The Listening Tour: Reflections from India
It all started with a conversation. A dear friend and I who met in Bangkok found ourselves together again in a small diner in Massachusetts. After listening to me talk about my search for work with an organization as part of my graduate studies, this friend showed me Janessa’s photo, gave me her phone number, and said “I think the two of you would get along. Give her a call and see what happens.”
We set up a call, and the journey continued with another conversation. I introduced myself to Janessa, and then proceeded to listen to her share about Euphrates, and reflect on the organization’s successes and current challenges. An immediate connection was made, and it felt as if we’ve known each other for years. That’s when you know great things are ahead. From our initial conversation emerged the clear need for more listening to the Euphrates’ community; and thus, the listening tour, and my journey with Euphrates, was born.
The purpose of my time with Euphrates this summer is twofold. The first task is to listen deeply to Chapter Leaders and Members as they share about their experiences with Euphrates and provide feedback for improvement. The second task is to compile everything I hear and formulate comprehensive and thorough recommendations for Euphrates to use moving forward in the Chapters Program. We titled this the listening tour, and it has brought me to interview Chapter Leaders from 11 cities across 5 countries so far – with more interviews being arranged as I write – and visit 3 Euphrates Chapters in-person in Kolkata and Delhi, India, and in Alexandria, Egypt. What I share with you now are highlights from my time in both India and Egypt, and what I heard.
In Sohini’s new apartment in Kolkata the Chapter Members, who have grown to be a very close community, waited for my arrival. Once we got through the classic introduction basics – names, where we’re all from and currently living, what we studied, what we do now, how my travel from the US went, first impressions of the heat of summer in India – I realized that the listening tour wasn’t something I turn on and off. The listening tour wasn’t something that was happening only when an interview was being conducted. It quickly hit me that my life for the next three weeks, every moment, every conversation, was the listening tour. Thus, I spent the evening listening to Chapter Members dive right into politics, religion, Indian mythology, women’s rights, family structure, societal expectations and pressures, and student life. This set the tone for my time in India. Listening to absolutely brilliant individuals effortlessly share their thoughtful and in-depth opinions about every topic under the sun.
Listening happened in many spaces, in informal discussions and in formal interviews. Around the table or sitting on the floor of Sohini’s living room. Around the kitchen table at Sohini’s family’s house amongst delicious homemade Bengali food. At a café in town. In a local Bengali bakery while stuffing our mouths with sweets. On the slow tram ride that runs through part of Kolkata. Around the coffee table at Arkamitra’s house while eating endless momos. Anywhere we went. Anywhere we found ourselves – Chapter Members spoke, I listened. I heard about their challenges in recruiting Chapter Members. I heard about their progressive ideas for peacebuilding in India. I heard about the biggest influences in their lives. Their dreams. Their goals. Their fears. Their daily lives. Their favorite music. Their recent adventures. Their hopes for more adventure. Their exhaustion. Their excitement. Their love. Their connections to others. Their creativity. Their innovation. Their progress. About them. I just heard about them and all the intricacies of their experience right now of being human, of being connected, and how that translates into being a part of Euphrates and creating something meaningful as a Chapter.
A key activity that took place during my time in Kolkata was a Peace Superheroes Workshop. Often we see superheroes portrayed as individuals who save the day by combatting ‘bad guys’ with violence. The Kolkata Chapter Members sought to explore how to shift this societal narrative, and have superheroes praised for their ability to save the day through nonviolence. Together we sat one afternoon for an intimate Peace Superheroes Workshop where Chapter members embodied peace superpowers such as artistic empathy, elevating women’s voices, interfaith harmony and more, that they identified as belonging to historic and current peace leaders around the world. Members performed improvised storytelling where they used these peace superpowers to transform or resolve a conflict situation experienced today, and ‘save the day.’ Afterwards, we used a talking circle model to reflect on the workshop, on members’ own peace superpowers, the strategy, creativity, dynamism, and collaboration needed for nonviolence, and how to shift societal perceptions of superheroes. It was an experimental workshop that sprouted directly from the Chapter Members’ vision, and they hope for it to be replicated amongst other Euphrates Chapters or communities of people in Kolkata. It’s that spirit of taking risks, experimenting with creativity, and reflection that truly made the Kolkata Chapter stand out, and what an honor to listen to the interactions amongst people who live with that spirit each day.
I spent 5 ½ days in Kolkata, and what struck me most was the intense curiosity each Chapter Member demonstrated. It seemed everyone had this natural and overwhelming ability to make every moment a learning moment, absorb all the information they heard, and then immediately and seamlessly apply it to other situations, contexts, conflicts, etc. It seriously blew my mind. Furthermore, they without hesitancy challenged each other, or expanded upon what the other said. I remember listening to Sohini speak about her idea for a think tank around the dinner table and even her father looked at me as we stood to go sit in the other room and said, “Please, all critical feedback is welcome.” And it was. The Chapter Members, their friends, their families are all constantly cultivating such intellectual, intimate, inclusive, connected spaces and it was such an awe-inspiring experience to be introduced to and immersed in such spaces.
On July 14, I transitioned to Delhi for a long weekend with the Chapter. We first met in a cafeteria on the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University. It’s quite the progressive campus, and has a beautiful mix of nature and art, wonderfully dressed in all types of natural greenery and buildings covered in murals with messages about social change in India. Felt like the right place to be meeting. Mashkoor and Hriday, the two Delhi Chapter Leaders, as well as one Chapter Member named Varun, continued the welcoming and engaging spirit experienced in Kolkata. We met for several hours in this cafeteria, and I listened as they fluidly moved between discussions and debates on topics including but not limited to: focusing the Chapter on local efforts in Delhi and India versus engaging in Middle East issues, ways to express solidarity with the Middle East, how to cultivate sustainability as a Chapter, personal and political connections between India and the Middle East, and how to further outreach and conduct Euphrates activities between South Asia and the Middle East.
The following day, Mashkoor and I spent some time wandering Delhi before another Euphrates meeting. Again, the listening actively continued in all spaces as we walked around the monuments of the Qutb Minar complex, visited the Bahá’i Lotus Temple, and quickly roamed the Dilli Haat market. As we browsed the visitor center of the Lotus Temple, Mashkoor and I both stopped to silently read a sign with the following quote from Shoghi Effendi:
“The fundamental principle enunciated by Bahá’u’lláh…is that religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is a continuous and progressive process, that all the great religions of the world are divine in origin, that their basic principles are in complete harmony, that their aims and purposes are one and the same, that their teachings are but facets of one truth, that their functions are complementary, that they differ only in the nonessential aspects of their doctrines, and that their missions represent successive stages in the spiritual evolution of human society.”
Mashkoor then looked at me and said, “You can just replace Bahá’i with Euphrates and it’s the same.” And it felt true – we found messages that resonated with the mission of Euphrates everywhere.
That afternoon Mashkoor, Hriday, Varun, and I sat down with a group of local activists and NGO workers to discuss collaboration with Euphrates and local initiatives that can be pursued. While it was simply an introductory meeting, and the real work of partnerships continues in the leading hands of Mashkoor and Hriday, it was sobering and hopeful to sit with a group of dedicated individuals discussing the very real challenges to nonprofit work, the fragmented reality of the peace and development fields, the need for more collaboration and solidarity, and how that need can be met amongst the people sitting at the table. The Delhi Chapter has their ears to the ground, constantly seeking opportunity to further peace in India that extends to the Middle East, and their initiative for partnerships and activities in Delhi demonstrates their promise to social justice and change.