Passage to Tamil Nadu: Two Social Work Students Witness a Self-Help Model of Community Development

Golda and Kim in Tamil Nadu, India

Under the auspices of the Srinivasan Services Trust (SST), two students—Golda Calonge and Kimberly Nasatir—journeyed to Tamil Nadu, India, for eight weeks last summer to observe SST's community development initiatives in action. Their home for the period was an apartment in the village complex of Padaverdu.

SST, which is a philanthropic arm of the TVS Group, works in more than a thousand tribal villages—within not only Tamil Nadu but also Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh and Maharashtra.

Venu Srinivasan, Managing Trustee of SST, says that its development model is about partnership among the stakeholders—the villagers, the police, members of the forest department—and not philanthropy:

“It is not our intent to act as crusaders, but work around a system. The idea is to be part of the society, live there and create a transformation from within.”

The SST employees (150+) live and work in the villages, focusing on economic development, health, education, infrastructure and the environment. Known as Community Development Officers (CDOs) or animators, rather than as social workers, they wear multiple hats—direct service provider, case manager, project manager, and advocate—often within a single day. One of their chief functions is to encourage the creation of self-help groups (SHGs) within the local communities. SHGs empower women, a step that is thought to be key in getting the community to take ownership of the development process.

As recorded on their joint blog, the CUSSW students plunged right into the challenges confronting the SST animators. They visited schools, health facilities (including anemia camps) and religious centers and also talked with leading members of self-help groups.

In just eight weeks, the students managed to dip into the culture—enjoying cups of chai and some chapati with SST staff, burning their feet in the sand on the way to the main Hindu temple, and even donning special saris and bangles, along with flowers in their hair, to attend the wedding of the sister of one of the CDOs.

As their blog entries attest, the two-month immersion in the Tamil Nadu way of life was intense, and took some time to process. Kim, for instance, wondered if any of the SST animators knew about the need for self-care. Not only do they work long hours six days a week, she wrote, but they also live within the communities they serve so are constantly on call.

Golda, while agreeing with Kim on the point about self-care, was also intrigued by the situation in which a social worker lives within the community she serves. Unlike the American conception of a social work-client relationship, animators do not have a power imbalance with their clients. As she wrote in one of her blog posts:

Rather than being regarded as social workers who have clients and a concrete caseload, an animator’s role is that of an individual who fulfills responsibilities to their community.

A highlight for Golda occurred when she organized a training session for villagers on how to make moringa powder to enhance nutrition and fend off anemia (something she'd learned during her Peace Corps training in West Africa). She teamed up with a knowledgeable CDO named Baskar—which in itself was a fulfilling experience. "In working with a counterpart, I realize that I am more of a catalyst rather than a vehicle for change," she blogged.

Kim for her part agreed that the biggest challenge confronting an international social worker is to ensure that any solutions one comes up with will carry weight with the local community. "Capacity building only works when a community’s needs are in alignment with the social change agent’s goals," she wrote, adding that although she believes in the power of health care and education to assist the Tamil Nadu community with its problems, "the obstacle is distinguishing if this is also the community’s objective."

This is the second year of the CUSSW-SST collaboration. The first occurred in summer 2011.

—ML Awanohara

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Images: TOP: Kim (left) and Golda in in Mamallapuram (a 7th-century shrine) on their way to the SST wedding. BOTTOM: Screenshot from Golda Calonge's video.