On Friday we had the honor to interview Radha, a very interesting young woman pursuing her masters degree in law. Before the interview, we were given her dissertation about LGBTQIA+ rights, issues, and history to read and craft questions with. This dissertation highlighted some very saddening facts, like how many countries in the world today still criminalize being gay, and how only 5 in the world have outlawed very damaging conversion therapy.
The interview itself also had some very sickening stories and statistics about suicide, abuse, and rape to do with LGBTQ+ people in India. Through these stories she made clear the necessity of basic human rights and protections for the queer community of India, and her suggestion for the transition to acceptance of them was for people to accept themselves. She also stated that we’ve got to stop putting people into boxes and labels, and just let them be themselves. We’re not going to make any civil progress by stereotyping people and having them act in order to fit their label.
On Friday we went up to school early to speak to some of the kids at Sri Ram Ashram. The kids were in groups of about 2-3, while we were all on our own devices. After getting settled, we split up into breakout rooms to have some discussions with the kids. The group I was in spent a lot of time focusing on what we do everyday, and after all the kids in my group spoke, it became clear just how much work they have. They spend most of their time each week working and studying, and they get almost no free time, even on the weekends. That’s something we take for granted here. I was super impressed with the stuff they do. They were also very curious about our lives and some of the activities we do, and they also quizzed us on our memory of their names. This was something we struggled with, but it definitely made us bond with them and now I will not forget their names at all. To Neha, Madhu, Parama, and Kiran: I hope you guys are staying healthy and safe, and I hope to meet you in person one day.
You grow up hearing about the transcendent experience everyone has after seeing Sri Ram Ashram. It’s this wonderful place connected to Mount Madonna’s history; it’s shrouded in mystery and excitement. I’m here to say that it’s every bit as magical as everyone says, and the people are just as powerful.
I have to admit, I was a little unsure about how the process would go. Interviewing via Zoom is one thing, but socializing and forming connections was another thing entirely. I know for a lot of kids, “breakout rooms” is a terrifying phrase that brings about long, awkward silences and scratchy audio due to Wi-Fi issues, but I was excited for the opportunity to chat one on one. While I will confess that my experience may not have been void of Zoom lags and delays, I can say confidently that there was no silence in sight.
Paired along with Corey, we joined 5 bright young ladies for an exciting conversation that ranged anywhere from the subjects we were taking, to the parties we attended, to the places we wanted to travel—tours of Santa Cruz were promised to all the girls! I couldn’t help but be totally infatuated with their bright energy and bubbling curiosity. They were kind, and sweet, and happy, and beautiful! They were people who, despite the limited interaction we had together, seemed like close friends.
Our time together went by too fast, and in all honesty I could’ve stayed and talked with them all day about anything and everything. While my experience of the Sri Ram Ashram was different in almost every way from the stories I grew up hearing, the interactions stayed true, filled with wonderful people from a wonderful place.
Over the years growing up at Mount Madonna School, I have heard so much about Sri Ram Ashram. Even though I have never been there myself, I have grown up hearing stories of the ashram. It is like the children at the ashram are siblings as we both share a founding father, Babaji. I have sat through many assemblies listening to high school seniors share their adventures at the ashram and how that experience made them think about life differently. Knowing that I would have the opportunity to visit it as part of my senior high school year was one that I looked forward to and couldn’t wait until that day came. However, COVID decided to interfere with plans for a trip to India, and my long-held dream to visit the ashram and meet the children there was swept away. But, as with any negative twist in life, it is what you make out of it, and our school stepped up to this challenge and found a way for us to still connect with our distant siblings at the ashram, without leaving our campus.
Early Friday morning, we had the incredible opportunity to meet and speak with some of the kids from the Sri Ram Ashram. Each senior went in pairs to an assigned breakout room with some of the children from the Ashram. I was paired with my fellow senior Sarah Vince and a group of beautiful girls from the ashram. Most of these girls were the same age as Sarah and me, so it was easy to relate to them and find things to talk about.
We jumped right in and started asking and talking away. Within minutes, it felt like we had known each other for years and this was just another catch-up session. It was so easy and comfortable to talk to these young women. Not only were they well-spoken, but their energy radiated through the computer and I felt like I could talk for hours.
One particular moment that really touched me was when we started talking about favorite artists/songs and their faces lit up. They knew all of the same songs that I love to sing along with and we started talking about our favorites. The next thing I knew, the girls started singing their favorite songs, and then all of us were singing on zoom. Keep in mind, I have never liked singing much but because of their joy and the fact that every time I would sing they would cheer me on, I just kept singing and loved every minute of it. The girls had beautiful singing voices and were not afraid to sing loud and shine. They also started singing in Hindi and shared the songs they sing at the ashram. It was like I was experiencing the ashram and their culture at that very moment.
Singing then turned to dance as they started showing us new dances they learned at school or dances from music videos that they taught themself. They insisted on teaching Sarah and me their dances. For the rest of the breakout room, we were up out of our seats and being instructed on our dance moves. I was not expecting this zoom call to literally transport me into their culture. Seeing them dance and hearing them sing brought so much joy and love to my heart. It was the best morning I have experienced in a long, long time. It was the perfect way to end our virtual India journey. It wasn’t the trip to the ashram I had dreamed about for years, but it was one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had. In the end, meeting these kids and talking to everyone we interviewed over the course of the week made me realize just how much I do want to travel to India one day, and will.
We had the amazing opportunity to meet with some of the girls from Pardada Pardadi. Pardada Pardadi is an all-girls school in Uttar Pradesh, India. The mission of the school is to increase the attendance of girls in school and to help them complete school and college. This school has spent many years figuring out the best way to make school more accessible for families so as to increase the attendance and retention of female students. Part of their success is because they have created a system where the girls receive money that is deposited into an account every time they attend school. The girls then receive the money once they graduate.
On Thursday evening we were able to meet these young women within the comfort of our homes. We were split up into groups and started having some great conversations. I met with three girls that shared their very high expectations and goals for themselves. They want to go far in school and know what they want to do with their life. They were so confident and driven, it was inspiring. They shared how they study constantly for school. They wake up early to study and it is the last thing they do before going to bed. The girls in my group were bright, passionate, and dedicated to their education and future. When we went around asking what they like to do in their free time, they either said school or helping others. They were very genuine and kind. They always had a big smile and were eager to ask me about my life. You could tell they knew that school was an opportunity for a better life, and they were going to use it to the fullest.
On Thursday night, we had the opportunity to meet with students from Pardada Pardadi girls school. It wasn’t as nice as being able to fly to India and meet them in person, but it was nice to see them and hear from them. A lot of them shared interesting hobbies with us, like playing sports and traveling. The girls were eager to talk to us and we were just as eager to talk to them. I liked talking to them and if I get a chance to go see them in person (if and when this pandemic is over), I would gladly take that chance.
The girls that I talked with spoke about how they really wanted to help people. As someone who is looking into philanthropy, I really liked hearing that. We need people that want to help others, especially right now. Some of them wanted to participate in athletics and that is really cool to me. Some girls said that they want to go into engineering, a profession I also want to get into. The students I spoke with work very hard so that they can pursue their dreams in the future. That is very inspiring to me.
Our time speaking with the girls from Pardada Pardadi was an exciting change of pace from the more serious, and somewhat intense conversations we’d been having earlier that week. Instead of doing a lot of research into a person, we just asked questions to get to know them, and have a look into their lives.
I was in a group with Kira, Octavio, Minakshi, and Nahin. Although there were some technical issues, we prevailed! What struck me most was how dedicated Minakshi was to playing basketball. She said she spends around four hours a day. There were actually three national basketball champions on our zoom, her being one. When we talked about what a day in our lives looked like, I was surprised at just how much they study. I’ll admit to cramming for finals and procrastinating on some big projects, so I’ve spent a few days like that, but I can’t imagine that being the norm. Speaking with them encouraged me to examine the way I think about studying (and procrastinating). I enjoyed the small groups, and even though I was worried it might be awkward, it was a highlight of the “trip.” I spoke with a classmate, and we hoped for even more time in small groups for the next day’s Sri Ram Ashram zoom.
After we got back in the main group I got to hear some other girls speak. I was surprised to hear that so many wanted to be engineers! Near the end of our time together, I asked them what made them happy or brought a smile to their face. Many of them said going to school. Because they aren’t going anymore, several noted that they missed the social and extracurricular (basketball) aspects of school. This year I’ve become more grateful for the ability to go to school. Seeing my friends and interacting with teachers feels like a treat compared to online learning. Because of the changes Covid has brought, I felt what they said much more deeply than I would have had this been a normal year.
Under a beaming moon and the dark starry night, atop a mountain where Mount Madonna Schools sits, the senior class was granted the privilege to speak with Dr Metre. Dr Metre is the national director of CORD, which stands for Chinmaya Organization for Rural Development. CORD is a non-profit organization that works with individuals from rural villages in India to provide sustainable development programs.
Dr. Metre shared many things throughout the evening including her observation of the current world, the role of women within this world and her approach to improving the lives of those she encounters. One thing that struck me from the interview was when Dr. Metre told us about her conversations with the women in her community. She would ask the women what they did during the day. The women would respond “nothing.” Considering that they provided the care for their families this was a surprising answer. She shared that these women didn’t consider daily house chores and taking care of the children as “work.” To help the women understand just how much “work” they do in a day, Dr. Metre would ask them to write a journal of all things they completed in a day. Dr Metre also asked men within their household to journal all their activities for the day. Once the two lists were compared, the women saw they did much more work than the men. This exercise showed the women their value in society and within their household. Dr. Metre helps women and girls realize their self-worth and recognize everything they do for their family and community.
Another concept Dr. Metre presented that made me think, was the idea that the community needs human interaction. She explained that a healthy community depends on the opportunity to socialize and connect. She explained that women weren’t getting that opportunity to socialize and connect because they were working all day within their own homes. They were isolated from each other, while the men were socializing at the workplace. Dr. Metre is helping these women and girls prioritize interacting and having time to talk to their community and develop friendships as a way to improve their lives and strengthen their community.
This interview made me realize how important each person is to a community. It helped me realize that the little contributions of each individual are critical to the community and each person’s health. It makes you step back and think about all that is done for you and around you.
Dr. Metre is an inspiring, passionate woman who has dedicated her entire life to helping others. She chose to leave a life of privilege to help those less fortunate than her by doing work that impacts the roots of some of the biggest problems in India. But why? She revealed to us that her motives are the same as everyone else’s on the planet; she wants to be happy. While some believe material or experience brings the most joy, she told us, “The joy of helping is incomparable to any other happiness we get in life.” She went on to describe the numerous benefits and joy that comes from a life of service. When we help other people—not for the sake of ourselves, but for the sake of others—it becomes addicting. She said, “When we bring out our good qualities, we see how good we feel.”
It was incredibly inspiring to see a woman who not only was fiercely passionate and in love with her work—something we all hope to achieve—but also doing work that mattered and is making huge waves in the world. Her outlook on life and the true source of happiness was something I resonated with deeply. She talked about the small things we can do to help others and increase happiness, such as smiling. What a simple thing! Passing a stranger on the street, and all you have to do is smile. I think about how many missed opportunities have gone by in my life when our focus drifts to ourselves and away from others. If we all were to take even a fraction of the energy we spend thinking about ourselves and directed it to someone else, the world would be a much better place.
Dr. Kshama Metre is a down to earth person and very concise with her language. She answered all our questions to the best of her ability and made sure we understood her responses. You could tell that she enjoyed our time together just as much as we did. You could see her face light up when we asked a question that sparked her interest.
One of the things she said that stuck out to me the most was, “If you only have one stick in the broom, you can’t sweep.” Not only was this an excellent metaphor for the dangers of isolation and the necessity of contact, it also put them in concrete terms. It gave an example of what isolation does. Around this quote she talked about how society is built on human connection and how when that connection is lost, society starts to crumble. This response was related to how women in India are often isolated by their housework and start to see themselves as lesser. She talked about how men who work the same amount as women do better because they work in a social environment. She went on to discuss the importance of weekly or even monthly meetings of these women to increase moral and self confidence, and to connect them with others so they do not feel alone. This struck me because with social media we can be physically alone but surrounded by millions of people. In our society you never really have to be alone which, in my eyes, makes it even easier to feel alone.
It was truly a privilege to have a deep conversation with feminist Kamla Bhasin. Before we even began to ask her questions, she urged the importance of Ubuntu, “I am because you are.” She said that this simple phrase can counter words of hate. She was able to tie all of us together in such a powerful way.
Before we each asked our question, she asked us how to spell our names, making sure she got it right. This small act helped her connect with us. During the interview she urged the concept of love, and how it must be something we bring into our lives. She said, “To root out the seeds of hate, we must sow the seeds of love.” Without love we enter into the patriarchy, which amplifies the inequalities we all face. Love is the solution, and bringing it will connect people together. It can be brought into politics, science, and the climate issues, all of which are major issues that the whole world plays into. We all have our roles to play.
At the end of our conversation, we connected the concepts of conservation and love. As the world changes around us, and social constructs rise and fall, we concluded that we must conserve love. With love we can build the new normal, and we can minimize our human made inequalities. The last thought she left us with was, “With love, on love, for love, we strive, we thrive, we survive.”
I found Kamla Bhasin to be inspiring, and a fresh voice that spoke to me. I rarely hear people willing to make bold statements that might be controversial to some, but Kamla Bhasin spoke from the heart. She referred to many current events to help us understand her points, and she made the conversation personal by making sure to call each one of us by name, even checking to make sure she had our spelling correct. She spoke with passion and humor, and helped me to see some aspects of gender inequality from a new perspective.
She began the conversation by referring to the word “Ubuntu”, “I am because you are.” She was talking about how everyone and everything is interconnected. Problems that we face in society are all interconnected with similar sources; racism, classism,and gender inequality, all stem from patriarchy. Patriarchy stems from a control over property and who controls the resources. I found it fascinating that Kamla Bhasin found the source of many of society’s problems to be property. It was also fascinating that she connected more educated countries with higher degrees of gender inequality, because with greater wealth comes a greater need to control the wealth. “Richer people are more patriarchal.” She talked about how more indigenous people, with less property, have more freedom. Why talk about property and gender? Kamla said that you can’t fight gender inequality without fighting capitalism.
When talking about the world’s response to COVID, she talked about wealthy and powerful countries like the US and the UK having some of the highest numbers of COVID cases, while smaller countries like Cuba, have sent out doctors and medicine to help other countries in the world. She talked about how some people have become trillionaires during COVID, on the misery of others, which is inhuman.
Kamla Bhasin had a unique way of looking at gender and personal choice that I found intriguing. She compared gender to a performance that we perform our whole lives. She sees gender as artificial. She also said that gender makes us half of what we could be, because traditional gender roles don’t allow us to fulfill every aspect of ourselves, in particular, those aspects that aren’t traditional. She said that gender is a “mental construct.” It doesn’t have anything to do with a person’s physical body. The process of “invisible acculturation” starts as soon as we’re born by the way that everyone interacts with us: our families, the church, and the wider community all reinforce their definitions of gender. Kamla Bhasin went on to talk about how everything in our society has become gendered, and even our choices aren’t actually our own, but are determined by other people. Patriarchal social norms and capitalist companies actually determine what we think are our personal choices in order to control us and make more money.
What I liked about our conversation with Kamla Bhasin is that though she spoke about how pervasive the patriarchy is, there is hope to bring change. First of all, since we have created inequality, we also have the power to stop it. Everyone’s choice affects everyone else, so we can choose to put an end to inequality. She also spoke about some of the progress the world has made in the last sixty years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Even though rape, domestic violence, racism, and workplace inequality still occurs, we know it is wrong and now take steps when those injustices happen. In the past, they would have been simply accepted. The change in consciousness is an improvement, but it is just a beginning and we have a long way to go. What is Kamla’s solution? Love. She said that “I believe the solution to everything we are facing today is love”, and referred to science, business, politics, and education. She added that without love, “you get fascism, racism, patriarchy, lynching, putting a leg on someone.” What we need are “seeds of love.”
This past year, everyone has had to adapt to new routines and ways of life as we have learned to live during a pandemic. We have had to restrict ourselves from seeing our community in person, and adapt to connecting with others over Zoom, be that for school or business or just our friends and family. Even though adapting to this new way of life has been difficult, it has given us amazing opportunities to continue our lives and talk to people from faraway places that might not have been possible in the past.
As with everything that has changed this year, so have the learning journeys here at Mount Madonna School. We have had to rethink our past traditions and create new ones, which is exactly what the Mount Madonna school seniors are doing with this year’s India trip. As with any loss, we need to acknowledge there is sadness around what couldn’t be, but after processing and hearing that we could still have an India trip experience the class leapt onto the idea.
This newly imagined India trip will take place here on our beautiful campus amidst the redwood trees and wandering turkeys. During our week-long virtual trip, we will be interviewing Kamla Bhasin, Dr. Kshama Metre and Radha Sharan. The Senior class is more than excited to get a taste of the Indian culture through interviewing and learning from these wonderful individuals. We are also thrilled to be able to talk with some of the girls from Pardada Pardadi and kids from the Sri Ram Ashram. Over this next week, the Mount Madonna School senior class will be stepping into a different world to learn more about India and ourselves, and yet we won’t even be leaving the campus. Please check back regularly throughout the week to read our reflections and highlights from our various interviews and experiences.
This year has been hard for everyone. Especially for students and those transitioning from high school into a new environment or career. Yet, the senior class at Mount Madonna is excited more than ever to hear new perspectives and explore the rich culture that surrounds the very foundation of Mount Madonna as an organization and a school. Having lost the opportunity to explore and experience India in person, we are excited to give our all to the success of this virtual India journey. Being presented with these new challenges further highlights the importance of connection and search for meaning that Mount Madonna has offered students year after year . It has also shown us that it is a choice to show up and learn, and not something out of our control.
This year we are fortunate to be able to interview Kamla Bhasin, Dr. Kshama Metre, and Radha Sharan. In addition to having this opportunity to speak with these amazing leaders, we are speaking with some of the children and young people from Sri Ram Ashram and Pardada Pardadi. We are overjoyed to have this opportunity to learn more about each and every person we meet and are excited to get to know ourselves more through this process. If you would like to follow our experience, please check back to see what we have been up to.
This year’s trip to India is virtual due to Covid-19. While there are many organizations and people we would have met with if we were able to travel in person, we have still been able to arrange several Zoom meetings and will appreciate our experience in this new format!
Stay tuned for blog writings on the meetings we have.
Monday April 26th: Interview with Kamla Bhasin
Tuesday April 27th: Interview with Dr. Kshama Metre
Thursday April 29th: Meeting with Pardada Pardadi School
Friday April 30th: Meeting with Sri Ram Ashram Conversation with Radha Sharan