I am sitting in a metal chair, in front of an unlit fire pit, with a Co-Fellow whose been there for me all year long. I have two presentations to prepare for, a ghazal to finalize for a Fellow gift exchange, files to transfer from my different work hard drives. I do not know how I will do it. I am overwhelmed.
We are at our Endpoint end-of-the-fellowship retreat, at the Sonapani resort in the hills of the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand. This is a return, after my field visit to the Kumaun Grameen Udyog in May.
My final Fellowship week was hectic, as it was for most. I worked to finish my final deliverable videos for my host organization until the very last minute, emptied out my apartment into two suitcases, and tried to figure out how to say “goodbye” or “see you later” to the connections I had made in Delhi that felt like they popped up only in my final month there.
My roommates and I arrived last to our AIF group hotel booking in Delhi, frazzled and exhausted and completely unprepared for the concluding journey we were about to begin. To my relief, I found my Co-Fellows to not be so far off. I brought my suitcases into my shared room, and just stared at them. I needed to grab my toiletries and sleeping clothes, I think, but it was all I could do but to stand and stare and breathe in the air-conditioned room.
Again, my Co-Fellow Subha Shanmugavel and I have managed to snag one of the few, coveted Big Rooms, this time with Priya Charry. I soak in the huge bed, space for days, and two giant pod chairs Subha and Priya are currently occupying.
I am so happy to be back with these people, but all I can focus on is the air-conditioning. I try to fall back into a now-familiar Fellow Catch-Up Flow (“How are you?”, “When did you get into Delhi?”, “How was your train/plane/automobile getting here?”), but all I could say is the joke I have begun to bring out every time I enter a temperature-controlled room: “I stopped processing complex information outside of aircon, so I’ll need a few minutes to get back to being human.” A month later, I realize it’s not really a joke.
The Delhi heat had gotten to me, in a way I never expected of myself. “I can handle anything,” I thought. “Weather is just something to adjust to,” I thought. “The Delhi heat is the only thing I’ve heard you complain so much about, Kara! It’s great,” my roommate & Co-Fellow Minahil Khan laughed. By the end of the fellowship, we had developed a supportive, affirmative, perhaps co-dependent friendship that eased/supported us through our toughest adjustments.
But now back with all of our Co-Fellows, the Big Group, I was worried. How could I turn on “Social Kara,” “Participative Kara,” or “Slightly-more-normal-than-usual Kara”? I need not have worried. After I failed in my frantic search in my suitcase for my shampoo, I returned to get my second bag in the hotel lobby and tested myself earlier than I intended. I found a group of Co-Fellows gathering at another’s arrival. I was excited, nervous, tired, to be back in the Big Group. As I prepared to turn on “Social Kara,” I saw in tired smiles and felt in the warm welcome hugs that I was not alone in my bout of end-of-fellowship exhaustion. We were not there to compete with each other or force false versions of ourselves forward. I breathed. We can do this.
A day of train rides and hilly taxi journeys later, we had arrived and I was again feeling overwhelmed. We had a group reunion the first evening that reminded me of why I cared so much about this group and each of us individuals. So many of the Alumni I have spoken to told me their favorite part was the Fellowship cohort. As I felt my comfort grow from those first slightly awkward weeks of Orientation, I began to get it.
The space we forged together as a cohort and with the Clinton Fellowship Program staff is imperfect. At times we have had cliques and divisions, leaned heteronormative and able-biased, skewed towards some perspectives over others. Every space is “imperfect” and inherently biased, but the efforts by the Fellowship team and my Co-Fellows have allowed us to build a sense of trust. Not every Fellow is friends with every Fellow, but every Fellow has had at least one deep conversation with another Fellow. This challenging ten-month experience can breed isolation and division, but it can also bring a group together.
And yet, at the start of the Endpoint conference, I found myself asking myself: how did I end up here? How did i put myself into this place of overwhelm once again? In the month leading up to Endpoint, we received notice of opportunities to present to our Co-Fellows at our retreat at Sonapani or to a public audience at our Endpoint Seminar in Delhi. As I read the emails and considered what I might want to present about, I considered my current feelings of overwhelm and decided it was okay not to apply for these opportunities. I had worked hard this year, I had already worked so hard, and in that moment, this felt like too much. Sure, I had loved stepping into my identity as a storyteller this year. Sure, I loved embracing a story and wrapping it around in audience. Sure, it would be nice to conclude my experience in this way. But it’s also okay to say “No thank you,” sometimes.
Fortunately, my Co-Fellows helped me find a way to contribute to Endpoint, to reflect and express myself to the Big Group, that was not too much at all. Last minute before a presentation application deadline, I spoke with Co-Fellow Janelle Funtanilla. We discussed whether or not we wanted to apply to present to the group at the retreat, and I mused how it would have been cool to present on some of my photography learnings this year. Janelle was responsive, expressed her interest in such a workshop. I reached out to Co-Fellow Parijat “Peej” Jha, who I knew had worked hard this year on his photography and thought hard about what it meant and its impact. Turned out he already paired up with Co-Fellow Drew Kerr to facilitate a discussion on photography and narrative, and they welcomed me in to collaborate on the presentation.
It all began for Peej and Drew with a photo of Thích Quảng Đức, a Buddhist monk who self-immolated in Ho Chi Minh City (then, Saigon), to protest the persecution of Buddhists in then South Vietnam. A photograph that shook the world, Peej and Drew wanted to open a space for discussion within our group about the potential (negative and positive) impacts of photography in our own work and in our daily lives, as development professionals and frequent users of international social media.
As a photographer for fair trade organizations, my mentors worked with me on how to capture the impact of our work, in a form of positive marketing. I was excited to talk with our group about the impact of the imagery that our organization choose to disseminate, as opportunities to expand awareness or fundraising streams, or inadvertent exploitation.
Peej and Drew welcomed my ideas and were excited and willing to expand their vision and work with mine. A presentation to the group had felt daunting and intimidating to come up with and present on my own. With their commitment to fostering a space of discussion and idea-sharing, before and during the presentation itself, I felt welcomed and enabled for my ideas to flow, and empowered to step up in my turn of the presentation.
One presentation down, one to go.
A few weeks before Endpoint, the Fellowship Team put out another call for our public seminar presentations. They asked: did anyone want to tell a story? I couldn’t resist. I sent an email.
Initially envisioned as a presentation where I showed a video and told a short story behind the process, the presentation morphed into a theatrical performance. Discussing with our program director Katrina Dikkers, she suggested I enlist the help of a fellow Fellow to work with to show what it’s like to interview someone, when there’s such a large gap between us to bridge. I reached out to Jamsheena Abdul Jabbar, a Co-Fellow based at Kattaikkuttu Sangam in Tamil Nadu, and one of the best storytellers and performers in our group. We began our Orientation with a song from her and Co-Fellow Mujeebu Rahman from Kerala. Since then, she had shown the group her love of and skill in storytelling and performance. I pitched her the basics of our idea and she was game, willing to help me out and work with me even as my ideas were still barely in formation.
Fast forward a few weeks, and I am back at the unlit campfire. I have no idea what Jamsheena and I will present. I promised to come to Endpoint with ideas fleshed out and decided, to be discussed, and all I had was a squished up face and writers block.
I entered Endpoint knowing I had so much to process and consider, but willing to give myself the time to think things over and relax. Unfortunately, I had put myself in a position where I needed to process and present my experiences, fast, and I saw no way out of it. My tried-and-true work approach of buckling down and banging it out was not working, and I was scared I would disappoint myself and the group. I was overwhelmed.
How did I get here?
“You did this for a reason, Kara, but you are putting too much pressure on yourself. You need to give yourself a little time to take care of you, and the ideas will come.”
The wise, wise, words of Co-Fellow Janelle Funtanilla.
So I took a little time, and I realized what I needed was to work with my fellow collaborator and be honest with where I was at. I needed to trust myself and place trust in her in order for us to work together, and me avoiding it was getting neither of us anywhere.
“So that’s what I have so far,” I finished my word-vomit session to Jamsheena. My ideas were all over the place, but I explained why I wanted to do this in the first place. I wanted to show all the work that goes into making a tiny little 90-second video, from my side and the side of the people who agree to be interviewed.
“We need to place your video-making in context,” Jamsheena responded. She discussed a history of traveling female storytellers across India, women who would go from village to village to share the stories of the land.
We worked together to come up with a plan for a short “play.” We would begin with a song about a female storyteller in Tamil, a dramatic introduction to the play, then a monologue by each of us, me acting as myself and Jamsheena acting as one of the people interviewed, Radha Bisht, a knitting trainer in Kumaon. We each would express our separate excitement and fears going into an interview, then conclude with a segment of us coming together and conducting the interview.
As we presented the idea to our Fellowship team and practiced and practiced for rehearsal, I could not stop thinking of how grateful to Jamsheena and this group I was. We would not have been able to present that play without Jamsheena’s willingness to trust me and agree to the project before I barely had an idea in my hands. I would not have even been able to be so open and excited to work with Jamsheena without Janelle’s support. I would not have been so excited and comfortable to act out this play to a group of strangers without the Co-Fellows cheering us along the way.
So how did I end here? With a little help from my Fellow Friends.