The nuts-and-bolts of building cultural resources for health in a Santali village, West Bengal

In 2008, the village of Piyalgeria in Jhargram, like many other villages in the area at the time, had erupted in protests against the extreme marginalization, poverty, and police harassment experienced by the Santali community in the region. Attacks on dignity of the Santali life were often voiced by community members as the underlying causes of the protests. When the CARE research team led by Prof. Mohan Dutta started working in the villages, one of the key questions guiding the culture-centered projects was: What, according to community members, is the source of health? Drawing then on this fundamental question, the CARE team collaborated with community members in identifying the challenges to health they experienced, and the potential solutions they envisioned. In the voices of community members, the dignity of Santali cultural life held the threads to good health. Thus started our collaborative journey in building a community cultural center as a health resource. This health center would serve as a space where the young and old participate in songs and dances. These songs and dances, in community voices, are repositories of health, healing and wellbeing.

Listening to voices of the poor: Academic freedom and policy making

The work of the Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE) has applied the tenets of the CCA to work in communities across the global margins. The poverty and communicative inequalities projects that are carried out by CARE reflect the overarching theme of the CCA, theorizing the communicative constructions of poverty in the global mainstream, and creating spaces for the voices of the poor in these mainstream and elite platforms through collaborations in solidarity with the poor. Comparing the discourses of poverty in mainstream  and elite networks with discourses of poverty as voiced by those living in poverty across countries offers a conceptual framework for examining the ways in which communication of/about poverty works in mainstream/elite constructions, the gaps in these constructions, as well as the possibilities of transformative change when  these stories are grounded in the accounts of the poor about their lived experiences. Essential to this work then is a commitment to empirically work in contexts of poverty. The CARE team and I spend countless hours conducting participant observations, in-depth interviews, focus groups, surveys etc. to arrive at the empirical constructions of experiences of poverty. A CARE project is minimally a product of two to three years of rigorous, field-based empirical work, with strong CARE projects spanning over a decade. However, more importantly, the communicative turn of actually listening to the voices of the poor ensures that we spend many hours collaborating with advisory board members, shaping our research instruments, reflecting on them, and most importantly, undoing and redoing them when and where necessary. The actual lived experiences of collaboration in academic-community partnerships teach us about the mechanisms of communication that work toward generative frameworks that address the needs of the poor as envisioned by them. In this sense, a well conceived culture-centered project becomes one of the poor, turning the tools of research into the hands of the poor, and working through these tools to challenge the misconceptions around poverty that circulate in the mainstream. Reflecting this overarching tenet, the “Voices of Hunger” projects that have been carried across seven countries spanning North America and Asia reflect the value of stories from the margins as shared by the poor in challenging the overarching stereotypes about the poor that are often misguided and factually incorrect. Of course, the sanctity of culture-centered projects rests on the pillar of academic freedom. Moreover, the usefulness of the projects depend upon their ability to engage with policy making. The voices of the poor often offer vital lessons that policy makers ought to pay attention to. Take for instance the narratives of the poor in our fieldwork in India that point to ways in which the Aadhar card, an ID system implemented across India to supposedly streamline the delivery of public services actually fails to deliver these services because of faulty technologies, inaccess to technologies, and the interplays of poverty and technology inacess. As a result, those who are the poorest are often the ones that are being unserved. This narrative emerging from the grassroots not only interrogates the power of a monolithic story, but more importantly, offers a framework for redoing policy. Such lessons are only enabled by a sufficient commitment to academic freedom. Academic freedom enables the inconvenient but empirically grounded stories to emerge. Academic freedom offers in this sense of the CCA an opportunity for thus ultimately developing policy frameworks grounded in the lived experiences and struggles of the poor. Because the narratives of and by the poor fundamentally disrupt the dominant assumptions held by elites, the power of the work of culture-centered approach lies first and foremost in keeping intact these spaces of academic research that are anchored in a steady commitment to authenticity and truth. Rather than telling stories of and by the structure, framing these stories in symbolic artifacts that appeal to the elite, culture-centered stories engage empirically the very bases of these dominant narratives. The CCA has worked, however contingently, across global spaces because the tenets of academic freedom retain the spaces in academe where this work has been carried out and where it continues to be carried out. It is after all, an overarching commitment to the broad ideas of academic freedom that makes possible the continuous search for truth, grounded in the lived experiences of the have-nots in a highly unequal world.

The Voice of Hope – Remembering the past and Recrafting the future

The Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE), a research center under the Department of Communications and New Media at the National University of Singapore, is launching an online campaign on the 4th July to co-create stories of resilience, hope, and healing with the survivors of the Indonesian mass killings of 1965/1966. Based on scripts created by community members, the campaign seeks to create a narrative entry point for articulating the lived of experiences of sufferings and the pathways of hope. This online campaign titled “Learning65” celebrates the possibilities of hope amid suffering. Voices of hope come in various forms of stories and articulate the human rights, health and wellbeing issues faced by the survivors of the mass killings. After more than 50 years, the community members struggle to fight for justice amid the human rights violations under the New Order regime, which included mass killings, forced disappearances, sexual harassment, forced labor, imprisonment without trial, and many others. Community members share experiences of trauma, recounting physical torture, sexual harassment, and ongoing stigma. Voices of the victims have been systematically erased from the discursive space.

This online campaign was conceptualized by an advisory committee comprising 10 men and women from the community of 1965 survivors. Guided by the tenets of the culture-centered approach (CCA) pioneered by Center Director, Professor Mohan J. Dutta, this research study began with the understanding that community members are their own best problem configurations and solution providers. Therefore, when spaces for listening are created and communities are invited as co-participants, solutions to their health and well-being emerge from their lived contexts offering entry points for addressing trauma and suffering.

Over the 8 month-period, the advisory board identified key issues faced by the community of survivors and developed communicative solutions to tackle these problems. Stigma, restrictions to gather and to express thoughts, inequality, and communicative inaccess, are some of the problems that the community members face in their everyday lives. In collaboration with the NUS research team, the advisory board designed the campaign and the key messages in the collaterals. The media campaign developed by the community will include a dedicated digital story telling website, social media outreach, and a documentary research film.

Besides the media campaign, the advisory committee also highlighted that a key element in building collective consciousness about the history and the 1965 tragedy, and enacting positive changes in their lives was to engage with the key stakeholders in solution-making. In line with this, two focus group discussions and peer leader meetings were organized, bringing together the younger generations, volunteers, artists, scholars, and activists. The community highlights the importance to engage with the younger generations through arts and performance to battle the stigma, and to address the erasures experienced by the victims and their family members for more than 50 years. The outcomes of the discussion and the solutions proposed will be summarized in two White Papers. The culture-centered campaign foregrounds voices of the the marginalized community of 1965 in creating a narrative entry point for health and wellbeing. The full White Paper will be available online at: http://www/care-cca.com/. To find out more about culture-centered approach, please visit http://www/care-cca.com/ CONTACT INFORMATION: Prof Mohan J. Dutta (cnmhead@nus.edu.sg) Dr. Dyah Pitaloka (cnmpd@nus.edu.sg)/ (itareksodirdjo@gmail.com)

 

 

Fortifying Migrant Workers in Singapore

With our “Respect Our Food Rights” campaign launched last year, we partnered with DSM and BOP Hub to address the micronutrient deficiencies faced by our Migrant Construction Workers in Singapore due to the poor quality meals they received. This video below showcases the soft launch of the ‘45Rice’ project in delivering micronutrient-rich rice to this migrant community and eventually the wider public at large in Singapore. The concept of “Hidden Hunger” is introduced and they addressed the issue through the strategy of producing and supplying this micronutrient-rich rice. Our Director, Prof Mohan Dutta, was present to give his insights about the event and the fortified rice that was served.

The Piyalgeria Community Center Construction

Prof Mohan gives an account on his project in the Piyalgeria Village where community members come together to materialise the idea of constructing local spaces for their activities through participatory workshops, designing surveys and village-level meetings . With the community’s decision to build a local community center, the members took charge of the budget, the design and the labour of the project.

[Left Behind Families] Liu Village Dancing and Drumming

During his trip to the rural Liu village, Dr Kang Sun noticed how its traditional drumming and folk dancing practices are still active despite the condition of the settlement. He collaborated with the left-behind villagers to organise cultural activities as part of a healthy lifestyle and they were given the invitation to perform their drumming and dancing at the local carnival. Dr Kang documented the whole process in this short clip.

Drumming up Social Change

Drumming up Social Change By: Kang Sun, Daniel Teo, and Sarah Comer While China’s economic development is no news to anyone, the social cost of such development is yet to be explored. Kang’s project focuses on the rural villages where elderly family members have been left behind by their adult children working in cities. In this social background, elderly villagers’ everyday health conditions and care (or lack thereof) become a social critique of economic development.

The Spurious Kang: An Ethnographic Account of Culture’s Place in a Chinese Village – A Talk by Dr Kang Sun

Recognizing numerous elements of culture in the field can pose challenges to researchers. The concrete, unexpected, practical, and sometimes tedious issues that need to be addressed add rich and dynamic meanings as well as messiness to projects. Frequently, such recognition results from constant negotiations with history and present, first impressions and in-depth knowledge acquired through trial and error. In this presentation, Dr Kang showcases the uncertainties and negotiations of recognition experienced in a village that is both familiar and strange to him, his hometown. As an ethnographer, he argues that recognition of cultural elements is a social process that often defies simple academic categories. Only by accepting such social processes that take place in the real field, can real inquiries of interests be identified and investigated. In his case, field research has been an ongoing process in which he and other participants have discovered the importance of an old local art form and worked together to push for its revival. This presentation is marked by its visual impact.

Brave.

Brave /brāv/ verb. Endure or face unpleasant conditions or behavior with courage. This week, we had our very first focus group with 10 women who are domestic helpers in Singapore, and we are also continuing to interview women who are currently working in their employers’ homes. “Brave” only scratches the surface in describing the stories we heard. Together, the CARE team and the focus group discovered that there are so many problems, injustices, and issues to tackle together and through all the tears in the focus group, mine included, I was confronted with how different our worlds are but how similar our hearts are. At the very core, regardless of socioeconomic status, occupation, or culture, people want to be treated like real people, with respect and dignity, and as we all know, it’s painful when it is not afforded to you.

 

Interrogate the 1%

As part of a CARE project with women farmers adaptation strategies to climate change impacts in south India, we partnered with Deccan Development Society (DDS), a grassroots organization based in Pastapur village, near Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh. As part of the project, on January 2, 2013, we set up an advisory board meeting with about 15 women farmers on January 2, 2013 at DDS office in Pastapur village, Zaheerabad Mandal, Medak District in Andhra Pradesh. On our journey from Hyderabad to Pastapur, we saw several cotton farms, which we came to know later were all Bt cotton crops, and that Bt cotton was making a comeback in the state.