After I return home from India, I see my life in a different way. Although I have traveled back to Boston twice from India within the same calendar year, I am finding that the most challenging part of my summer experience is in returning to my life in the US. After my summer in Bangalore, I am returning with not only a more developed understanding of the alarming barriers that separate many Indian youths from regularly attending government schools, but also an awareness that many of the ways in which I live my life in the US directly harm Indian citizens. My challenges are: How do I apply what I have learned to help repair a small piece of our often violently unfair, radically unequal world? How do I address the systematic devaluation of Indian lives, which is implicitly reflected in my consumption practices in the US?
I wouldn’t call this “culture shock”—at least not the way I often hear it spoken of. In fact, I experienced a heightened awareness of my race and class status, rather than a “blending” that others may experience during their time abroad. My advice to future interns doing internships abroad—or even domestically, if there is a significant difference in the concentration of power—is to consider the ethical implications of participating in a “voluntourist” capacity. There is certainly a way to do ethical, mutually beneficial work that challenges historical concentrations of power. But even more important than spending a summer abroad is making a commitment to living the vast majority of our day-to-day lives—which, for many of us, is in the United States—in a way that subverts and challenges the consumption habits, institutions, and mores that make up part of the foundation on which India’s poverty rests. I would certainly encourage other students to peruse an internship at The Akshaya Patra Foundation. I found it to be a wonderfully supportive environment and I was able to work on an issue that is deeply relevant to the wellbeing of our world. I also benefited from spending time abroad—in an environment that I found challenging. My internship, and my time in India, have taught me that acknowledging my responsibility and my role in perpetuating vast inequity in the distribution of global wealth is central to my ability to resist the grossly unfair consequences of that distribution.
The majority of my time at The Akshaya Patra Foundation was spent listening to the stories of Indian youths enrolled in government schools in which the Akshaya Patra mid-day meal is served. I wrote one narrative per child to document many of the stories that I heard. I feel my work was successful because I documented stories in the most fair and honest way that I was able to. Although I remain skeptical about the ethics of transnational “development”-oriented work, my experiences this summer have made me anything but indifferent to the suffering I witnessed. For that reason, I am committed to using my education and my privileges in service of dismantling the foundation of India’s poverty, which will necessarily discourage child slavery and improve access to education. This summer, I have learned about the importance of addressing both immediate needs, and the source of suffering. Indeed, it is through the recognition that, in our increasingly globalized world, the way that I live my life in the US has profound consequences for the people whose labor—and whose lives—are all too often dismissed and unseen.
Shane Weitzman ’16