A peek into the project

Hello friends, known and unknown to me!

It’s been awhile. I’ve wanted to update this blog for over a month, but the flow of life here in India mixed with the availability of internet and a decent computer to type up a blog post has left me content to wait until the right moment comes to me.

I’ll admit, there were a few opportunities prior to today for me to write. But I was overwhelmed with all of the experiences I’ve had. I didn’t know where to start and how to say all of the things that I want to say in a clear and eloquent way. Or even what all the things that I wanted to say were! Should I try to lay it out linearly…get chronological for you all and start from the very beginning of my time in Mulgavhan — going back to Nagpur and reuniting with Yogini and her family; driving up to Mulgavhan for the first time in 3 years and being greeted by a crowd of kids shouting “Aaron-tai! Aaron-tai!” (Aaron-sister); the highs and lows of reconnecting with the farmers; the challenges and successes of working on an abstract and creative project with them?

And then there was the question of whether or not to include my experiences in the time since solely working on this project. I finished working with the farmers of Mulgavhan back in early November. Since then I’ve visited friends, taken my first Vipassana course, served my first Vipassana course, and done a little bit of sight seeing. Are these experiences relevant? They feel like they are to me, but how to share them in a way that honors the totality of the experience but also connects them to the purpose of this blog, my work with cotton farmers in India?

As an artist, how much of my process do I want to share with my followers? This body of artwork currently evolves and exists in my mind and has yet to be fully realized. How much of a sneak peek am I willing to give you all?

The questions just seemed to multiply and it was easier to just continue putting off the blog writing than it was to try to sort through answering them one by one. I kept waiting for a moment of clarity when I would be swayed by the inspiration goddess within to sit down and write an epic post that laid it all out clearly and with a natural flow. That didn’t happen.

I still don’t know how to write about everything or what exactly to say. I want to share photos. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words, right? Sadly, most of the photos that I’ve taken here I plan on using in this body of artwork and I don’t have the capacity to slap a watermark on them so that the originals are safe and sound with me.

So for now, I’ll sum up my time in Mulgavhan and post a few photos of the process (see end of post). Hopefully this little window into my experience here in India satiates any longing you may have to know what’s up with this project and how I am doing. At least until I have another opportunity to write with more detail and depth about the process.

I went to Mulgavhan with the intention of spending three weeks with cotton farmers coming up with a collaborative creative way to represent the issues that they deal with daily as they put an extraordinary amount of work into making a living as a farmer. I intentionally did not outline what I thought that creative expression might look like, fully aware that I was returning to Mulgavhan after three years, that I didn’t know how busy everyone would be as the harvest season kicked off, and that I didn’t have the slightest clue what types of creative expression would resonate with farmers and what they would want to express and how they would want to do that. I was nervous that three weeks wouldn’t be enough time to bring the project to life. I didn’t know what the dynamics would be between my translator, Shubhada, and myself. I wanted the project to evolve organically, something that proved to be extremely difficult when relying on a translator (only because of the lag in communication…Shubhada was a fantastic partner to work with!). I hadn’t anticipated how challenging it would be to try to explain my thoughts on the value of art and using creative expression to tell a story to farmers who had been working hard in the field all day.

It was super challenging. So much so that half way through my time in Mulgavhan I actually had a conversation with Shubhada about leaving early. I was very skeptical that we would be able to do anything remotely close to what I had had in mind when I set out. Maybe we would be more successful visiting another community and trying there? Maybe it wasn’t worth the time and grant money to stay for another week?

We stayed. And a lot of really fruitful things came of our time there, although I had to let go of the vision of collaborating on a piece of art with the farmers. Instead we ended up doing a photo series that the farmers participated in (more on this later, I promise!). In the last week that we were there, we discovered several farmers’ musical talents and recorded some traditional Gondi songs about farming. They even organized a performance of drumming and dancing and a few songs (although not many related to farming, but still really amazing!). If we had been able to stay a bit longer, I would have liked to work with these musicians to write some contemporary songs about farmers’ struggles. And then perform them for larger groups. And have those groups respond to the songs… Maybe some day… I know I’ll be back!

While I was in Mulgavhan I found that in between conversations with farmers, whether out in their fields or in their homes in the evenings, I had all sorts of free time. After many walks and journaling sessions, I was able to be present and release any trace of self-doubt regarding the project. And like magic, without any major commitments vying for my attention, my mind began to collect all sorts of ideas about how to visually represent the stories of cotton farmers in India. When I return to the US in just over a month, a new sort of adventure will begin — how to bring to life the vision in my head (and now scattered on pages throughout my journal). Stay tuned! Hopefully it won’t be another two months before you hear from me again ;)


Invisible Hands: Voices from the Global Economy

I am thrilled to announce that in a little over three weeks Voice of Witness (VOW) will publish it’s latest book, Invisible Hands: Voices from the Global Economy and my name will be on the title page.

To pre-order "Invisible Hands" click on the photo. “The men and women in Invisible Hands reveal the human rights abuses occurring behind the scenes of the global economy. These narrators—including phone manufacturers in China, copper miners in Zambia, garment workers in Bangladesh, and farmers around the world—reveal the secret history of the things we buy, including lives and communities devastated by low wages, environmental degradation, and political repression. Sweeping in scope and rich in detail, these stories capture the interconnectivity of all people struggling to support themselves and their families. ” To read more about the collection visit http://voiceofwitness.org/labor/.

I first learned of Voice of Witness in 2010 while I was on a road trip with several of my best friends that I had studied abroad with in college. We stopped off in San Francisco in December and found out that Peter Orner and Annie Holmes were speaking about VOW’s latest book Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives. Already interested in checking it out, we discovered that the event was to be held at 826 Valencia – San Francisco’s only independent Pirate supply store (also a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting students with their writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write). So naturally we had to go.

Peter and Annie’s stories of working on the book were incredible and moving. I had just submitted my Fulbright application about a month earlier and as I listened to them talk about how oral history is a powerful way to address human rights issues I had a moment of clarity. I felt, with almost uncomfortable certainty, that I wanted to do something similar with my work in India. I approached Peter and Annie after their talk and nervously told them about my hopes about getting the research grant to go study cotton farming in India. I asked with some trepidation how they got involved with VOW and what had led them to working on this book. Could random, inexperienced folks such as myself suggest book topics? Was it crazy to wonder if I could ever work on a book on cotton farmer suicides with VOW? I was filled with adrenaline and a curiously potent mix of nervous confidence.

But one step at a time. I had to get to India first. I had just submitted my application and it would be months before I would hear if I had received the grant and was going to India.

By the time I finally found out that I was going to India it was April, 4 months since I’d first heard of VOW and met Peter and Annie at 826 Valencia. I was so overcome with relief and excitement that I had gotten the Fulbright that I didn’t think of Voice of Witness until a year later when I was in Kochi at a conference for Fulbright researchers and scholars to present their work. I was speaking with a friend and he asked if I had ever heard of Voice of Witness. Yes. Mmmhmm. I had. He suggested that I get in touch with them; they were compiling narratives on human rights and the global economy.

So a few weeks later I emailed Corinne Goria, the editor of this collection, and told her who I was, where I was, and what I was doing, trying to be professional about how desperately I wanted to get involved with the book. After a Skype interview to discuss how I could contribute to the book, I set off to see if I could find a widow of a cotton farmer who would be willing to be interviewed by me for several hours on several different occasions. The timing couldn’t have been better. I was poised to attend a gathering for widows in the area that weekend. Subhag, my friend and translator, was able to come with me and we mingled with the widows during their lunch at the event. I had to find someone who could answer questions with great detail, who would talk about her childhood, who could give me enough material to shape into a rich narrative. At the very end of the day Pournima and her son came up to Subhag and asked who I was.

Over the next 6 months I visited Pournima every few weeks. At first I only visited her for the interviews. But after the third interview it was clear that she was very depressed and overwhelmed by her situation. I also felt overwhelmed and unsure of how I could help to ease her situation so she could feel peace and regain a sense of hope for her children and herself. You may remember this – I wrote about it in the post “Supari.”

I shared my fears with Corinne and with Ajay and Yogini Dolke, a couple that runs the non-profit SRUJAN, and who were instrumental in helping me with my research while I was in India. Corinne encouraged me to keep visiting Pournima without interviewing her to show her I cared for her well-being. Ajay and Yogini were inspired to reach out to their network of colleagues, friends, and family to raise money to purchase a sewing machine for Pournima. For more about how we were able to help Pournima, see the “Donate to Pournima” page.

My 25th birthday party at Pournima's house

My 25th birthday party at Pournima’s house

I became friends with Pournima and her son and daughter (whose names I have omitted to honor Pournima’s wish for privacy and protection). I traveled with Pournima to the village where she grew up. I met her mother, father, sisters, brothers, nieces, and nephews. I saw her father’s cotton fields, where she spent much of her childhood. That same week Pournima found out it was my birthday and insisted that I come to her home and celebrate with her family and her neighbors. We filled ourselves with fried treats and sweets and filled the neighborhood with music and laughter.

Pournima never ceased to amaze me with her generosity. Every time I came to see her, whether or not I was coming to interview her, she fed me, gave me tea, and made sure I was healthy and happy. “You look skinny. Are they taking care of you in Mulgavan?” she would often ask.

It was hard to explain to her why I wanted to share her story with the world. “People do not know about the struggle of cotton farmers in India. It is important that they hear your story. We have to raise awareness,” I would tell her. And as soon as I would say this I would wonder how much of a difference her story could make. While she shared her story and I edited it and prepared it for the book, thousands of farmers were still killing themselves. One farmer every 30 minutes. How could this book improve this situation?

It’s a question I still live with every day – one that I am revisiting more frequently now that the book is almost available in print. I am, however, so honored to have been able to be a part of the process of helping Pournima share her story, and in that process, helping her to overcome her devastating past and start living a brighter, more hopeful life. Being a widow in India is not easy, but Pournima is strong. She is resilient. Perhaps her story can give others the strength that they need to overcome tragedy. I know her story is inspiring, and I am looking forward to see how that inspiration is manifested as more and more people get to read her words.

99% is a lot

Last Tuesday afternoon I sat in my apartment in Pune, India watching a live stream from Zuccotti Park as the NYPD closed in on Occupy Wall Street and cleared the park. The sounds of horns honking on the streets below mingled with the desperate cries for peace and justice that were being transmitted from New York City over the internet waves and into my home in Southeast Asia.

I’ve been in India since the middle of August and I’ve been following the Occupy Movement since it began. I’m fortunate to have many friends who are taking part in the movement so I have been able to get my news of Occupy Wall Street/Boston/Orlando/Oakland/San Francisco/Asheville/Tucson from various media sources as well as from my friends’ personal accounts.

I believe in Occupy Wall Street whole-heartedly. What does that even mean? How can I believe in something that hasn’t produced any concrete demands? How can I believe in something that I am so far away from and have not experienced first-hand? I believe in the essence of the movement—in community organizing and consensus. As Charles Eisenstein, author of Sacred Economics recently said, “Everybody wants to live a life of meaning. And today we live in a money economy where we don’t really depend on the gifts of anybody. But we buy everything. Therefore we don’t really need anybody. Because whoever grew my food or made my clothes or built my house, well, if they died or if I alienate them, if they don’t like me that’s ok. I can just pay somebody else to do it. And it’s really hard to create community if the underlying knowledge is we don’t need eachother…. So people consume together. But joint consumption doesn’t create intimacy. Only joint creativity and gifts create intimacy and connection.” 

If I were in the United States right now, I’d like to believe that I would have figured out a way to get to New York City and participate in this movement. But I’m in India. I received a Fulbright-Nehru student research grant to research the modernization/commercialization of agriculture and its effects on farmers in India. More specifically, I am here to speak with small-scale cotton farmers in Maharashtra. You see, there is a disturbing number of cotton farmers who kill themselves every day because of the amount of debt that they have incurred in order to farm and compete on a global level. In 2010 alone, 15,964 farmer suicides across India were recorded.  This number only accounts for the number of suicides officially recorded and research shows that there are many suicides that don’t meet the criteria for official government statistics. For instance, if the land title has not been transferred to a widow after her husband commits suicide and she subsequently commits suicide, her death is not counted in the official data. Research also shows that farmers commit suicide for two main reasons: 1. Crop failure and 2. Debt (taking out loans to purchase expensive genetically modified seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and other costly inputs).

So while people gather together to occupy public spaces in the USA, while their voices join together to shed light on the ever-growing gap between the 1% and the 99%, I sit in my apartment in Pune, India and ask, who is the 99%? While I’m sure that many of the organizers and activists who are participating in OWS are desparate, they aren’t commiting suicide by the thousands.

Ninety-nine percent is a pretty big blanket statistic. A lot of people fall into it. I fall into it. I will be paying off my student loans for many years to come. This year I’m getting paid about $13,000—a salary that puts me just above the poverty line of $10,890 and is not enough for me to continue to pay off my loans while I do my research (thanks Mom and Dad for covering for me while I’m gone and really Sallie Mae? I don’t qualify for an educational deferal because my Indian University that I’m affiliated with isn’t on your list of bonified institutions?!!!). At the same time, I’m living quite a comfortable life here in India. I eat out, I live in a nice apartment in a nice neighborhood, I travel and I was able to be generous with my Christmas gifts this year.

So how about the subjects of my research, the farmers that are killing themselves out of desperation? They are part of the 99% too. I feel guilty being in the same bracket of statistics as them. The 99% includes a whole lot of people and a whole lot of different people at that, inducing conversations about race and gender and privilege. It includes US students with debt and cotton farmers in India with debt.

But the 1% remains the same. Just take a look at Monsanto, a corporation that has been profitting from the sales of their expensive genetically modified seeds here in India. Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant (no, not the charming British actor) received a compensation package of $12.4 million in 2010 and is ranked #9 among the top earning CEOs in the US.

So as you read the latest criticisms of the Occupy Movement and watch the latest horrifying video of policemen dousing students in pepper spray, keep this in mind:
The 99% is big and broad. The 99% probably includes you. It definitely includes cotton farmers in India. We are many. And we need each other.

I want to live in a world that cultivates creativity through community, that combats this mentality that I can just whip out my wallet and solve all my problems. In order to do that, I need to talk with the rest of the 99%. I need to acknowledge how my privilege adds to (or at least exempts me from) the burden of another person who is also in the 99%. I need to do my best to acknowledge and address the broad and diverse needs of the entire 99%. We all do.

Why India?

When I tell people that I am going to live in India for a year responses range from “Wow! How exciting” to “Dirty, poor, over-populated India? Why?” Because…

As I mentioned in my previous post “The Backstory…” I studied abroad on a program called “Rethinking Globalization: Nature, Culture, Justice” (now called “Beyond Globalization: Reclaiming Nature, Culture, and Justice”). One of the things I most appreciated about my experience abroad was how I was encouraged to examine how I was a part of processes that seemed so far removed from my day-to-day life in the United States. As a western consumer, I am privileged to have grown up with countless luxuries. I was conditioned to value these products based on the dollar amount on their price tag. I had never considered where the ingredients in my toothpaste came from or how they had ended up mixed together and bottled up in my little tube…until I was in Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania.

Carrageenan is a gelling and thickening agent used in everything from toothpaste to ice cream. In Tanzania I learned that carrageenan is extracted from seaweed. I met several women who spent most of their days bent over harvesting seaweed. They sold it to multinational corporations, earning a mere 20 cents per pound of dried seaweed.

So why India? Well, I had a similar realization about my consumer habits while I was on a farm in Wardha, located in Maharashtra, India.

Cotton. My t-shirt tag read “100% cotton.” We’ve all heard the Cotton inc. jingle “the fabric of our lives.” And I learned all about it when I studied slavery and the civil war in fifth grade. But in Wardha I sat under a white canopy and looked up at Kishore Tiwari, our guest lecturer for the morning. He wore an angry look on his face and he spoke with sweat pooling between his eyebrows. His voice shook with emotion. He spoke to us about the detrimental effect that U.S. farm subsidies had on Indian cotton farmers who struggled to compete in the global market. He even blamed us, American consumers, for the suicides of thousands of cotton farmers throughout India. “We look at you as ambassadors to the people to convey that mass genocide is going on,” Tiwari pleaded.

I was embarrassed and felt a mix of guilt and defensiveness. This was the first I was hearing of cotton farmer suicides yet I had been wearing cotton my whole life. India is the world’s third largest producer of cotton…I had to have worn cotton from India before. Was it cotton grown by a farmer who later, out of desperation, took his life?

The day after Tiwari’s lecture, my classmates and I went into the fields and had the opportunity to speak with cotton farmers in Wardha. Prior to our field trip we had read several articles examining the effects of Bt cotton, a genetically modified cotton plant originally created by Monsanto and introduced in India in the late 1990s. The articles and Tiwari’s lecture led me to believe that the cotton farmers we were going to talk with would express a discontent with Bt cotton and its high production cost. Surprisingly, the first farmer that I spoke with praised Bt cotton, even though he had not seen an increase in productivity or profit, as was promised by Monsanto’s advertising. The contradiction that lies at the kernel of this encounter is the question that has led me to return to India: Why do farmers promote the modernization of agriculture when it does not always serve their interests?

Speaking to cotton farmers in their fields and to my program coordinators over rice and dahl, I began to see the thin wisps of a vast web of exploitation that ran from the fields in India through a host of actors and institutions and clung tenaciously to my clothing. These fine strands were invisible to me. A whole industry was dedicated to keeping me from seeing them. Nearly a year later I took the stories I had heard in the cotton fields in India and tried to reconcile them with mountains of articles and reports on cotton, agriculture, and trade. The web is tangled. This is no accident. This is why it is so important to trace the strands, to pull on the threads and see what is sitting at the center of the web.

With population increasing and the limits of our natural resources becoming more apparent every day, the pressure is rising for farmers to produce more of our most basic needs in an efficient and sustainable way. New technologies like genetically modified seeds have been developed to aid farmers in this task. Farmers all over the world have altered their agricultural practices to incorporate these new technologies.

There is great debate among scholars, politicians, economists, agronomists, and ecologists as to whether or not these technological changes in agriculture have led to higher yield, stronger ecosystems, and better lifestyles. But what do the farmers think? As people who are daily informed by this agricultural discourse in various ways, it is imperative that farmers’ perspectives be included and considered in the debate.

So I am going back to India. After spending 3 months in a language immersion program in Pune, I will begin my research project. This will take me back to Wardha, back to the cotton fields. Over the course of about 6-9 months I will speak with farmers and ask them what they think about Bt cotton and Monsanto. I will find out if they feel like the advances in agriculture have truly led to higher yield, stronger ecosystems, and better lifestyles. And I’ll let you guys know what I find out…