Last August, Fairfield native Katie Temes moved to India, selected as one of 11 recent Jewish college graduates and young professionals to serve as World Partners Fellows, a program of American Jewish World Service (AJWS).
The Fellows volunteer for 10 months with AJWS grantees and other grassroots NGOs that work to promote international development and human rights. Volunteers are involved in projects that address issues such as sustainable livelihoods, health, education, civil participation, and community involvement in disasters and emergencies.
The fellowship integrates volunteer work with Jewish study and skills-building. Fellows convene periodically to learn about global justice and international development, study Jewish texts and traditions that inspire their work, and engage in personal reflection and skills-building workshops with their peers.
“I have always found comfort in the closeness of the Jewish community,” says Temes, who participated in Jewish youth groups throughout high school and attended the after-school program, Merkaz, the Community High School for Judaic Studies.
Temes first traveled to India after graduating high school. While at Skidmore College, she studied international affairs and spent her junior year abroad with the “Rethinking Globalization” program. The group traveled and studied in Tanzania, India, New Zealand, and Mexico, learning about the process of globalization and its effects on local cultures. “A strong focus of the program was learning about international development and cultural exchange, and putting into context my own role in the world,” Temes says. “Throughout the year, I was constantly asking myself, ‘How can I use my own background and the privilege I’ve been given in this life to help improve social and economic conditions in other parts of the world?’”
“The more I learned about international development, aid that is often misplaced, and how the good intentions of many tend to ignore the real lives and cultures of people on the ground, the more complicated my questions became,” she says. “And as I approached graduation, I was seeking a kind of experience that would help me to further contextualize these questions and hopefully some day lead me to some answers. The World Partners Fellowship felt like the right next step to take. I feel that engaging my Jewish background really adds spiritual meaning to this question, something I’ve always recognized, but have never applied to such work or discourse.”
Temes graduated from Skidmore last May and applied for the fellowship.
She is now volunteering with Kutch Nav Nirman Abhiyan Abhiyan, a grassroots NGO based in Gujarat, India, and lives in the nearby city of Bhuj with three other Fellows. Abhiyan focuses on strengthening Gram Panchayats, village-level self-governing bodies, in the more rural areas of the Kutch district. Through supporting elected members and disseminating knowledge and information about access to rights and services, Abhiyan helps these communities carry out the development of rural areas and preservation of traditional livelihoods, Temes says. In her work, she assists the administrative and in-field staff by providing documentation support, and in generating and carrying out new ideas. She is currently working with a team in one of the more rural areas to develop a health-service station that will eventually come under the ownership of a committee made up of elected women representatives.
“I work in the office or field six days a week, but get to spend my free time living the local life,” Temes says. “I spend time watching my neighbor cook up delicious Indian meals, frequent the vegetable market, and spend a fair amount of time reading, walking, and writing. Through this experience, I no longer have a traveler’s perspective – but I really live here, experiencing all the difficulties and moments of joy.
“What I have come to appreciate most about Abhiyan is its encouragement of the people it works with to really address social problems themselves, so that they remain self-reliant and so that development is sustainable and meaningful, she says. “I am learning a great deal about how local non-governmental organizations function here in India, their relationship with marginalized communities, and their role in the larger framework of development. And perhaps more importantly, I have the amazing opportunity to live, for a relatively long amount of time, in a small Indian city where I’ve integrated into the culture, community, and lifestyle. Becoming a part of the neighborhood, of people’s families and daily lives, and the network of NGOs that exists in Bhuj has allowed me to learn tremendously from others who are from a background so different from my own.”
Temes says that her experience in India is inspiring her future work plans. Her ideas are informed by her desire to serve.
“One of the greatest recognitions I have made here is that to make more of a difference and to be directly involved in more field-work, I need to develop more skills, or training in a certain field,” she says. “While my writing about Abhiyan’s work has been important to its administrative team, I often wish I had particular skills that I could apply here. I have given great thought to returning to graduate school and focusing my studies more narrowly – perhaps on public health care. I feel that because I have the ability to learn and study more, that in some ways, I have an obligation to do so, so that I may be of greater use to others.”
Learn more about Katie Temes’s work in India here: www.katielivesindia.blogspot.com
Learn more about American Jewish World Service here: www.awjs.org.