“My story?” Nilum responded, looking at me with the same mixture of confusion, curiosity, and apprehension that first appeared on her face when I wandered into her home six months earlier. “Yes, yes, your own story,” I responded, hoping to smile and nod my way to some form of mutual understanding. Looking at me again with the same resolved confusion, she repeated, “qua?”
I had no way of knowing that simple word, “why,” would come to define my work, my daily life, and ultimately my entire fellowship experience. I was raised on historical anecdotes. Stories of people that served to bring life, humor, and personality to the past. Whether it was my grandmother’s stories of collecting cans to buy a coke as a child or Franklin Roosevelt serving hotdogs to the Queen of England, these stories have captivated and comforted me my whole life. As I have grown up, I have constantly searched for ways to create my own vignettes, telling them to anyone who will listen with every detail exaggerated, trying to squeeze every laugh and smile from my often begrudging audience.
As an Organizer for the Hillary Clinton campaign, my coworkers and I were tasked with developing our “personal story.” Needless to say, I was thrilled at the opportunity to tell my own story and, more importantly, hear the stories of those close to me. I loved sitting down over cups of coffee with every democrat in Keokuk County, listening to stories about Iowa Jima and what it was like growing up in the small town of Delta in the 30s. My experiences have convinced me of one simple truth: that each individual has a valuable story to tell, and these stories inform how we see ourselves, how we hope to see ourselves, and how we hope others will see us. Our own stories merge with the stories of others and these internal and external experiences make up the layers that define us. The stories we make the extra effort to seek out often make all the difference.
At the start of the Fellowship, I, like many of my peers, was overwhelmed by the looming threat that I would simply have nothing to offer my organization. As the first months in Ahmedabad rolled by, I had no idea what topic I wanted to pursue for my project. However, as I sat in the homes of community organizers talking to women in the field, small pieces of personalities and remarkable details about these women’s lives began to peek through from behind the language barrier. It was then, in these moments, balancing a boiling plate of chai on my knees, that I knew I needed to hear these stories in full. Over the next five months I would sit down with the women I had come to know only by their smiling faces and attempt to hear what they had to say.
“Why?” They would always ask me as we began. My days were filled with this question and I was rarely able to provide a satisfactory response. Of course, I was seeking answers to “why” questions of my own. Why are things like this, why do you do this, why do you feel this way, and why haven’t things changed? The simple preface of “why” pushed me to become a better listener, and in turn allowed me to provide a storytelling platform to a caste of women that least often have their stories told. This word compelled me to be more vulnerable and led me to draw connections I never imagined possible. These stories always began with why, and as I prepare to leave India I find myself still repeating this mantra. I never imagined I would leave this fellowship with more questions than answers, but I knew I would leave with some stories. Little did I know the most important ones would not be my own.