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#VolunteerSpeak: 5 things I learned about working with, not for communities

By January 23, 2019February 20th, 2024No Comments

Lessons from the children of Mumbai’s Ambujwadi

With the children at Ambujwadi, Mumbai

While discussing people-centric development practice, a few terms are thrown around pretty frequently. As a development professional and student social worker, I am sure I have spoken at length about the ‘bottom-up perspective’, ‘rights-based development practice’ and much more. But have I always remembered what this really means? Over the years, I have realized that direct work with developing communities is often the best way to ensure that these ideas aren’t reduced to meaningless buzzwords.

Through my month-long fieldwork with Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA), I was fortunate to face the ultimate question posed to a community-based worker — ‘How do I translate perspective into relevant action and impact?’ I don’t claim that this experience gave me all the answers to this complex and important concern. However, it definitely set me on the path of simplifying and internalising the lived meanings of development jargon. More tangibly, it taught me about the process of building a point of view, and about recognizing how the larger context seeps into everyday realities of communities.

Over the years, YUVA has been working extensively with communities of children across urban India to improve their access and awareness of their own rights. And November 2018, Child Rights Month, saw children across Mumbai coming together to advocate their right to adequate housing. By recognising children as key stakeholders impacted by inadequate and insecure housing, YUVA is paving the way for a non-patronising approach of working with children as equal partners, advocates and community leaders. In the social sector, where decision-making processes increasingly mirror neo-liberal power structures, this demonstrated effort to keep people at the centre of development initiatives is quite unique.

I got a glimpse into YUVA’s housing rights advocacy and community organisation efforts during the time I spent in Mumbai’s Ambujwadi, Malad. As one of twenty-seven informal settlements by the Malad creek in Malvani, Ambujwadi has faced challenges of insecure tenure and the denial of basic municipal services for several years. The community faced mass forced evictions in 2004, and fifteen years later, the threat of homes and communities being destroyed overnight remains intact.

During my fieldwork in Ambujwadi, I worked extensively with children from the community and learned some of the most memorable lessons about working with children. Though I’m no expert on the subject, sharing what I learned may fuel a powerful process of cementing ideas through experience, and bring clarity to my own goals and values as a community organizer.

  1. Stay authentic

Forming equal partnerships with children is central to YUVA’s goal of working with, and not for the community. I found that children can smell inauthenticity from a mile away. When they know they are being kept away from the whole truth, it becomes challenging to develop long-lasting bonds of trust with them. There is a fine line between oversharing and keeping things real. Recognising the difference between these two methods of forming bonds is key to developing respectful relationships with children.

In my first week at YUVA, I accompanied Ambujwadi’s children for an environmental awareness exposure visit to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Borivali, Mumbai. While the children were excited to explore the park, an extensive excursion wasn’t possible due to reasons of safety and other logistics. We had two options while sharing this disappointing news: A ‘no-questions asked’ approach to curb any potential chaos (which is often the go-to management tactic while working with children), or truthfully explaining what happened and why this decision was made.

We picked the second approach and decidedly created the space for children to express their concerns and questions. Our responses to their concerns involved stating facts and staying honest about the challenges of the situation. When we didn’t know some of the answers, we honestly said, ‘We don’t know’ and spoke about being collective participants in the process of figuring out things. It was incredible to notice how the children displayed a high sense of comfort with complexity. Their questions reflected a maturity that led to an open exchange of viewpoints, and through the process, all of us developed a better understanding of each other’s priorities. We realised we don’t have to assume that children ‘don’t need to know’ or ‘won’t understand’.

2. Simply listen

While bringing children into advocacy efforts for rights-based development, the first and most important thing to do is to recognise that they already have a voice. Children don’t need us to rephrase their thoughts or tell them what to think. They are intuitive, observant, and see things for what they are. This includes the ability to notice the impact of unequal realities and articulating these observations in simple and straightforward ways.

Our role while empowering children as advocates only involves listening to what they say and prioritising their ideas while working with them. Some of the most valuable insights emerge based on what they have to say. Whether it was a conversation about the tensions within the basti (informal settlement), the impact of lack of access to water on their ability to go to school, or ways to mobilise women for a focus group discussion on waste disposal systems, the children of Ambujwadi effortlessly pointed me to key information that massively impacted our quality of work. All I had to do was listen and remember that if the goal is to engage with them as equal partners, this approach isn’t an option, but a requirement.

3. Don’t ‘represent’, just ‘facilitate’

Another equally important task is to create and identify channels for children’s voices to be heard. The social capital that social workers bring to a community, on account of their background, academic and professional networks can form effective bridges to opportunities for children to articulate their thoughts to wider audiences.

The community-based worker often has access to the skills and expertise required to create safe spaces for children to speak their minds and potentially form strong networks of solidarity. While accomplishing this, however, it becomes very crucial for the social worker to recognize that their task is only to facilitate linkages between children and larger communities. Misunderstanding what this entails and taking on the task of representing children’s thoughts and concerns, however, doesn’t preserve the agency of children to talk or be heard in the way that they desire.

YUVA’s Bal Jallosh celebration provided a great example of how the process of facilitation is integral to forming strong communities of children. Through a panel discussion with children from various bastis across Mumbai, the event provided a platform for children to share their everyday struggles arising from insecure housing. The moderator of the panel only asked leading questions and catalysed the direction of the discussion, while the children independently drove the content ahead.

Children from Mahul spoke in a very clear and compelling way about the health risks stemming from poisonous gases emitted from the refineries around their community. Especially after hearing about the experiences of the children in Mahul, many children asked some very poignant questions about what could be done to engage local authorities and reduce the number of resettlements and health risks in Mahul. This panel became a medium for children to demonstrate empathy, recognise the gravity of the problems faced by the communities in Mahul and seamlessly offer to build networks of solidarity to advocate for the housing rights of the children in Mahul and across Mumbai.

This experience made it clear to me that the children already had nuanced perspectives and that they were most qualified to communicate these ideas. YUVA’s role as a facilitator was to provide them with a safe space to share their views, and to set a precedent for an empowering approach of working with children.

4. Value their knowledge

To ensure that my point of view was informed by the priorities of children, it was critical to submit to a process of unlearning. Because of academic learning, media and a lifetime of unconscious bias, we all walk into communities with our own perspective. This often colours our perception of everyday realities within a community. While one’s own lens may be advantageous in some cases, valuing the knowledge of children from a community means building your perspective based on what they have to say.

In Ambujwadi, eight children and I set out on a mission to meet with the local Corporator. The goal was to discuss the impact of the denial of the right to water on their households, schooling, health and general sense of security. I facilitated the meeting along with some other community organisers. At this point, we were clear about what our facilitation responsibilities entailed and were confident that the children would be effective communicators and advocates for Ambujwadi’s water rights. The children discussed everything we expected to hear, from the inconveniences of standing in long lines to collect water, to the need for clean water at home. However, what I had overlooked was the value that their perspective would bring to my own understanding of children’s relationship with water rights.

Children meet the local Corporator to discuss their right to water

An irony emerged from this meeting as well as our trip to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park earlier that month. As a young boy from Ambujwadi perfectly captured it — ‘We know that we shouldn’t waste water because it harms nature. But even if we wanted to save water, we don’t have the chance to do it because we don’t get it anyway!’

This interaction added a new layer to my understanding of the impact of inadequate access to water on children. Over the next few days, while working on a performance for an Environment Day event, I asked the children if they wanted to demonstrate this irony through a song. Together, we created a theme for a song that would highlight this aspect of their struggle. If I had come up with a song without consulting the children and valuing their knowledge, I probably wouldn’t have thought about their water rights and commitment to environmental protection in the same vein.

5. Prioritize relevance and communicate clearly

When we make our ideas relevant to the needs and priorities of children and are able to speak about these things clearly, it brings us closer to taking action that keeps communities at the centre of our work. The key challenge while working with children, I realized, was being an effective communicator.

Unless I understood how the wider context played out on a daily basis, I realised that I wouldn’t be able to establish relatability. As a result, I would potentially give out vague, unclear and ineffective messages. Achieving clarity in thought and communication, however, depended on direct collaboration with children to build linkages between everyday realities and larger social justice and development concepts.

For example, when I conducted a workshop with the children to talk about their dream home and gender equality, I had to first develop clarity on how the habitat rights framework was linked to their idea of a ‘dream home’. Moreover, I had to keep in mind how gender inequality influenced their acceptance of gender roles even in their dream homes. I knew that regardless of the amount of time I spent in the community, I would not be able to make relevant linkages without the guidance of the children. So, I facilitated an exercise where they drew out their dream home or ‘sapnon ka ghar’, explained the essential elements of the home, and described the responsibilities of all household members. It was a simple exercise, but it sparked a conversation about the importance of basic services to make a house ‘liveable’, and finally, led us towards a clearer picture of how gender inequality within the home would make different family members experience the dream home differently. Responding to examples and input from the children helped me recognise that being able to clearly break down complex ideas was the real test of how much I had internalised and understood the ‘bottom-up perspective’.

Children visualise their ‘sapnon ka ghar’ (dream home)

These experiences reminded me of the essence of community-centred work. It is about being authentic, listening and ensuring people’s agency in advocacy. It is about dismantling hierarchies between ‘objective facts’ and ‘subjective opinions’ while building community-driven knowledge. Finally, it involves realizing that the main goal and challenge of working with communities is to deconstruct complex concepts and effectively communicate how politics, history, social norms and government policies are linked to unequal realities.

Sneha Tatapudy is currently completing her MA in Social Work (Community Organisation and Development Practice) at Tata Institute of Social Sciences. She worked with YUVA during November-December 2018 as part of her block fieldwork placement.

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