In my research from 2010, I addressed the social and labor challenges of domestic workers in India. With the help of student translators, over two hundred domestic workers were interviewed for the report. Originally, this project was simply to summarize and translate that research into the local language of Kannada so that the interview participants would have access to the knowledge generated from their experiences. However, I soon realized that over half of the domestic workers surveyed had never stepped foot in a school, and most of the domestic workers did not have education beyond Standard 3 and 7 (roughly the equivalent of grade 3 and grade 7). Therefore, a written summary, even one translated into Kannada, would not reach many of the kinds of people who participated in the research.  The concept of an oral summary of the research in a DVD format was introduced, as some of the women said they had DVD players in their homes.

Pedestrian Pictures is a local media-filmmaking organization that focuses on socio-political issues. They are currently in the process of designing the DVD concept of the research summary. The written summary will obviously be very different from the DVD version, and writing it in a way that will be both informative and hold the interest of the audience will be a bit of a challenge. But hopefully we can create an accessible format with the input of some domestic workers. Suma Anil (who works independently with Fourth Wave Foundation) is putting together the written version.

The aspects of the research we considered most relevant for the domestic workers were figures such as average household income and educational levels. Additionally, I felt that defining the ‘culture of servitude’, a system of beliefs that authors Qayum & Ray discussed extensively in their 2003 article, “Grappling with Modernity: India’s Respectable Classes and the Culture of Domestic Servitude”, was very important to domestic workers understanding the situation they found themselves in, both personally in their relationships with the employers, and politically as a labor class in India.

Finally, the explanation of public policy was an issue that was not part of the original research, but that I consider important for any low-income female workers in India. These women are often sought out to be interviewed by NGOs, universities, policy institutes and government agencies. Most of them have only a vague understanding of why they are being surveyed and what happens to the information that is gathered from them. I wanted the women to get a sense of the bigger picture of these academic and research surveys and what their roles are in shaping public policy when they give their time to be interviewed by various organizations. Therefore, this issue will form the foundation of both the written and DVD versions.


The second time the groups met, we usually saw a smaller, more suitable number. Although we asked for about 15 women for the pilots, often upwards of 20 women showed up. Their schedules at work and at home meant they often had to leave early, or arrive late. But they all got a sense of what Brinda was doing, and what would be expected of them. In the actual dialogues, we saw anywhere from 8 – 15 women, which were appropriate numbers for the kind of groups we were running. The dialogues ranged from 60 to 90 minutes, and if the group was too large, there would not be enough time for everyone to speak.

The format of the deliberative dialogues is:

Introduction: facilitator makes an introductory statement

Quick responses: to enable members to turn over discussion topics in their minds, let it sink in and take root

Facilitated discussion: listed below are some potential topics for discussion – the women are encouraged to think in terms of the steps they can take in their own circumstances

Question/Answer: all participants, including facilitator, coordinators, researchers, etc. are willing to answer group questions that may or may not pertain to the session

Homework: every participant will be encouraged to take up at least one aspect they would like to change in their home/workplace/community and to come back with results for the next session

The points and values that will be focused on and reiterated throughout the dialogue process:

  1. Enable women to understand their own context and possibilities
  2. Provoke them to take a deeper look at their own situations and struggles, and to find solutions or strategies to address their problems that come from themselves or the group
  3. Enable them to think constructively, ie. in terms of small but significant actions they can take or facilitate others to take
  4. The women come to the meetings with significant pre-knowledge and experiences essential to the dialogue process. This constitutes the basis of further learning
  5. Mutual learning is achieved through a non-hierarchical, informal mode

Topics may include:

  • Images associated with women
  • Gender division of labor
  • Issues of violence
  • History of patriarchy
  • Health problems women face
  • Barriers to accessing health care
  • Access to resources
  • Wages, work and employment
  • Barriers/lack of skill/knowledge that hinders women from challenging poor wages, working conditions, etc.

Examples of how topics can be applied in the dialogue process:

1. Images associated with women: ask the participants to share various preconceived notions about women and to quickly summarize the biases against women. This is to make participants become aware that they themselves may unconsciously hold these biases and to analyze how these get reiterated by our own notions and those of the family and community

2. History of patriarchy and truth about themselves: Elicit from participants qualities they attribute to themselves/their daughters/their mothers and those they attribute to their husbands/brothers/sons. This is to help participants understand that gender discrimination is not an inevitability which cannot be challenged or changed, and that demanding gender justice and equal opportunities for women is fully justified. It is also to portray from their own responses the positive qualities of confidence, assertiveness, independence and nurturing attitudes that are within them and each other.

The dialogue process is a collaborative effort, and cannot succeed without participation from the group, or without a facilitator that not only deconstructs hierarchical, privileged societal and belief systems, but is also able to practice these non-hierarchical values in their own lives and in the dialogue process. When I chose a facilitator, I looked not only at their resumes and what they said, but also how they conducted themselves in their everyday interactions, and whether they applied the values they said they believed in to their own relationships with those who had less power and privilege than them. That requires honesty, self-awareness, openness and the ability to admit your mistakes and make changes. Seeing the effects, seeing the women respond and want to be a part of the group and be willing to open up shows the importance of choosing the right facilitator. When you have a facilitator who knows how to build trust and cohesiveness within the group, and when the group is committed to the process, the results can be transformative.

finding johncy


I try to be polite and call slums ‘low-income areas’ or ‘low-income communities’. Many of the people in NGOs sometimes just call them ‘areas’, and because we all know the kind of communities they work in, we know ‘areas’ mean ‘slums’. But I haven’t found another viable word to replace ‘slums’, and especially when you talk to people that are not that familiar with English and you start throwing around phrases like ‘low-income communities’, it can get confusing really fast. So I have just given up and call them slums so everyone is clear on what I do and where I’m going.

Slums obviously have a notorious reputation in India. When I started working with the domestic workers and visiting them in their homes in 2010, I had no context for it except what I read about poverty issues in my Political Science and Sociology textbooks. As I tried to work with student translators to interview domestic workers for the research, the reaction of some of the female students surprised me. I wasn’t prepared for the strange stereotypes they held of these communities I had become so familiar with. Later on I was told that in Bollywood films, the slum areas are portrayed as these intrinsically dangerous, violent and lawless places, and that maybe the students were reacting to those images. Although I know slums are not the safest areas, whenever I visited I saw a community of people with kids playing outside, women chatting with each other, and people sitting outside their homes – the same as anywhere else.

However, I haven’t ever walked into a slum without being led there by someone who knew the community, or if I went there alone, I would already know people and know where I was going. But that changed when I went looking for the three kids whose faces are on our facebook and twitter page: Johncy (the girl in the middle), Bharith (the boy), and Nandakumar (the little boy).  They are an extended family with lots of cousins that I met when I was doing my original research in 2010. Out of all the children I met the first time I was in India, I remembered these kids the most clearly. Even though we couldn’t speak each other’s languages, somehow the entire time they kept on chattering away to me, holding my hand and laughing.

When I showed their photos to some of the people I used to work with, they said, “Ohhh… they are going to be hard to find.” One of the women knew the general area where Johncy lived, but that is all she could tell me.  At that point, I think I suddenly realized that there’s a certain segment of the population that can just disappear into the crowds and you will never see or hear from them again. I knew then that if I didn’t go and find her myself, that would be it, they would be memories and I would never know what happened to them.

Slums can be intimidating areas, and the invisble line that separates “slum” from “non-slum” can be a very difficult line to cross. But I had been to so many slums that I knew generally what to expect, so when I went looking for Johncy, I just went to the boundary of what I thought was the right slum, and walked up to a group of people sitting outside and talking to each other, and I said, slightly sheepishly, “Hi!” The people there looked at me, surprised at first, then suspiciously.

I asked if they knew Johncy, and I described what she looked like. They looked confused, asking if I knew the local language Kannada, and when I said no, they would ask if I knew Hindi. When I also said no, one man asked, slightly amazed, “English only??” They did not look pleased. But when they finally figured out I was looking for a person from their community, they became super helpful and would enlist friends who spoke English to come talk to me. As they were trying to figure out who Johncy was and if anyone knew where she lived, they became curious, asking, “Why? Why are you looking for her?” I didn’t really know how to answer that except to say she was part of the work I was doing with a NGO.

They would ask the name of the parents, they would ask what kind of work the parents did and then they would lead me into the slums and down narrow walkways to meet people who kinda sorta fit that description. At some point they realized I was in the wrong slum and had to cross the street. I was confused because some slums are huge and take up several city blocks. In this neighborhood, it seemed like each slum was a small block that had a different name. But I finally found the right area, and was led by a sweet, older woman who zig-zagged through the tight lanes with lightning speed. But she couldn’t figure out who Johncy was, and that day the weather had decided to change from a comfortable 28 degrees to creep up towards the mid-30’s. I was tired and exhausted and overwhelmed and not sure what to do next.

As we rounded a narrow bend, a door suddenly opened, and the face of the little girl in the middle of the fb and twitter photo, Johncy, popped out. Her eyes grew big in disbelief and she shouted, “Jennifer! I’m so happy to see you!!” Last time I saw her, she couldn’t speak a word in English. Now she was almost fluent, and much taller. But she had the same face and mischevious eyes. I said, “Johncy, I’ve been asking for you and looking for you since I came back!”

In the year and a half since I met her, she had learned English, and her confidence had just grown. She was funny and talkative and full of energy. She gave me the cell phone number of her grandmother and her cousin, and we agreed to meet the following week.

In the pilots, an issue that came up for the women was wage negotiation, which was one of the first topics I had thought of for these deliberative dialogues. But the challenges these women faced when we started speaking about wages was so unexpected, that any solutions or methods I had originally formulated just went out the window. Many of the women in that group had been working as domestic workers for several years, but had been told by their employer that if they ever asked for a raise, they could leave. The employer would find another domestic worker. How does one negotiate their wage in that scenario? This is where the responsiveness and collaboration of all participants is necessary, and why the unstructured-ness of the dialogues was essential. In essence, the way we planned the dialogues was to anticipate that there would be many situations where we as facilitators and coordinators would not have the answers, and we would need to be flexible and open to what the entire group had to offer to address the challenge.

As one of them said, “I have been working there for 3 years. I need to ask for a raise, because I will not respect myself if I don’t.”

Brinda asked, “How will you find the courage to ask for a raise when you are threatened with being fired?”

She replied, “I will find the courage if I know I can trust this group, and if I can trust that no one in this room will take my job if I am fired. If I know everyone in this room supports me, I will risk being fired to go ask for a raise.”

When I heard this, I wondered what difference that would make as there are probably hundreds of thousands of domestic workers across the city ready to replace her. What we as outsiders may not know is how the informal systems play out within particular sub-cultures. This group of women cannot force a completely new domestic worker not to take the job, but they can communicate with her, letting her know why the previous domestic worker had been fired. If she still insisted on taking the job, it would be with the knowledge that she would not have the support of this community of domestic workers if the employer acted unfairly or abusively towards her.

Therefore, the group arrived at their own strategy for addressing the problem that worked for them and was specific to their culture and situation. It is not perfect, and nothing will be easy given their circumstances. However they learn that there are methods for dealing with these imbalanced power dynamics, and they learn where their power lies. These dialogues cannot “solve” poverty or domestic violence, but we can teach them to look to themselves and each other for options and alternatives to these seemingly overwhelming issues.

The final groups we have decided come from five different organizations: Global Concerns India, Karnataka Domestic Workers Union, Indian National Trade Union Congress, Fedina and Munnade. The participants are predominantly domestic workers, but also include construction workers and garment workers. Originally we were going to run a pilot and dialogue with each of the groups, and then choose the three we thought would benefit most from the program to continue for the next 12 months. However, the women responded so positively during all the pilots and were so eager to show up for the dialogues, that I decided that I couldn’t say no to any of them as long as they were committed and motivated to participate.

The issues that have come up include serious challenges such as domestic violence, sexual harassment, depression, debt, substance abuse of the spouses, labor rights and gender inequities. However, we try to meet the group where they are. So some of the women may not be prepared to face these difficult issues yet, and the problems that come up include whether or not to bargain with a vendor, how to get a loan returned from a friend, or how it makes them feel when they are gossiped about. The important thing is that these are topics that are actually happening in these women’s lives, they are issues that they think about and feel the need to respond to.

Although our project can seem very un-structured to those who are used to set syllabus or workshop, there is a lot of structure to what we are doing. But that structure also allows for a lot of fluidity and responsiveness at the same time, where it is needed.

At the pilot, we introduce the concept of the dialogues, where Brinda sets the ground rules:

1.  there will be no passive observers. Everyone must participate and show that they want to be there because they believe the dialogues benefit them, or they feel their experiences and knowledge can be of benefit to others in the group

2.  confidentiality is essential, so what is said in the group should not be revealed to outsiders

These rules are in place to build trust and group cohesiveness. During the pilot, Brinda attempts to asks questions to provoke thought about their own situations, assumptions and challenges they may be struggling with. For example: What are the characteristics of a leader? How do you build courage?

Usually these women come together on larger issues such as laws, policies, microfinance, urban planning, etc., but this project deals with much more personal topics. In many ways, these are almost taboo areas. As one woman said, “I never talk about how I feel when I’m hurt, or what I go through when my family distrusts me.”

So these pilots are the initial stages of addressing situations that matter to these women personally, in their everyday lives, rather than having outsiders tell them the issues they should find important. We ask them, “What problem do you want to tackle? What has been going on in your life that you don’t know how to deal with and that you need help with?”

By giving them a process to address the ‘minor’ or ‘modest’ issues that mean something to them personally, we are hoping these pilots and dialogues will create the confidence and assertiveness in them to tackle the bigger societal challenges in their lives.

The deliberative dialogues we are running have a different format than many of the NGOs are used to here in India. Rather than coming in and educating the women on a specific topic such as domestic violence or sexual harassment, we are here to collaborate with the women themselves on an issue that is of importance to them. Their input is just as essential to the success of the dialogues as what we bring as coordinators or facilitators.

Of course, having an excellent facilitator makes all the difference. It is necessary for the facilitator to balance the personalities, perspectives and emotions in the room, and to ensure the participants conduct themselves in a respectful manner. Without this ability, the transformative potential of these dialogues will be lost. An individual may have a great resume on paper, but not really be able to engage participants in a manner that actually creates any positive changes in their lives. I worked very hard to find the right facilitator and spoke with many organizations, and it was an exhausting process, but it was worth it. The facilitator for all of the dialogues is Brinda Adige of Global Concerns India.

It has been amazing seeing the response of the different groups towards her. Some of these groups had been meeting on other issues for a while, and I could feel the energy change in the room as she began to speak and encourage others to participate as well. Their reactions were exactly what we hoped for! Even though it was more challenging than I expected when I started searching for a facilitator, I’m glad I put in the time and effort until I found the right person.

The pilots and deliberative dialogues are a very micro (rather than macro) project. We’re not here to change international laws or to protest in the streets, although that is something these women may one day want to do, or are already doing in other aspects of their lives. I would say the focus of these groups are: how do we increase women’s assertiveness and independence, and use it to address a challenge in their life?

We are looking for about fifteen women who have some sense of group cohesion, that have probably come together to work on an issue before, such as labor rights, domestic violence, urban renewal, etc. Therefore, we are not only interested in domestic workers groups. These women can come together as a community or across a work sector such as domestic work, garment work, construction work, etc, as long as it is a low-income group. We would like to work with women who have leadership qualities, who are already speaking up on certain issues and would like to further develop these qualities.

The format would be a pilot to determine whether the women would benefit from this kind of project, whether they are motivated to develop these qualities in themselves, and to determine the kind of issues the women would like to address. Although there will be issues that are familiar to all of the women, what they are currently facing will be very individual.

We will then measure the effectiveness of the dialogues, the commitment of the women, and the benefit to the women. If it is a success, then we would like to continue the workshops once a month for a minimum of one year, possibly longer.

The other major aspect of the project is describing and defining clear outcomes. I am a very qualitative-oriented person, and qualitative work is much more difficult to measure than quantitative. But it is often qualitative topics than can transform the most essential and significant parts of people’s lives. It is like public policy – which can be boring to most people and often invisible. But to me, policy is like the seismic shifts in a society that alter everything about the way individuals and groups interact with their community and their culture afterwards. Major policy changes can rapidly become unnoticeable as soon as people get used to a new way of doing and thinking about issues. But the effects are clearly there – and I think that qualitative-minded people have not spent enough time articulating the positive outcomes of these policies, processes and events. I had previously believed that the benefits are so obvious that it seems like it doesn’t need to be articulated – but I’ve begun to realize, qualitative-work may be my “language” and therefore clear to me, but to many others, they can’t see the connections. It is necessary to “translate” qualitative language and processes so that other people are able to make those connections, in the same way doctors need to translate their scientific jargon, or techies need to change their format into a style that someone like me can use easily and efficiently.

If people do benefit from the project, but do not realize they benefited, then in many ways the process becomes lost. They cannot see the connections between the cause and the effect, and may attribute the subtle positive outcomes to other factors, or it may even go unnoticed. How to articulate and measure the outcomes has therefore become a key focus of this project, and an issue I will be delving into in the weeks to come.

The crux of this project is about values, and whose values we will be working with. Since I’ve gotten here, I’ve been talking a lot about the values and beliefs of domestic workers, and about “meeting” the domestic workers where they are at instead of the other way around. So rather than coming with our outside values and trying to make them meet our particular cultural standards, it is about discovering what their values are and figuring out what is important to them, so we can support them in reaching their goals and solving the problems that they have defined as problems, not what outsiders have decided are problems.

One of the more interesting challenges I’ve run into is recognizing that at times I speak a different “English” from the people here who are fluent in English. I deal with a lot of people who work in nonprofits, tech companies and universities, and who I see as being very similar to me. Progressive, educated and technologically-engaged with the world, we converse in English all the time. But what I have slowly come to realize as I’ve hit some obstacles in getting the people and resources I need for this project, is that there are certain words I use that are unfamiliar to people here, or that they may use in a slightly different way. I never thought of the word “values” as being a buzz word, but someone suggested that rather than saying “the values and beliefs of the domestic workers”, I say “the psychology of the domestic workers”. But I didn’t MEAN the ‘psychology’ of the domestic workers – except I did. When I was here, and to the people I was speaking to, that was the correct word to use to reflect my meaning.

Another example is that I’ve noticed that people here use the word ‘scheme’ a lot, when they mean ‘plan’. So they’ll say something like, “we have a scheme to help children without parents’, or “an organization has come up with a good scheme for their marketing”. To me, the word ‘scheme’ has negative connotations and does not have the same meaning as a ‘plan’, but here, they are basically using the words interchangeably. There are so many cultures that have taken English and changed it to make it their own, but for the segment of the population in India that thinks of English almost as their first language, or as their main language of communication, it can be a little disorienting and confusing when you really try to get into the specifics of a project.

One wonderful woman I met here referred to the way I spoke as “seminar language” or “seminar English”. I think my words have genuine meaning even as “seminar English”, the issue is that the people I’m speaking to are fluent in English, but they may not be fluent in the particular kind of English I speak – and the biggest problem is that I don’t know which words they get and which words they don’t, and they might not either. I think sometimes they believe they understand what I’m talking about because they recognize all the words I’m saying and the words are familiar, but I’m actually using them in a way that they might not be used to (and so the full meaning doesn’t come across), and vice versa.