I consider myself a storyteller, a wordsmith, a communication expert, a journalist. I seek out narratives in my day-to-day, craft puns in my spare time, accidentally interview my friends mid-casual-conversation.
But when I enter the unfamiliar, I become a Listener. My curiosity becomes supreme, I question everything, including myself. This has connected me to people and places around the world, filled my belly with cuisines I could not imagine, made me grow and grow and grow. This brought me to India.
One of the first days of our Orientation, we were asked to share our perceptions of the United States and India. Our cohort has a range of connections, as Indian citizens, South Asians, Overseas Citizens of India, previous visitors and first-timers. We shared our relationship to the subcontinent we all committed our presence to for the next ten months. I expressed this importance of Listening, for me, to take a step back and attempt to understand the experiences of those around me.
High on my pride as a Listener, this essential role on my path to becoming a storyteller, a fellow Fellow brought me down. He shared his thoughts on the process of connection between foreigners and Indians, of the need to not simply expect the people we meet to ‘give’ their stories to us. He highlighted the necessity of building trust, rather than demanding immediate openness. In so few words, he reminded me of the potential for exploitation, the importance of exchange, the danger of expecting things from others without giving anything of yourself. It is not enough to simply want, we cannot forget to give. We are hear to serve (learn, lead), after all.
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I will spend the next ten months connecting to and communicating the stories of fair trade organizations (FTOs). Under the guidance of Fair Trade Forum – India, an extensive and supportive network of FTOs, and Fair Trade Connection, a media organization created to amplify the voices of fair trade producers, I will visit up to ten organizations across India. I will conduct interviews with artisans, managers, founders, and their families and film the spaces and communities impacted by these organizations. The goal is to show the effect of the prioritization of fair working conditions and wages on producers, their families, and their communities.
This project gives me the chance to be a ‘fair trade storyteller,’ to spend each day getting to know people and their stories. But as I confirmed in my first week of filming at an FTO, this experience will be much more than sitting behind a camera and asking questions. It does require building trust and repeatedly explaining my purpose. In theory, simple enough. In practice, a challenge.
It means entering a space as a newcomer and remaining confident as an expert. I must demonstrate technical savvy and personal humility. I will practice extensive interview-preparation and the patience to let go of preconceptions or plans.
Every day will challenge my ability to explain my motivation and my purpose. Though I am confident in my convictions, I often struggle to convey my own narrative of intentions. But before I can ask anything of these organizations and the people who work there, I must first explain who I am and why I am there.
I began this first field visit filled with nervous energy and self-doubt, and it showed. I jumbled my way through an explanation of our captioning process to our translator. My first official interview took twice as long as it would typically take, in part because of this struggle to explain my purpose and role to the people with and for whom I work.
In this moment of struggle, I was reminded of the importance of what I express to those I interview, to establish both my desire to hear, understand, and share their stories, as well as my expertise as videographer and interviewer. This shook me out of my anxiety, my fears of failure, back into the role I worked so hard to take on. With each following, less anxiety-stricken interview, I saw more ease in the eyes of interviewees.
I became a journalist because I love this challenge. How often do you have a stranger standing in front of you, telling you they care about your story, that they want to hear about the the things you have struggled with most and your dreams for the future? How often do you get to be that stranger?
But this process has never been as personal for me as it now. I enter each interview with more of the appearance of an outsider than ever before. To make myself less of a stranger, I need to make it clear who I am and why I am here. My personal efforts to get to know this country, to familiarize myself with each organization I visit, to learn my ~tori-tori~ (little – little) Hindi, to eat my curry with just my right hand and a large pile of chapati, to attempt to understand what is important to them, and to respect the time they have shared with me, away from their time with their family or their work.
I am eternally grateful to that fellow Fellow, who had the courage to share his values of connection to a room full of strangers. I will spend the next nine months (and the rest of my life) figuring out my own story and those of these organizations, but I finally found some words to express why I ask so many questions, why I put myself in this climate so different from the one in which I grew up:
“Mera nam Kara hai, I’m here because I care about your story.”