Through a Fulbright-Nehru research scholarship, I conducted ethnographic action research in South India for 8 months. I partnered with Miller Center alum, Pollinate Group, to understand women’s participation in entrepreneurship and boost the women’s experience of agency. Spending time with women entrepreneurs living in informal settlements scattered across large metropolitan cities in India, I learned how to surrender to that which I cannot control and I learned from the women who shared their stories with me.
In previous blogs I have illustrated the circumstances in which women entrepreneurs function in informal settlements and have shared insights on current policies. This particular story emphasizes the importance of participatory action research in the context of social change and of transcending the power dynamic that often exists as a foreign researcher from the United States. This story reminds us to level ourselves to those we interact with and to continuously lift each other up. This narrative is part of a series of stories that I have compiled together from my time in India, that weave together insights from research, socio-political commentaries, and lessons I learned. I hope they can create a greater sense of mutual understanding.
“Neeti?” I asked, trying to sound confident. After many head shakes, pointed fingers, and curious smiles, we stumbled upon her home. A woman with light gray hair and a forest green sari stood across the way. Filled with curiosity, she strolled up to me and began jabbering in Kannada, throwing her arms about her thin frame. I stood there absolutely useless. Sreyahsi stood beside me giggling, testing me on the Kannada greetings she had taught me earlier. I was helpless. All I could comprehend was the word “eat.” The woman brought her fingers to her mouth, mimicking the act of eating. She patted my belly and laughed gregariously. “Have you eaten lunch?” Ahh yes, that’s it. That’s what she was trying to say. “Uta Ita” I responded, embarrassed by my inability to speak the local language. She stepped back, waggling her head, and seemed satisfied with my response, at least for now.
Suddenly I was tapped on the shoulder by a small woman in a yellow and orange print sari who emerged from her home “Neeti,” she said determinedly, pointing to herself. Her eyes told a story of hardship but sparkled like the sea in the morning sun. So this was the woman we had been looking for. I couldn’t help but let my shoulders release and let out an exasperated giggle. The woman in the green sari gave me a wink as I followed Neeti into her small home with a tin roof. It was dark inside, and smells of curried lentils and basmati rice hung in the stagnant air. Neeti laid out a small yellow tarp for me and my translator, Sreyahsi, to sit on. I gladly nestled myself into a spot in the corner of the room and pulled out my worn notebook. I glanced outside the door frame and noticed a group of women and children peering inside, their faces shiny with sweat in the glaring sun. I smiled back as I listened to Neeti’s story of becoming a solar entrepreneur.
Neeti shared that she moved to Bangalore 15 years ago because she wanted her son to study at a government school.She travels back to her native village often to see the rest of her family. “I enjoy my work as an entrepreneur. I sell products like solar lamps and menstrual pads to my community. My husband and son also help me sell when I go back to my native village. This is very helpful,” she said gratefully. “One of the best parts of this work,” she shared, “is that I have made so many friends. People come from far places to buy the lights I sell. Other women send these people to me and so I am constantly meeting new people. People are very supportive of me,” she shared.
“How were you identified to be an entrepreneur, Neeti?” I asked. “I think it is because my husband is in a supervisor position in construction, so I had more freedom to pursue this work. Most other women are not interested,” she stated. “I think it may have to do with personal finances. Many of the women do not want to take the risk associated with being an entrepreneur. Most people in this settlement are looking for a steady income to send home,” she said with a hint of sadness. “But I can take the risk because of my husband’s position.” Even here, Neeti had the capability to be involved in entrepreneurial activity because of her financial status. The other women in her community needed the stability of a daily wage job, so they turned to construction labor or cooking for a wealthy family. I appreciated Neeti’s honesty.
As Sreyahsi and I set out to leave the informal settlement, a group gathered around us. The woman in the forest green sari crouched on the ground in a malasana squat. She looked up at me with her sparkling eyes and began talking excitedly. I explained I am from America, here doing research. Her eyes grew wide. “America!” she shouted and looked up to the sky. She rubbed her fingers together to symbolize the great wealth of Americans. “Rich!” she yelped. She told Sreyahsi she’d like to come back to America with me as she smiled up at me innocently. But how could I make her see the blinding truth of San Francisco’s streets, overflowing with persons without a place to call home? I considered the rising inequalities within American cities where many citizens can’t afford their rent and commute for hours to save money. I thought of the racial gaps in education, healthcare, and the for-profit criminal justice system. How could I make her see that not all Americans are wealthy and not everyone has been welcomed into the American Dream? It’s not a perfect place, nowhere is perfect.
Before I had time to speak, the woman in the green sari grabbed both of my arms with a force and brought me down to a squat alongside her there on the orange-red dirt. I had felt a barrier between us, as I stood looking down at her while she squatted below me. But I didn’t bring myself down to meet her at her own level. It was she who had to pull me down. While I squatted there, it became clear to me that I could not expect to understand this woman’s perspective while looking down at her. I could never fully understand the complexities of her experience as an Indian woman living in a migratory informal settlement. But, by listening deeply, I could try my best to understand. And so, I gently lifted the woman up to stand by my side, and her eyes sparkled brightly in the mid-day sun.
We can’t attempt to understand the lived experiences of others from a position of power. We must learn to bring ourselves to the level of those we interact with, with genuine wonder and loving-kindness. I find this incredibly important as a white female working in a development context, working with women who look up to me for the color of my skin, because that is what they were taught to value. Constantly aware of my identity and positionality as an outsider, I was vigilant about creating safe spaces for women to share their stories while being very transparent that my research was meant to benefit their lived experience of agency. To ensure my research was meaningful, I collaborated closely with GSBI alum, Pollinate Group to focus on community needs rather than solely my own intellectual interests. I was able to provide an action plan based on my research insights that my host organization could implement to enhance the agency of the entrepreneurs they recruit. Such iterative research is a bottom-up process, informed by participants and their needs, rather than an exploitative top-down process. During my time in India, I was confronted with questions such as: Who am I doing research for? And what do I hope the impact of my research will be? Questions that researchers must continue to be mindful of, especially those working abroad and with vulnerable populations.
As I waved goodbye to the colorful group gathered at the edge of the informal settlement, I internalized this lesson. I challenge myself to be more aware of bringing myself to the levels of others and to continuously lift others up because the “lift” is where the sparkle shines best.