by Randy Duque, Deputy Director – Community Relations Division
The following is part two of a four part series on my experience in India as a representative of the City and PCHR.
“We have to leave our sunglasses AND belts in the car, too?!”
Five days after arriving in India, my fellow travelers through the State Department and I were in a new city getting acquainted with the local and state-level politics and the Indian judicial system, thus security restrictions seemed to get more stringent with each visit. We were also getting to know each other better and the strengths and interests we each had to contribute towards a meaningful trip. Our group consisted of people in local government (including a city councilperson, a director for children’s programs, and me); state and federal government (an assistant director of legislative affairs, a former assistant to a governor, and a senior caseworker for a US Congressperson); and various non-profit areas (such as economic development, business and governance, domestic violence, and of course; our fellowship coordinator) and today; it was our political specialists who took the lead in helping us make sense of everything from how differing parties exist on the state level than national to the reason why we basically couldn’t have anything on us when we went into the legislative assembly (so we have nothing to throw at the legislators).
The highlight for an intensive day of law and politics, was being granted a special audience at the majestic red brick and terracotta courthouse with the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court, Indira Banerjee, who is only the second woman in India to hold this high level judicial position. She was very approachable, wise, and humble as she answered questions and spoke about her rise through the judicial system and role in breaking gender barriers in the justice system.
The next day, my interests piqued at a few meetings that brought up concepts that were directly related to the work we do back in Philly. At India’s first green campus, Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT) in Chennai, our hosts spoke of how they not only focus on applied learning in all their courses, but with each semester; students are required to take a soft skills course, that is, a course in interpersonal relations. Basically, we were told, that while it is important for students to be able to learn through application, it is also just as important for them to be able to work and communicate well with others if they are to be successful leaders and professionals in their respective industries.
In our final meeting of the day, we gathered in an upstairs space of a restaurant converted from a 1950s bungalow to meet with the Tamil Nadu Young Thinkers Forum (TNYTF) where we were not only given a lesson on the culture of Tamil people and state, but also how the group focuses on enhancing the quality of both public institutions and discourse and committing to direct grassroots intervention on areas that impact the socioeconomic profile of the state and its citizens through soft power. Soft power is a term coined in the 1980s and is more recognized in the international areas of politics, economics, and such. This concept at its core refers to the ability to influence others through attractive power rather than coercion. Hearing more about how the group uses the rich culture and history of the Tamil people to promote change and growth reminded me of one of the best ways I recommend to address a negative bias—to learn and expose one’s self to a culture different than one’s own particularly if a person is unfamiliar with the culture and has filled in their understandings through assumptions and stereotypes. By actually experiencing another culture [not just ethnic] and being open-minded—whether through books, videos, visits, or talking with people from a different culture—one’s biases can be influenced for the better which in turn makes one more empathetic and aware of their actions and behavior when interacting with another…and while I may not yet fully understand on a cultural level why people get so passionate at a legislative assembly that things are thrown; I can at least accept it as part of a societal norm that is different than my own….