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How a field trip in a slum forged a path out of poverty

"A man's mind stretched to a new dimension never returns to its original form."
-Oliver Wendell Holmes
Slum girls on GSD adventure
Girls from slum community on the GSD mind-stretching adventure
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By either chance or destiny, I stumbled into the Pune slum. After walking past the stinky, litter-filled canal where clothes, dishes, and children were scrubbed, and weaving through the honeycomb maze of shacks stacked like a house of cards, I arrived at a rusty metal shed. Inside, 25 tween-age Indian girls scrunched together on the dirt floor for the farewell meeting of their short-lived, youth club— the Better Life Education Program.

An offshoot program of nonprofit ASHA— whose mission is to help the slum’s impoverished mothers fight uphill legal battles against domestic abuse ranging from bride burning to dowry death— the Better Life Education Program encouraged these girls to stay in school beyond 6th grade. It trained them to understand basic health care, think for themselves, and ultimately, avoid turning into another generation of their mothers. Unfortunately, ASHA’s overstretched/underfunded budget had to make the hard cuts. The girls’ program hit the chopping block before it barely got off the ground.
Minal (Director of ASHA) discusses the difficulties women face in the slum community
At the time, the question on my mind wasn’t whether I would help keep the program alive financially for another year. (I did.) The question was “how can anyone imagine a better life when they wake up every day in a SLUM?!” (I couldn’t.) If how we feel about ourselves is everything, without exposure to something different— something larger— how could they imagine a better life if they didn’t even know what to aim for?

I had to figure this out. (They had me at namaste)
Indian girls at last youth meeting
The girls attending the last meeting of their youth program
Luckily, Freedom Writers (my home-bound, in-flight movie) dangled a creative idea to co-opt. If Hillary Swank could take 25 inner-city LA gang teens to the Holocaust Museum to stretch their minds, perhaps I could take the ASHA girls on a mind-stretching adventure of their own.

Six months later I returned to Pune, and with the help of the ASHA directors (who miraculously coaxed, cajoled, and convinced two-dozen slum parents and employers to unleash their daughters from servitude for five days), the girls and I hit the road. We hiked in the mountains, visited temples, parks, farms, restaurants, and ice cream parlors. We watched hang-gliders sail off of cliffs, went on a road trip, and sang songs while rocking out in the aisles of our rented bus. We did artwork, journaling, photography, and even indulged in a “rain dance;" an enclosed courtyard where Bollywood dance music blared from loudspeakers while water sprayed out of pipes overhead on screaming, laughing Indian girls in soaking wet saris. In just five days we ignited their dreams and stretched their imaginations farther than they ever thought possible. They discovered new ways of thinking. Of seeing. Of living. Already they were feeling valued, important, capable.

Five. Days.
Indian Rain Dance
"Rain Dance"
ASHA youth doing artwork
Artwork in the park
Interestingly, upon my return home I discovered that while our living conditions may be better, many Americans wake up in ‘spiritual slums’ of our own construction. (Travel has this way with fine-tuning vision.) How? We tend to associate with those who are like us far more than those who aren’t. We set our news feeds to a singular point of view— oppressing ourselves without even realizing it. New points of view go unheard in our echo chambers.
We preach to the choir.

So how can we break out of these spiritual slums? If traveling to a new country is out of reach, try visiting a new city, a new neighborhood—or just take a different route home from work. Listen to a different radio station. Attend a worship service of a different faith. Go to a political rally on the “other side.” Strike up a conversation with a stranger waiting in line instead of checking messages to kill time.
Shift your mental compass by a few degrees and little by little the change in perspective can lead you to exciting new destinations.
Too much, too quickly? Try baby steps. Sit in a different place at a meeting. Sleep on the opposite side of the bed. Switch up the dinner table place-settings. Little by little the shift in perspective can add up.
Better Life Program students in college
Some of the girls currently in college
Don’t believe me? Just ask the girls of the Better Life Education Program. As of June 2017, not only have hundreds of slum girls gone through the program, but 38 have gone to on to COLLEGE. By exposure to new ideas, their minds stretched. Never—ever— to return to original form.
The mind-stretching adventure
Read what GSD Operatives say
What specific moments in your life have broadened your perspective?

See what GSD teen Operatives have to say.
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Dina Fesler
By Dina Fesler
Listen to podcast
Listen to Podcast episode: "Stretching"
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Operative responses page
Below is an enlightening reflection from one of our GSD Operatives, Emma— a 16-year old who lives in a quaint-but-diversity-challenged city in MN. Her GSD Field Training led her to take the mental leap of a lifetime at a community center in downtown Minneapolis—the Brian Coyle Center— at the heart of Minnesota’s Somali and East African culture.
I have always lived in Wright County, Minnesota and at the time, the only place I had ever travelled to was Orlando, Florida and Canada. I’ve lived a good life, a good family, and have never experienced violence terror or even dreamed of experiencing it. I would see things like Black Lives Matter on the news and I always asked myself, “Of course black lives matter, all lives matter, why do they have to fight to say it?” When I got into middle school, racism became more identifiable and more common. I saw it on the bus, in the hallways, and even in classrooms. Some of the kids were just being “funny” (or so they thought) others were doing it subconsciously.

I wanted it to end, so I decided to go to an area in Minneapolis where many African Americans lived. I ended up going to the Brian Coyle Center in Minneapolis. I didn’t see the color of their skin, I saw the beautiful colored scarves on their heads. They didn’t see me as a white cop with a gun, they saw me as a friend. All of our lives mattered to each other. I think that they appreciated that someone from the outside came to learn about them, and appreciate their beautiful culture. It was also a fun culture night where they invited all different groups of people to the center. There were many types of food, singers, performers, and poetry. Everyone expressed how amazing their culture was, and how they wished people would understand that. This was an awakening moment for me, and I decided I wanted to learn about many different cultures and people and teach other people about how beautiful the cultures were.
GSD Operative Emmablog paperclip
GSD Operative Emma