Category Archives: Letters from the Learner

"Arlanza" in big bold letters.

UCOP Video In the Arlanza Garden

Check out a video by the UC Office of the President about CLP Executive Learner Samantha Wilson, Cheng Ung and the beginnings of Child Leader Project. Shot in the Arlanza Community Garden, Samantha speaks about privilege, power and accountability with international projects (which is highlighted in the previous blog post).

Samantha Wilson in the Arlanza Garden getting filmed for the UCOP video.

Here is the official summary on YouTube: “A medical evacuation from India due to malaria didn’t deter UC Riverside student Samantha Wilson from wanting to make a difference in the country. Upon returning home, the then-junior began working with schools in South India to develop a curriculum that would shift the focus from creating child laborers to creating child leaders. With the program now serving over 100 children in South India, Wilson has now brought the Child Leader Project home to Riverside, serving local youth through a community garden and an exchange program that brings the youngsters to India to connect with fellow participants.”

Shot of Indian flowers and mountains.

And Who Invited You?

Check out Executive Learner Samantha Wilson’s advice for students preparing for education abroad opportunities on the University of California Television Blog. You can see the original post on the UCTV blog at: And Who Invited You?: What Every Student Should Ask Before Traveling Abroad

Samantha Wilson sitting against a blue wall in India.

“I have a bone to pick with success stories: they focus too deeply on one person, neglecting the ecology of people and moments that craft change. Perhaps this blog can be one step towards addressing that.

The far more important and more amazing narrative for one to know (if you are to know anything about my experience in India) are the stories of the young adults in South India expanding the work of child and youth leadership with their own experience, leadership and vision– in India, right now. They formed a young adult-led organization as our Indian partner, the Trust for Youth and Child Leadership (TYCL). This is a team of all-volunteer young adult mentors and child/youth organizers addressing systemic justice issues in their local villages, orphanages and slums.

These young men and women have taught me the most important lesson about being a foreigner in India– to whom or what do you belong?  The most important thing a study abroad student can do is ask themselves the hard question about what it means to be alive and to be accountable in their host country. Who invited you to this country? What privilege do you carry? To whom or what are you accountable to? While abroad, who are you breaking bread with? In a riff on the words of Ivan Illich, eloquent and seething critic of the benign “well-intentioned” blindness of international volunteerism– “Is your life even alive enough to be shared?”

Study abroad can give us the blog-worthy illusion of “radical” transformation. But real transformation occurs when we think critically about who we belong to, who we are accountable to and how we choose to move in a world where being from North America (and having the privilege to travel abroad) means you have a lot of privilege with a lot to learn.

This privilege does not mean authority. This privilege means responsibility to be self-reflective, critical and make changes that are uncomfortable to your own way of life– not to export your way of life or assume your life to be “the right way.”

Again– is your life alive enough to be shared?

I am accountable to the incredible young adults in India who became my friends, brothers and sisters and who collaborated with me when CLP began and now lead the organization on their own. There are far too many to name here. To name only a small handful, I honor Arumugham, Amala, Shiva, Jugal, Basu, Karthik. I honor the first CLP child leaders who believed in the idea– Priya and Suhasini, Vimal and Arun… to name only some of the first twenty during that first trip to Tamil Nadu. I honor the people among them now and the people who will come after them. My gratitude and my devotion to them and the lessons they teach me –and hopefully teach you– about what accountability to a land and a people really mean.

Check out their most recent project, two short videos (with English subtitles) about the impacts of alcoholism and environmental injustice due to poor drainage in two of the villages where TYCL facilitates leadership with other child and youth leaders. You can also check out their website.

Listen more. Talk less. Wait for an invitation. Be accountable to your actions, beliefs and privilege.

I learned an important saying in Tamil on one of my most recent trips to visit TYCL– “poyttu varen.” It is said when someone is leaving. It means that “although I go, I will return– because our relationship is important to me.” Or, more sweetly, “Go… and come back.”

So, when you live a life abroad, should you choose to do so, live in such a way that your neighbors, fellow students and teachers, mentors, host families and community might say such a thing to you.”

CLP Hands

Sticking with Community

As a learner-leader in a transnational community organization led by youth and young adult volunteers, issues of accountability, power, miscommunication and conflict are inevitable and potentially damaging. While USA leaders inherit scripts that call upon them to be saviors, donors or service-providers of “Western development” and Indian leaders inherit the stories of colonialism, greed and Western wealth, the only possibility for collaboration on youth-led justice issues is the trust embodied in action that the people in the organizations are bound in common vision, self-reflection and uphold a commitment to the dynamic and difficult interests of all. To be transnational requires we reject the scripts we’ve inherited that call upon us to believe we only uphold the “interests of our own”” or that the only thing worth doing well is the thing we are (1) paid for or (2) graded on.

In this organization there are no grades and no payment. We work for no one. We self-organize. We have all chosen to be here. No youth or child is ever required to participate in CLP programs– this is probably one of our most important rules. It places the choice to engage and stay engaged firmly in the hands of the participant, a radical testimony to the belief in the basic power each of us poses to engage or disengage from the world around us. When it comes to organizational conflict or follow-through there is no one to tell us the way, make demands, police or dictate. To address conflict is a choice. To stay is a choice.

In 2012, a slowly developing conflict nearly cost us our partnership. Exchanges to both countries resulted in miscommunication, accusations of misrepresentation, anger about resource distribution and lingering fears of dissolving the partnership. Friendships between leaders that once gave the partnership its magic now caused its unraveling. None of us knew what to do next. How do you rebuild trust when you only see one another twice a year? How do you rebuild trust and commitment when all the models around you require someone to enforce the outcome, to win or lose? To police?

We all chose to take the risk. In the movie, “Best Most Exotic Magnolia Hotel,” the characters describe the way for British retirees to be in India: “India is like a wave. Resist it, and it will knock you over. Dive into it, and you’ll come out the other side.” Community, accountability and our life’s purpose is like this too. In our case, we purchased two plane tickets to India with our savings and spent two weeks together. The first week we spent with child leaders and the work we all felt called to do—the work that brought us together despite the scripts. The second we spent in dialogue. Who knows how many times we all wanted to walk away, bound in our own hurt and anger at one another and ourselves– I’m sure we each had many moments. However, our commitment was to the relationships we built, the vision we shared and the knowledge that we work together not because we have to, but because we want to, because we choose to.

If we can’t say “no” to each other and it be respected and upheld—our “yes” is meaningless. Our “yes” means something because our “no” means something.

We work and contribute and are accountable because we are choosing to be accountable to ours and each other’s gifts. We work together with intentionality, commitment to communication and accountability to gifts, sticking with it even when it is difficult and no one is holding it over our heads to do so.  Policing, dictating and grading is the old paradigm. We are creating a new one. In this one, we act, we give, we speak truth, we pay attention and we dive into the relationships around us and the unknown possibilities that come from vulnerable trust and commitment, knowing it is the only way to heal the world and to arrive on the other side.

– SLW – June 6, 2012 – Written for UULM’s Spiritual Activist Leadership Training (SALT),