• Malka Kopell

Civity Update: Experiencing Civity in India

Many of us came out of last year’s election season battered and bruised. It seemed that no matter who we voted for, many of us were (and still are) angry – angry at the other side. Some of us went into the holiday season concerned about facing members of our family across the dinner table who represented that “other.” Many people asked me, how can I talk to my uncle? My cousin? My father? What can I say?

My experience over the holidays was also about family, but different. I had a chance to have my own Civity experience, which was both humbling and incredibly inspiring.

I spent the winter holidays in India, a country which represents half of my roots (my mother hails from Kolkata). The first two weeks I got to tour the country with my husband Bill and our 17-year-old daughter Aisha – her first time there. That was a fun trip, and, although a bit of a whirlwind, filled with great memories.

After Bill and Aisha headed back home, I stayed – with my cousin Aruna Roy, a leader in the India government transparency movement. Aruna and her colleagues Nikhil Roy and Shankar Singh co-founded Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), a grassroots organization based in the desert state of Rajasthan in north India. For more 25 years, MKSS has worked tirelessly for the rights of the poor and marginalized all over the country.

Aruna had invited me to join her at her School for Democracy, outside of a small village. The week I was there I was joined by 50 Indian social activists – the Democracy Fellows – working on a variety of issues ranging from representing defendants subject to the death penalty to organizing unions for rag pickers to promoting organic farming in the South to improving child nutrition in the Himalayas. I spent all week with the group, participating in their classes (including presenting a Civity training), going out in the field to have conversation with villagers, and witnessing a public hearing the School organized to call attention to silicosis, the horrible – and fatal – disease of the lungs suffered by men and women who work in the quarries.

I had many, many Civity Conversations with the Fellows and others who worked at the School. We exchanged stories about ourselves and explored the differences between us. I began the week totally outside my comfort zone in many ways – feeling that my privileged and naive American upbringing and lifestyle was a barrier. But I ended the week feeling I had 50+ new friends, who showed me the power of people to change things, even things that are really hard to change. It was an utterly mind-blowing experience for me and I can’t wait to go back.

What’s next for Civity? Well, as the country focuses on division, the good news is that there is more and more interest in crossing divides. Our requests for trainings have gone up exponentially, and Palma and I are trying to keep up with demand. In addition to preparing individual people to have Civity Conversations in their own networks, we’re also supporting institutions in communities that are making space to make these conversations happen – whether it's conversations between new immigrants and long-time residents, between members of a mosque in town and people who want to learn more about their Muslim neighbors, or between Trump and Hillary voters.

A friend and colleague of mine recently reminded me of this quote from the Persian poet Rumi: “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” If you’re interested in making some of these conversations happen in your community, let us know!

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