Sometimes, when everything seems complicated, what’s most needed is one place of hope.
In the city of Coimbatore, in the state of Tamil Nadu in southeastern India, one such place is Shanti Ashram — a community development organization established in 1986, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s vision for an equitable and peaceful society. There, a multifaith community attempts to build relationships, to empower the vulnerable and to live out the idea of Sarvodaya — as Gandhi put it, “universal uplift” or “progress for all.”
This is a place where sustainability and welcome matter; where the staff is intentionally religiously diverse (one-third Hindu, one-third Muslim, one-third Christian); where students are taught to be leaders and women with limited education learn vocational skills to help them feed their families. The philosophy: “Let the well-being be shared by all.”
The approach is systemic: in 2013, the ashram served nearly 250,000 people in 106 villages, working in partnership with institutions and individuals from across India and from 19 countries. In working with children, the approach is comprehensive — from direct aid to family empowerment to public policy advocacy.
The Bala Shanti Fund for Child Development provides scholarships for more than 1,500 village children, of which more than half are girls. The Bala Shanti program operates 11 preschools. Young people are taught to be leaders; to develop entrepreneurial skills (they bring the ideas, and the ashram provides logistical and financial support); to help others through community service; and to develop an ethos of caring for the least.
Dr. Kezevino Aram, a Hindu and a Harvard-educated pediatrician, joyful, whip-smart and direct, directs the ashram. She was influenced by her parents and grandparents — including her grandmother, who introduced her to another child one day by saying: “There is god within you and there is god within her” — divinity in all humanity. Among the points she makes:
Advocacy matters. Aram is quick to point out to American visitors that the U.S. is one of only a few nations that has not signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. “If fundamental rights of children aren’t protected, they won’t have a start,” she said — and won’t have the training they need to work for peace and justice themselves.
The caste system has left a legacy. For centuries, Harijans — Aram uses Gandhi’s word, meaning “Children of God” for the disenfranchised outside the caste system — were segregated, discriminated against, treated inhumanely, she said. “Seventy or 80 years is not enough to erase all that history. You see it in the United States,” in continuing tension over race relations.
The ashram also works with 50 to 60 academic institutions, because “this is where the formation of professionals happen” — professionals who themselves can become advocates for those in need.
Empower the vulnerable. While the role of women in Indian society is changing, still some drop out after primary school and marry before they are 18, Aram said. The ashram works to help women with limited education develop job skills, teaching them to become tailors, beauticians, to work with computers, to make and sell food products such as pickles, jam or juice. They’re also taught life skills such as time management, financial management, accounting and entrepreneurial skills.
With training, the women form self-help groups — setting up small businesses, such as a beauty parlor or sewing cooperative, with the ashram providing loans.
Integrated approach. The ashram thinks systemically — and looks for ways for empower those it assists to become part of the solution themselves. For example, the rural poor are entitled to a fixed amount of food — but not enough to last the month, and people often find the prices charged at the markets to be too high. Shanti Ashram trains people in kitchen or backyard gardening, providing seeds so they can grown vegetables to feed their own families and perhaps sell at low cost to others. Food security is a priority for families — along with immunization, HIV education and better sanitation.
Environmental consciousness. The ashram tries to educate people about environmental degradation and alternative energy sources, asking them to consider their own personal responsibility for the damage and to ask “How can I make a small change?” to reduce carbon usage, said S. R. Subramanian, part of the ashram’s senior management team. Some examples: Switch off lights when leaving a room; Walk instead of driving; Unplug the television when not in use. “All these have to come from the grassroots level,” he said. “It cannot be imposed from the top.”
Relationships and trust. “We are not shy about saying our spiritual motivation is key to what we do,” Aram said. “There is no reason why we need to divorce faith from the way we work,” or to let those “on the fringes” define religious values.
That understanding is accepted in part because the ashram has intentionally built respectful multifaith relationships — creating trust, so that even conservative Muslim women come for vocational training. “The nature of ethics education for us is for children to learn to live together,” Aram said. “The value stressed is ‘what is the common good?’”