Together, We Can

By Christopher E. Lowman

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After about a 9-month hiatus, I am happy to announce that a new iteration of the Girls Circle learning journey will be getting underway early in July. We are happy to welcome a new facilitator, Neida Khurshid, who joins long-time facilitator, Aruna Chauhan, in leading this year’s circle of 20 young girls and women from the Gandhi Seva Sangh in Ahmedabad, India.

What is Girls Circle?

What started as an experiment in 2013, Girls Circle has become an annual learning journey offered to girls and young women, ages 15-18, growing up in an impoverished slum-area community in west India—a community that also happens to give shelter to a number of leprosy patients.

Girls Circle formed around a pioneering group of young women determined to pursue their education, who all — courageously — stepped up to challenge the prescribed life of early marriage given to girls growing up in the country. Over the years, as new members joined and our understanding of how best to serve them improved, Girls Circle has evolved into an open, values-based support group that helps each member develop in the way most needed (e.g., confidence, maturity, wholesome habits, etc.) at the time, which may or may not include future dreams.

We have seen Girls Circle participants successfully enroll in college, pursue Master’s degrees, and even find meaningful employment with well-respected organizations. In several cases, participation has helped break the inter-generational cycle of poverty, partially stemming from the complex issues connected with the leprosy disease stigma that the Gandhi Seva Sangh has grappled with for decades. (Note: none of our girls has leprosy but all have family members with it.) Again and again, through participation in the circle, we see lives changed for the better, profound growth in maturity and confidence, as well as the adoption of values that help uplift the family, community, and society at large.

Creating space, creates organic outcomes.

There is no formal curriculum for Girls Circle. There is nothing we are specifically trying to achieve.

Above all else, Girls Circle is an intention. For the facilitators, an intention to serve and share personal inspiration and understanding just because—that is, for the sheer joy of it. For the participants, it is an intention to learn, expand horizons, and improve one’s overall welfare.

A Girls Circle session.

A Girls Circle session.

Both “sides” join to create a circle that formally meets once in a week but, really, ends up creating an ongoing, journey-like experience for all, where there is little difference between the in and out-of-classroom experience. In fact, there really are no boundaries in Girls Circle—the teachers are the students and the students are the teachers. Each frequently exchange roles in an ever-widening circle of togetherness.

This inclusive dynamic gives space for a warmer, more intimate style of sharing and learning to naturally emerge. We have found that the approach creates far more impactful, organic, and sustainable outcomes — mostly in the form of mini moments of realization — than any we would specifically want to encourage (such as x percentage successfully enrolling in college, getting good grades, augmenting outdated social norms, etc.).

Softer than a flower, stronger than thunder.

Where kindness is concerned, softer than a flower. Where values are concerned, stronger than thunder. This vedic understanding is our North Star. Though Girls Circle embraces a hands off, “do nothing” approach to service and learning, we uphold — strictly — a number of values.

Not to be punishing taskmasters but because the quality of your values is inextricably connected to the quality of your fate (since they inform your character, and so your choices, behavior, and habits). For example: punctuality. All of the participants are expected to come to the weekly session 10-15 minutes early. To help setup the room for one thing but, also, to develop respect for the value being offered, the investment of the volunteer teachers, as well as the time investment of everybody else. With punctuality, comes reliability, a central component of meaningful employment and success in life.

We focus, in particular, on timeless and universal values that beget virtuous cycles of change. For example: education, which we define broadly as the process of answering questions—or, the “space” between where you are now and where you want to be in the future.

Education is presented as the most important tool to improve one’s welfare and fate since poverty, in essence, is simply an inability to see an answer. With questions asked and answered through education, the knowledge gained creates an increased availability of choice. The simple truth is that a rag picker or any casual laborer surviving on less than $1/day, would not bear such a difficult standard of living if he or she knew how to earn in a more dignified way.

Mindfulness activities in Girls Circle.

Mindfulness activities in Girls Circle.

Each Girls Circle session begins and ends with a few minutes of silence, recitation of a sarve darhma (all religions) prayer, followed by a free-flowing “circle of sharing” that gives the opportunity for each member present — guests and drop-ins included — to honestly share something happening at home, in school, or anything that is ringing true in the moment. These sharing sessions tend to be one of, if not the greatest catalyzers of change since they invite healthy emotional comfort-zone stretching and subsequent gains in confidence and maturity.

For the remainder of the session, an inwardly-informed topic is presented with a supportive hands-on activity. Time is given for light physical exercise, games, dancing, and a few times per season, the girls head out of the community for a fun field trip.

For many of the participants, Girls Circle is the only opportunity to fully be themselves in a safe and non-judgmental space that has their best interest at heart. It is this space and the intention that binds it together that accomplishes everything.

What’s new for the ‘19-’20 season?

This year’s season will revolve around a simple sentence in Hindi, sathe mein hum kar sakte hai (साथ में हम कर सकते है) Or, together we can. Besides the alive and charged environment that’s created, the tight group bonding that occurs in Girls Circle is responsible for the majority of the changes we see.

This year, we are making that spirit of togetherness the main focus of the circle. How, exactly, this shows up in the weekly sessions and topics, as usual, will be a surprise and organically decided by the facilitators according to their own inspiration in the days, hours, and minutes leading up to class sessions.

Though I do not have their names and/or photos yet, I have been told that we will be welcoming a handful of new participants. Each year, new faces always show up because the younger generations growing up in the community learn about Girls Circle and see the girls in it enjoying themselves, passing the national exams, and enrolling in college. In other words, where it was once controversial, Girls Circle has become aspirational and helped reroute the typical trajectory of the average girl growing up in the community (namely, marriage as young as 18 years of age followed by life as a householder with little-to-no sense of independence).

Neida with Girls Circle members.

Neida with Girls Circle members.

We also welcome Neida Khurshid, who has generously volunteered to co-facilitate this year’s circle along with Aruna. Neida brings a big love of education, kids, and a bright sense of possibility with her and will no doubt serve as an exceptional role model to the girls. With her background in architecture and skill as an artist, Neida plans to introduce mindful art exercises into the circle—a welcome addition, as this is an avenue we have not explored in the past.
Welcome Neida!

Budget and Donate

$700 is all that’s required to fund the 8-month long Girls Circle journey. This amount will cover Aruna’s salary, transportation costs, art supplies, as well as snacks. You can view our budget online here.

We rely on the generosity of others to make Girls Circle possible. We see our supporters as invisible members of the circle whose kindness subtly flows into the center of it, creating a difficult-to-delineate exchange of giving and receiving.

If you would like to be a part of this journey and have no other way to do so, kindly consider offering a donation of any size (even $1) by clicking on the donate button below.

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