How Do We Build a Cooperative Community?

Excerpts from the May 2022 Newsletter


It has been an eventful spring for Divineya, with Wendy returning to Canada after a productive time in India and overflowing our home office with stunning new products! 

For this newsletter we will reflect on the benefits of Wendy’s efforts on the ground, reviewing the various challenges we face and explaining our process for managing them.

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India Poses Unfamiliar Challenges

Ethically sustainable development projects like Divineya’s require hands-on experience paired with strong cultural and social awareness. Engaging in international development involves endeavouring to change the face of a society and culture uniquely different from one’s own. We therefore cannot simply apply the ideas and practices that might work for us at home.

Rather, we spend much of our time learning from community members and partnering with local Indians who, with our guidance, implement and design a majority of the projects themselves, since they best know the local customs and culture. A huge part of our time in India involves simply visiting and spending time with the women and communities with which we intend to operate. This is essential for building a network based on trust, shared experiences, accountability, and mutual understanding.

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A Cherished Partnership

Our current partner, Meera Arya, acted as Wendy’s guide during this recent trip. Together they toured several rural villages, meeting local women seeking to get involved, and networking with village leaders and other influential figures. While Meera is the one with personal friendships and relationships in these areas, it is helpful for Wendy to accompany her, as this presence reassures community members that Meera’s project is indeed funded and supported by a Western organization. This is of central importance in rural India for establishing trust and respect.

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Foundations of a Cooperative Community

Once we can secure trust and create in-roads, the next step involves understanding the community’s needs, identifying already existing resources, and designing projects which are tailored to these factors.

When we initially partnered with Sakhi Kunj, our target community was Meera’s neighbourhood in Delhi. Meera knew many of these women had experience with sewing, so she employed them to make yoga mat bags and other handicrafts. She also hired the best seamstresses to teach others who had heard of her organization and reached out for help securing employment.

In previous newsletters we have featured several of these original Sakhi Kunj members, such as Seema, Yogita, and Priya Di. They are Divineya’s talented powerhouses and have since expanded their repertoire to the recently announced backpacks, laptop bags and cosmetic kits. Now that we have been able to provide stable employment for these women, Meera is eagerly looking to expand our programs into rural villages.

While Wendy was in India this spring, one of our goals was to identify the kinds of skills and knowledge women from rural villages already possess in order to design programming which draws on pre-existing community assets. This is an essential aspect of sustainable development that often gets overlooked. For us, this means that we do not begin our efforts by simply applying our values and approaches. Instead, we try to get to know and befriend these women, understanding as much as we can about their lives and their goals for the future, and placing ourselves in their shoes to contextualize their gendered perspective. From there we assess the most effective ways to help them and their communities.

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Identifying Local Resources

For example, almost every rural village community we’ve spent time in is a farming village, with most livelihoods connected to agriculture. One idea proposed by Meera is for the women to grow a kind of squash that when dried is turned into a natural loofah. The participating women would be able to use the resources already around them (farmland, crops, agricultural tools, etc.), creating a spa product that would be sold either locally or through Divineya’s online store. 

Similarly, many women engage in textile crafting (Paaydan Rugs, as mentioned in a previous newsletter), so Meera is working with them to create some designs which could be refined into a more marketable product. Again, this utilizes the knowledge, skills, tools and resources these women already have access to.

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