Ihave always loved being with people. As a 12-year-old, I enjoyed creating a Janmashatami temple outside my house. I would get together with friends to collect money and set it up. I was active in environmental groups in college, and we also did some work to mobilise our fellow students to work towards drought relief work. I was also the president of the students’ body in FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) when I was studying there. While organising a strike there, initially there had been fear of punishment, but coming together gave us immense power and things changed.
There have been many moments when I have joined and lived in community spirit with groups, and I have realised that there is some unknown energy and power that comes when we work collaboratively, and the impact is more than the sum of the parts. Since I’ve also always questioned things around me and enjoy when things change to enrich people’s lives, I gravitate towards doing social transformation change work, either individually or with community.
The energy of collaboration
I experienced that sometimes things worked and there was synergy, while at other times things didn’t work out, when I worked in groups and communities. Sometimes it was so bad that after organising a programme or gathering in one of the community or an event in a community, either I didn’t want to see the face of some people or some of them didn’t want to work with me anymore. I would be surprised that how sometimes even when working with ‘nice’ people, or with whom I saw alignment in our politics, we ended up miles apart during and after working together. I assumed it as a problem of the people and blamed them, and did not look at the system or the context in which we were working. It was much later that I realised that systems are designed and not given, and sometimes, a given system or design may not serve our purpose, and we may need to shine the light on the structures and systems if we want fundamental changes in our lives.
For example, I had volunteered for two years in Pune to make and lead an organic kitchen for a 100 students at the FTII around seven years ago, and by the end, some people were unhappy and angry with how I was managing it, while some loved the food. There were a lot of aggressive arguments to make me leave the kitchen, and it made me question as to why things were not working? It was a painful experience, almost as if I was thrown out of a community.
After this incident and many such before, I was dejected and wanted to almost stay away from community work, and that’s when Nonviolent Communication (NVC) came my way. That’s when I looked at my experience of the mess differently. I saw that even those about whom I held enemy images from that time, had needs, and that they had good enough reasons to be put off with me and my ideas and project. I also had some guilt from the way I had chosen to end my marriage and the way I blamed myself for the pain my ex-partner went through. One of my first NVC guides, Farrah, made me see my guilt differently. She made me understand that I was just looking at my unmet need for my care for my ex-partner, and wasn’t able to look at the needs I had met by my choice of breaking up. When I connected with my own needs, there was more compassion within myself along with sadness and mourning for my partner. I understood that I could hold celebration for the met need and mourning for the unmet need at the same time. It did not have to be this or that, one person right or wrong, but a complex situation can have both celebration and pain. This gave me lot of lightness and understanding.
The genesis of AhimsaGram
These learnings inspired me to dive deeply into NVC. I learnt about interpersonal relationships, how to have difficult conversations with people, how to mediate with two or more people and engage with other ways of conflict resolution. I soon jumped into sharing and have have been doing so for the last five years. While working on organising NVC events, I came across another amazing process – Sociocracy, which was about bringing these values of transparency, equivalance and efficiency in an organisation or a group working together. This process also allowed each person to be able to contribute and have agency to impact the decisions of the community, while staying in alignment with the shared vision, mission and aim of the group.
When I experienced its power, it reassured me that we can work together; it’s not that people are bad, but we have some practices, which come in the way of our understanding and contributing collectively. I searched for people who could teach me in India, and since I didn’t manage to find any, invited James Priest to organise his workshop in India, and for the first time learnt it systematically. After a year, seeing that John Buck, who had done pioneering work in Sociocracy, was coming to India, I approached him and offered to organise workshops on Sociocracy for our community, and he agreed. We did four workshops with him and it gave me a deeper understanding of Sociocracy and created more and more appetite to learn and practice it deeply.
I had heard and dreamt of collaboration, but never experienced a genuine one. There was no one in India that I knew of, who was doing it, and my growing hunger for practicing it made me look at the possibility of creating a space where we can live and learn Sociocracy, actually do it hands on. I thought let’s see if there are others who are excited, and create a community with them. Besides, I had been moving around for the last 12 years with my bag, picking up skills around sustainable living and community action for social change. My circles had grown and there were people wanting me to be present in different places to offer trainings and do mediations and support them in consent-based organising. I realised that I could not be in all the places. Thus, I decided to be in one place and invite other like-minded people to make a community to live, learn and share NVC, consent-based organisation process, and conflict transformation system.
I decided to make my base in Jaipur, my home town, more so because there had been different circles that I had been a part of when I was growing up or visiting, and I had seen a sense of care with these groups and individuals, that made me feel safe. I had some savings and decided to take a place on rent and invite those who were on the same search. NVC and Sociocracy became our aims. Some came because they wanted to learn NVC or Sociocracy, some came to experience community living, some were interested in food, and one by one in three months we are now a community of 11 people, and amongst us is a family with a nine-year-old son. I believe that we are growing fast, as well as we are growing robustly.
I would say AhimsaGram is a living laboratory. We are seeing if we can create spaces where there is equivalence and each voice matters. Some things are working and we still have some challenges, but we are willing to walk this path and see what it leads to. Maybe we can one day tell the world that it’s possible to live collaboratively, have collective ownership and move on to achieve common vision and aims.
Since it’s a place to live Sociocracy, it is organised sociocratically, where we have collective ownership of decision-making as we work with consent. From deciding about the daily menu to the decisions around financial remuneration, it’s all done by consent in our respective groups or circles, and within that process each member of the circle has the time to speak, listen, contribute, object, modify the proposal and consent.
I am sometimes amazed at the amount of effort the team members are putting in to run our space and our projects. More so, I see a sense of ownership in all of them, and even though I am the initiator, if I don’t keep up with our agreements of the processes, others point it out to me. I have seen the community growing and accessing more and more inner resources to make our offerings to the world more diverse, deep and rich. In other words we are a fast growing community and that too with a very robust growth, it’s not just a crowd who just votes, but a group of committed people who have gathered on a shared vision and are willing to take initiative. I now see that the group is much more than my initiative or for that matter more than any of us, yet we are all contributing to make it happen. I can see that it takes a whole group to create a community or for that matter a business too. I am surprised that in the business models that we have, the credit is mostly taken by the bosses or owners. I began as the initiator and now as an active steward, see that it’s a result of collective effort, and I fully see that this community is owned by everyone because what we have created has each person’s head, heart and action in making it. I am surprised that our society has a blind spot by not acknowledging the credit and ownership to all those who make it, and that can create unmotivated people who just learn to obey orders and stop putting in their creative best.
The way I see the spirit of leadership growing in the people at AhimsaGram, I would say we are a leadership institute in disguise. I am seeing people who didn’t earlier speak, are now willing to say no, and that too with care. We have leadership in Sociocracy, but it works in the framework decided by the group with each person’s consent. The group not just votes, but participates in policy making which the leader can execute with the support of the team. This structure is allowing many of them to exercise leadership and their creativity flows in designing the policy along with the team and executing it.
I also believe that when we create a community we can hold the vision sacred, but allow the form to emerge. Each day we are modifying what we are doing and what we want to do and creating a new community. We began with NVC and Sociocracy, while now wellness is also coming on top of our list.
We could one day invite other people to make offerings or workshops here and serve the community through that. I am open to it becoming a wellness centre, while working on consent-based governance and with NVC consciousness and practices.
This idea of emergence increases your trust in what it is and what could come in the future. It makes you free to further experiment. Combined with a team which is inspired, our journey is going to be very fast and deep. I already see that so many who come to us for a few days want to join us for long. I see so much hunger for authentic living and a desire to contribute collaboratively. I am glad that we grew from 3 to 11 in three months and now we are open to more joining us. We believe that it’s magical when people come together with a shared purpose and vision. It’s amazing for us to be with them and they can make magic. We are here setting up systems and structures and invite those with our shared vision to join us. If you are one of them, come and visit AhimsaGram; also, read more articles from some of our team members in this issue to have a greater sense of our space and its offerings.