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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Good Intentions Aren’t Enough

Jackie Stenson and Diana Jue Rajasingh (2016 Grinnell Prize winners) are the founders of Essmart, an American for-profit company operating in Bangalore, India. Their mission is to disseminate essential technologies to rural communities in South India. As Indians (Sapru was born in Bombay and spent most of her life in New Delhi, and Ravishankar was born in Hyderabad, but grew up in Bangalore), we applaud their work. Our concern, however, and motive for writing this article, is the manner in which they presented this work to our class.

Stenson and Rajasingh talk about experiencing and understanding the hardships faced by people in rural communities during their backpacking experiences in Indian and African villages. They then proceeded to use these experiences to make broad, sweeping and, frankly, problematic statements about nuanced issues people, especially women, face in these villages. Working and middle-class woman in India struggle with very serious threats to their safety on a daily basis — even more so for women living in rural areas. Despite rising female literacy and education enrollment rates, India today has lower levels of female workforce participation than many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. India ranks 127th on the gender inequality index and 108th on the global gender gap index. These figures demonstrate a very real problem that needs to be addressed.

Given these concerns, Ravishankar questioned Stenson and Rajasingh in her class about gender dynamics within the organization, as well as the opportunities available to rural women. They responded with a statement on how arranged marriages and pregnancy forced women out of employment and pushed them towards “oppressive” familial obligations. This comment on the patriarchal structure of Indian society is not entirely inaccurate and presents a simplistic view of women in rural India. It assumes that women in these predicaments have the choice to reject the situations imposed upon them, without dealing with very real consequences (Indian women who push back against these structures stand to lose their agency, as well as social and economic capital). Though they addressed a desire for more female employees, and stated that they hoped to find more “brave women” in the future, there was no real action taken toward this end. We wished that instead of diminishing and simplifying a real and complex problem, they would have taken an extra step to understand and work with it.

As Grinnellians, we are trained to be culturally sensitive and to be committed to social justice and diversity. We were caught off guard then by the surprising lack of these values in the talks that we heard. Through discussions with peers we realized that there seemed to be a general consensus of uneasiness with the lack of cultural sympathy displayed. There were certainly elements of a “reductive seduction” of other people’s problems (the idea of dangerously oversimplifying problems in other parts of the world and assuming that they are easily solvable). It is easy to advocate for a group of less fortunate people, however, even well-intentioned activism can do more harm than good when it exists outside the realities of the cultural context. Many of these issues arise with the perennial problem of the insider-outsider debate. The debate has profound implications in the way each of us conducts ourselves in relationship with the people around us, and is something especially important to think about for all of us Grinnellians who want to address social justice issues in various parts of the world. There is a need to be socially conscious and aware in the manner in which we talk about the cultures we live and work in, and this need is especially prescient for all of our worldly Grinnellians. 

-Meghna Ravishankar ’17 and Sarojini Sapru ’17

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