By Lucy Patterson
This is my personal journey and reflection from a transformational week spent at Asia Plateau marking the 10-year anniversary of School for Changemakers.
I am Lucy, Communications Officer at IofC UK. I stumbled upon Initiatives of Change a year ago having had some time off from working in the third sector to have my two children. In that time my youngest son was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. Stanley was diagnosed with Kawasaki Disease, unfortunately his condition was misdiagnosed and the permanent damage to his heart had already been done. Our world changed completely and weekly hospital visits, daily injections, constant worry and fear we would lose our child dominated our lives.
It took time to adapt to our new reality but we moved forward with hope in our hearts and I was ready to come back to work, but not as the person I was before. I had lots of questions around purpose, belonging and my beliefs. Questions that engulfed my mind daily (and still do). It makes me smile that I now work for an organisation that embodies an ethos of changing the world by first changing oneself, of inner questioning, listening, reflection, quiet time and spirituality.
School for Changemakers doesn’t just discuss the big external questions we are faced with today; what makes it truly unique is its focus on the internal questions. Questions on personal values, our own vulnerabilities, faith and life’s purpose.
The opportunity to visit arguably the most spiritual country in the world at this time in my life made me feel that a bigger force was at play. The experience proved to be truly a once in a lifetime experience that I am grateful I did not pass up.
Asia Plateau is a remarkable oasis of peace and tranquillity high up in the mountains and once I had got over the ahem rather ‘hairy’ five-hour drive from Mumbai, I came to realise very quickly what a special place it is. The six days that I spent at Asia Plateau were filled with workshops, awe-inspiring conversations and talks that brought about important discussion on issues we are facing today.
Issues such as overcoming hate, the rise of nationalism, the role of integrity, faith, courage and statesmanship in leadership. During the time of our trip violent protests were happening across India. This was on the mind and in the hearts of every person at Asia Plateau. Difficult and painful conversations took place about what we do to tackle such violence and hate not just in India but the world over.
I sat reflecting on the conversations that were taking place. The UK is seeing a significant rise in populism that I have only really become privy to since my time at IofC. I ask myself what can I do to help stop these extreme views and the answer regardless of country is always the same…… we must continue to speak out against hate and provide a counter narrative like so many of the young voices that were being heard at this conference.
Amidst these hard topics, lightness was found. A moving evening was spent listening to a compilation of some of the Hindu, Christian and Muslim devotionals (Bhajanavali) which were daily recited at Mahatma Gandhi’s ashrams. I have always enjoyed watching the reactions of other people and as I scanned the room, many people had tears in their eyes and I knew I was part of something very special.
It is hard to convey in so few words the experience of six full days of immense learning and soul searching but it was the conversations I had with individuals that I cherish most from the experience. One was an interview with Pooja Bhale. Pooja started Protecterra Ecological Foundation that aims to create awareness, education and outreach on living an eco-friendly and sustainable life. She lives in a tent with 40 different animals at any given time on a self-sustaining farm on the outskirts of Pune. She gave up a ‘conventional life’ to disconnect from the normal in order to return to nature and avoid being ‘trapped in concrete’.
Pooja was one of many inspiring people I was fortunate to meet and engage with but I was drawn into her story-telling and was full of admiration for her ability to swim against the current to make a positive impact on the world. I will be writing her story in full, so watch this space.
Seeing first-hand the power of quiet time in a community was another experience that I will forever hold in my heart. The participants of the conference visited Zarewadi, a village an hour away from Asia Plateau. This community is supported by Grampari, an NGO that applies the philosophy of Initiatives of Change to rural development in villages across Maharashtra. As you arrive in the village you notice how clean and tidy it is, no plastic or rubbish on the side of the roads or open drains, but carefully considered and recently swept paths and all drains covered. We were welcomed into the village with loving kindness as we listened to inspiring stories of personal change. Quiet time and daily reflection allowed the people of Zarewadi to contemplate better ways of living and working together. It is the reason their village is now so clean, the reason they have banned plastic and the reason behind why women can now be represented in local government. These are huge milestones and it made me realise that quiet time is not an insular thing, rather, quite time impacts the environment, relationships and communities.
Rajmohan Gandhi bought hope and light to us all during a special evening; ‘In Conversation with Rajmohan’ – he answered questions from the floor with profound grace. Questions that asked for personal guidance, questions on faith and leadership, on how an individual or a community can make change in the world. Questions on youth and on learning from our mistakes. On this he said, ‘If mistakes are made very sincerely then they are not mistakes, they become very useful lessons.’
It was IofC UK Trustee, Lusa Nsenga Ngoy’s question and Rajmohan’s response that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about.
After quoting St. Oscar Romero, ‘There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried’, Lusa asked: ‘I wonder what advice you would give to those of us whose eyes are still filled with tears and haven’t yet dried as we face a future that doesn’t seem hopeful?’
Rajmohan responded: ‘Their tears are a mighty force. I would attempt to believe that even the painful bitter tears are a preparation for the great role they are meant to play.’
I couldn’t help but think of my own tears and how his answer to this beautifully worded question filled me with peace. Rahjmohan’s compassion and belief in human kindness, particularly during times of such uncertainty, was comforting to everyone in the room.
To have a space brimming with people, changemakers who are actively making the world a better, a fairer, a more tolerant place; my hope for humankind reached astronomical levels and any fears I have for the future dissolved in this magical place and amongst these people that I had the privilege to meet and talk to.
I need to finish by mentioning the food and hospitality at Asia Plateau…… what an abundance of the most delicious, and lovingly prepared food. Every day was a treat and I felt humbled by the amount of care and effort that went into each meal. It is clear why the food tastes so good, love and friendship goes into it. As you pass the kitchen in the morning you will hear singing and laughing from the cooks. In the evening you will see dancing as dishes are being washed. You take a moment to look up from your meal and you see and hear conversations being had in every direction – this is what makes this place and why School for Changemakers is remarkable.
As we left and drove away from Asia Plateau my mind wandered. I looked out across the landscape as I reflected on how moved I had felt over the past six days. School for Changemakers, Asia Plateau, took everyone who was there on a journey. It was a life-changing experience for everyone. New relationships were made, old friendships affirmed and new skills learned.
I fell in love with India but Asia Plateau has my heart. Thank you. Lucy
School for Changemakers is IofC UK’s flagship youth leadership programme. To find out more please visit the webpage.