an opportunity to step outside of my comfort zone of child welfare and apply my skills to a completely different field.

Chindu seemed to be the best of both worlds for me. It merged my passion for creativity and theater with my interest in organization management and strategy. When I learned that I could not be placed with Chindu, this was a bit disappointing at first. I had interviewed with Chindu and several organizations as potential placements with the Fellowship. Chindu was, by far, my first choice. I had bonded with the founder, Saresh, and my potential mentor, Sabrina–both of whom seemed very passionate and genuine. About a month before the Fellowship started, I was informed that Chindu has an unexpected internal restructuring that prevented them from hosting a Fellow this year. Instead, I was placed with another amazing host organization, Video Volunteers, but was later able to receive permission to visit Chindu in April, after completing many of my major project deliverables for Video Volunteers.

Although both organizations were very different, I found similarity in their goals to intentionally target women, Dalits, and other marginalized people. Both organizations were working on strategic planning and program expansion. And both organizations used creativity as a tool to empower people.

CELEBRATION OF DALIT POETRY

I arrived at Chindu’s office in Hyderabad around 2pm on Sunday, April 15, 2018. I would be spending two weeks visiting and working on strategic planning and youth engagement strategy for Chindu’s future programming. After months of only speaking to Sabrina on the phone and sharing such an incredible connection, I was able to meet her along with Chindu’s other staff in person. We would leave for an event at 5pm that day.

This event was called “Dalit Poetry- A Celebration,” and was created to celebrate Dalit poets and artists, which goes hand in hand with Chindu’s vision of a society in which each individual and community affirms, celebrates and experiences life in all its fullness. The mission of Chindu is to develop and delight children, women, Dalits and other disadvantaged people with creative events, reflective learning process, cultural action, theater performances towards joy and peace, was also evident throughout this evening as artists of different backgrounds approached the stage to share the impact that Dalit artists have had on their lives.

There were drummers, singers, poets, artists, and video screenings. Even I was able to share a poem written by Dalit revolutionary intellectual and poet Shiva Sagar. Although the entire program was in Telegu, I shared with Sabrina that I believed good art should transcend language and even if I could not understand the words, I should be able to “feel them.” The poem I read was translated from Telegu to English but even so, the strength and relevance of the words still pierced deep beyond the translation. The poem is called “Vithanam Chani Pothu:”

The seed, dying,
Promised of a harvest
The blooming flower
Assured an ensuing crop with smile before it wilted away
The forest that was ablaze
Vowed an engulfing wildfire
The dipping sun, clasped our hands, and
Assured of dawn
Martyrdom is beautiful!
Holding time in its embrace,
It promised of new world.

I was given this poem a couple of hours before the program and this idea of promises made and a dream deferred, spoke to me. What happens when a promise was made but is never fulfilled? The poem proclaims that martyrdom, or dying for one’s beliefs, is beautiful. It is dying in the midst of believing; believing even though the promise won’t be fulfilled. It is the belief itself that is sustaining and it is not actually contingent on whether or not the end of the belief actually happens. Martydom itself makes promises, and the poem ends without seeing the promise fulfilled. I pondered: does the “new world” ever come?

I shared the poem with a room of about 200 people. This was the only poem shared in English. The presenter thanked me for reciting it so passionately. I had an opportunity to meet the person who translated this poem, a pastor who has also lectured at the Candler School of Theology of my alma mater, Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. This was only my first day with Chindu and I could already tell that this would be a full trip.

A DAY AT THE OFFICE

We sat in a circle as we went around and shared introductions. This was the first day in the office and the primary language in the office is Telegu, although five out of Chindu’s seven staff also understood and could communicate in English. The office is located on the third floor of a storefront next to a Taekwondo studio. The office has several rooms: the entryway and the kitchen, the middle “AC room” where most meetings happen, a small hallway with storage, and then the backroom where books are stored.

We all gathered in the AC room as staff members shared with sincerity how happy they were for me to join their team for the next couple of weeks. They proceeded to share some of the sweetest and most heartfelt things that I had ever heard from strangers. I could sense a connection to these “strangers” that time and familiarity could not quantify. They shared things like, “we have been waiting with a thousand eyes for you to come”. Others shared similar, less poetic, sentiments about my arrival at the organization and the time I would spend there. What an honor! I was hopeful that I could fulfill the expectations that everyone had for me. In turn, I shared my connection to the organization and what I felt I could contribute.

The office was very family-oriented and although I had heard claims of family-oriented organizations in my past professional experiences, this was the first time I had seen this claim played out in reality. It was refreshing and although I don’t believe this model is a practical fit for most other organizations, it worked exceptionally well here. I could see the remnants on this connection play out in the way staff members worked together both professionally and personally. Everyone played a functional part in the organization as well as participated in theatrical performance roles.

We spent the bulk of the day mapping how my time would be spent there. Since I would only be at Chindu for two weeks, we wanted to make the most out of my stay. We decided that I would focus on the following objectives:

  1. Reviewing Chindu’s current programs/strategies and giving feedback;
  2. Conduct strategic planning session (to include PowerPoint and brainstorming) for how Chindu can include youth empowerment into current programmatic offerings; and
  3. Create creative writing tips and tools for Chindu.

Eventually, it seemed that strategy planning and information dissemination would be the best usage of my two weeks. I would also get an opportunity to see Chindu’s work in the field within a local village as well as with female police officers. These activities along with reading about Chindu’s past work and reviewing videos created by the organization, I would get a broader perspective or the organization’s work and possibilities for future programs.

CHINDU IN THE FIELD: VISITING A VILLAGE AND CONDUCTING A WORKSHOP FOR WOMEN POLICE CONSTABLES

It was hot. I splashed my face with water and then stretched out on a bed in the guest room of Chindu’s local office during our two-hour break after lunch. We were in a village in Rayapatnam, where Chindu had two local people on the ground who could regularly engage the village. Earlier that day, we met at the Mandal Village Panchyat meeting with about 40 women. Sabrina spoke about Chindu’s work and how Chindu could potentially provide additional services in that area. They were very receptive to the notion. Now, we awaited a meeting with local villagers in an area close by. This was Saresh’s village so they were familiar with Chindu’s work.

We gathered a group of women and children. Many were excited that they would have a foreigner there. Sabrina led a discussion on what it means to be empowered as a women in their village. Many women shared things like being a mother and ensuring that their children received a good education. Chindu’s goal was to work closely with these women over a period of several months and to develop trust. Providing a safe space for women to have meaningful conversations about things that mattered most to them. This space is so important and acts as a means to authorize power or increase the overall position, status and condition of women in all spheres of life.

Chindu’s work with women extends beyond Dalit villages and into prisons through their work with female police constables. I had an opportunity to witness firsthand how Chindu empowers female police constables to utilize theater techniques to relieve job-related stress. We entered the room of about 60 female police constables. Chindu had worked with them before and the sessions had gone very well. I watched as Saresh opened the session with a song which demonstrated the facilitator’s willingness to be vulnerable and acted as an invitation for the participants to do the same. I thought this was a great way to build trust with the audience and encourage individuals to step outside the box during the session.

The workshop consisted of a series of activities, some of which utilized balloons and scarves as replacement for emotions. Other activities utilized color and blocking to tell personal stories. I was really impressed with the variety of activities in the workshop. There was a seamless flow from serious to playful, stationary to movement, noise and silence, and learning and play. I watched as participants talked about how they would utilize some of the breathing and massage activities to relieve stress during the work day. At the end of the session, the room erupted into dance and laughter as we played music for the group to end out day of stress busters and helpful mindfulness techniques.

CREATIVITY AS A MEANS FOR EXPRESSION AND HEALING

I left my trip to Hyderabad with a deeper perspective on organizational strategic planning and the importance of creativity within the development sector. Both Video Volunteers and Chindu are organizations that use creative elements to impact lives. Many NGOs successfully use creativity as a tool to increase livelihood for marginalized communities. Many marginalized communities must be resourceful and thus they creatively utilize what they have to maximize resources on a daily basis. I found that it was this element of creativity that levels the playing field and makes hard-to-swallow realities more palatable to mainstream audiences, while empowering people in the most marginalized communities.

Crystal is a national speaker, author and foster care advocate. She uses the arts to promote individual and community change. Crystal graduated from Emory University with a B.A. in English, Creative Writing and Theater Studies and received her MBA from Georgia State University with a focus in organizational management. Crystal has also worked with child welfare organizations in Georgia in the areas of marketing and communications, strategy and implementation, fundraising and community mobilization, and training and curriculum development. She has also volunteered as the theater director for the teen ministry of an international ministry. Crystal has served as a member of Georgia Governor’s Council for child welfare reform, she is certified in Life Stories® Theater curriculum, and she is a founding member of an advocacy group for foster youth in Georgia called Georgia Empowerment. Crystal is also a young fellow for the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative through the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Crystal has traveled the nation as an advocate for foster children and uses her gift of spoken word poetry to challenge and motivate audiences. Crystal’s mission is to inspire people to use their gifts for good to leave their mark on this world in permanent ink.

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