Pushing the powerful into a moral corner at India’s Barefoot College

Women working in a solar engineering lab at Barefoot College. Photo by Miki Kashtan.

One of the challenges that nonviolent campaigns face is how to engage those in power. Whether it be the British officials, as in Gandhi’s case, or the 1 percent, as for the Occupy movement—seeing and appealing to the humanity of those whose actions we oppose is central to practicing nonviolence.

While I have known this for years, it wasn’t until a recent trip to India, where I visited an unusual school created for the poor called Barefoot College, that I learned in full just how far this principle goes and began to wonder how we might practice it in a place like North America.

Based in the rural desert area of Rajasthan, one of the poorest parts of India, Barefoot College aims “to work with marginalized, exploited and impoverished rural poor, living on less than $1 a day, and lift them over the poverty line with dignity and self respect.” The bulk of what Barefoot College does is direct empowerment of communities through training these poor, rural people in critical skills that contribute immeasurably to their lives and reduce the massive conversion of self-reliant rural people into unskilled urban laborers. Barefoot College has a collection of programs and projects that include training in solar engineering; running night schools staffed by “barefoot teachers” for poor children who need to support their families during the day; making medical lab services available at a fraction of the cost of anywhere else; and perhaps a dozen others. Rural communities evaluate the relevance and applicability of projects to their specific conditions, participate in design, provide labor and skills, and form community management teams for all projects.

Women constructing parabolic solar cookers. Photo by Miki Kashtan.

As people become empowered, many learn about their legal rights. They are supported and encouraged by Barefoot College staff or alumni to persuade the government, as individuals or as groups, to ensure that laws are actually applied. The results are at times astounding, from installing new water pumps in poor villages to changing how minimum wage laws are applied. And even while Barefoot activists putting enormous pressure on the local and sometimes the national government to uphold laws, the state of Rajasthan provides a significant portion of the college’s budget.

The similarity with Gandhi’s commitment to and remarkable success at maintaining good relationships with the British despite vehement opposition to their practices and even to the Raj itself became immediately apparent.

Gandhi often spoke of the significance of the intimate knowledge of British culture he acquired while living in London. Knowing the British meant, in part, understanding their values and modes of operating. This made the appeal to their humanity much more tangible. Not knowing the British culture as well as Gandhi did, I can only guess what those were: a gentlemanly attitude, being civilized and reasonable, being seen as decent. By both being treated with dignity and being recognized as caring about dignity, the British were pushed into a moral corner in relation to their own values and invited into living in integrity with such values.

Barefoot College’s struggles also call upon a government’s moral legitimacy—in its own eyes as well as the citizens’—especially its claims to beneficence and to supporting the rule of law. As I understand it, India has many laws on its books that, if enforced, would create immense benefit for ordinary people. In a manner similar to Gandhi’s approach with the British, Barefoot College inspires and supports people to push the government or its agents into a moral corner in relation to practicing their own laws.

How might this approach be applied to current conditions in North America? We live in a place where the laws don’t seem to be serving the people, and where a professed commitment to support poor and marginalized people paints us in suspect political colors. We cannot create a moral corner for those in power by appealing to the values of care, generosity or interdependence, since these are not among their primary professed values. The entire practice relies on the fundamental assumption that everyone would want to act in integrity with their own professed values.

What are the values that are deeply rooted in U.S. culture that would be recognized as such by the so-called 1 percent? If we only see those in power through the lens of greed and desire for control, we lose our ability to have power with them to create change, and we fall back into the win-lose, either-or paradigm. When we call powerful people to their own deep values, however, we offer them a gift in return for their giving up significant elements of their power: the gift of their own full humanity in the form of their own ethical and spiritual consistency.

In attempting to create a moral corner for the 1 percent, I feel compelled to understand, deeply, their full humanity. What are the values that are core to their way of being in the world, values that they could be called on in order to act according to their own sense of integrity? The candidates which come to my mind immediately are independence, the freedom to act, self-responsibility and fairness. What other values can be added to this list? I’d like to believe that our movements for change could become that much more powerful if we strategize together about how to mobilize our resources to create a moral corner for the U.S. power elites around precisely those kinds of values.

Barefoot College has created a modern version of Gandhi’s spinning wheel, empowering village economies by training women (and some men) to be solar engineers who then built and installed solar units in 10,000 households in 574 villages. It has also updated Gandhi’s policies towards the British Raj by holding Indian governments to their own stated purposes. If we look to their example, we may learn how to adapt and translate Gandhi’s principles and practices to our own very different conditions.

For one thing, we can learn to use the moral language shared by the people in power, not just that of our own constituencies. Then, when we engage in nonviolent resistance campaigns, we can be in dialogue with the people in power about what practices, institutions, social structures and overall social arrangements can truly align with their core values as well as ours—for everyone’s benefit.

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