Sushmi Majumder ’25 is envisioning new possibilities for community-based empowerment with solutions at the nexus of communication and global development. As a CALS Global Fellow, Sushmi implemented a storytelling initiative that empowered local women in political and civic engagement in Haryana, India. With a commitment to inclusive, culturally sensitive communication, she believes in an approach to development that not only values local voices, but encourages their leadership. Learn how Sushmi’s double major in Development Sociology and Communication is preparing her to advocate for human rights.
First things first, tell us what you’ve been up to in India.
This summer as a CALS Global Fellow, I’m an intern at the S M Sehgal Foundation, a non-profit located in Gurugram, Haryana, where I am designing and implementing an initiative founded on storytelling and narrative-based research. Working alongside my mentor Dr. Vikas Jha, the initiative aims to boost women’s empowerment in the spheres of political and civic engagement the Nuh district of Haryana.
My inspiration for the project came from Carolina Osorio Gil, a Ph.D. student in Development Studies, who did story circling work in Chiapas, Mexico for water conservation. I wanted to integrate something similar into the structure of self-help groups (SHGs) and women leadership schools (WLS) in the Nuh District of Haryana, India. Storytelling/story circling allows women to engage in a free, non-judgmental space where they are encouraged to share personal experience and memories. Narrative-based activities would hopefully make the women feel further supported by each other for when they eventually face the gram panchayat (a village-based governing institution consisting of predominantly men), to raise concerns about community issues such as broken roads, water inaccessibility, etc.
What is the main goal you hope to achieve in your research project?
Story circling aims to build and strengthen the pre-existing knowledge base of the village women. My long-term goal is for them to comfortably run this exercise in SHGs and Women Leadership Schools themselves without external facilitators involved, potentially using art, music, and dance to enrich the story circle aspect of their meetings.
Integrating local culture into this practice is a way to make it more sensitized, inclusive, and engaging overall. I believe that art forms transcend various boundaries, helping women of all ages, religious backgrounds, etc. to participate with equal opportunity and confidence in these groups.
Aside from directly supporting the women, I’m hoping that my research will aid the Foundation and other stakeholders with future initiatives. Oftentimes, accurately gauging and assessing the needs of women in vulnerable communities can be difficult. Only through story circling was I able to learn that some of the women wished for more cultural programs and employment opportunities for SHGs and WLS groups. This information could be crucial for policymakers and NGOs when curating new welfare opportunities. Similarly, certain topics may be hard or even painful to disclose when the women are directly asked. However, through a creative free flow of stories, stakeholders may receive insight on these sensitive issues that they wouldn't discern by asking normally.
I was so inspired by women when they would share comments such as: “Usually in our meetings we’re used to listening, but this is the first time we really got to speak and share our own lives,” or “You feel like a part of our family now.” This experience has taught me that there is no other learning experience that is comparable to engaging directly with communities. I’m so grateful to have learned from this resilient group of women.
What are you learning here that you know you could not learn in the classroom?
I feel as if I’m learning what empowerment truly is. Empowerment is not just some textbook definition that can be taught in a classroom. It’s something indescribable and inexplicable but clearly visible, especially through the way the eyes of these women light up when they talk about everything they have accomplished. From pushing for vaccine advocacy, spreading sanitation awareness, to encouraging education pursuit, and more, these women are remarkable. I can only hope to embody even a fraction of their strength and fortitude one day.
Additionally, I was completely blown away by how well-rounded the women in these villages truly are. For example, while it’s true that some basic resources still have limited accessibility, these communities have practiced sustainability longer and more efficiently than we could ever. These women are constantly grateful for everything they have and repurpose old materials into beautiful, new handicrafts. I honestly believe that I have to learn how to build my own self-confidence after seeing these communities interact and empower each other.
Photos from the field
You have a double major in Communication and Development Sociology. Where do you see the intersection of communication and development?
The overlap between the two disciplines is the main motivator behind wanting to implement story circling/storytelling structures in self-help groups and women leadership schools! My report will reference what I’ve learned from a course on Persuasion and Social Influence (COMM 2760) such as the Social Identity and Narrative Transportation theories. These concepts provide credibility and evidence for why story circling has potential to really benefit these women’s collectives.
My studies in communication also inform the way I interact with the groups. Using my hands to express my words when I speak or even mixing in casual topics alongside the harder ones help me connect with the women.
It warms my heart when the discussion ends with feeling so loved and accepted by the group of local women, despite the language barrier. That’s the magic of communication and development.
What are the big challenges that motivate you the most?
In general, I’m very interested in topics related to human rights. For example, I’ve been studying the issue of sex trafficking across India and potential solutions to the crisis, through several of my Global Development classes. One of the most intriguing solutions I learned about through my project in Gender and Development (GDEV 3230), was how building legal literacy and testimony skills for afflicted women can lead to more convicted sex traffickers and in turn, reduce the likelihood of vulnerable falling victim to the harmful industry again. Communication-related themes in global development studies spark my motivation the most.
I also enjoy learning about social challenges. In a high school research course, I really enjoyed examining the nuances of toxic masculinity, the dangers of microaggressions, and quality education access.
How do you feel this hands-on experience is preparing you to confront those issues?
Hands-on fieldwork like this internship reminds me of my privilege and keeps me grounded. Staying grateful is how I believe I can effectively engage in global problem solving.
Also, growing up as an Indian American has often made it difficult to “fit” in either side of my identity. I’ve visited India plenty of times to visit family. But only visiting Kolkata doesn’t encompass the rich and vibrant cultural diversity of the country. Immersing myself firsthand by connecting with locals, navigating the villages, etc., has really shown me the beauty in every corner. I think the open-mindedness I’m gaining from this experience will be pivotal as I navigate the rest of my academic journey and the workforce. There’s always going to be challenging environments but remaining adaptive and resilient will help me be successful and support my peers as well.
What is one lesson, piece of wisdom, cultural norm, etc. you learned in India that you know you’ll never forget?
The culture of dignity and strength here is truly admirable. No matter what one’s occupation is, or position in society, everyone I’ve met here is driven with such passion. The dance, the music, the handicrafts, the food, everything is created with such love. This vibrance is something I will never forget.
Is there anything else that you want to share?
Some of my favorite memories thus far include going for boba with my fellow intern friends, shopping at Dili Haat and the Central Cottage Emporium, and taking a boat ride to learn about the rich history of India at the Akshardham temple. Visiting the Taj Mahal in Agra was definitely a highlight!
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