living the faith
20 years of justice victories in India
by Donald E. Skinner
Someone once told Kathy Sreedhar there were “three Ps” to follow for success in life: planning, perseverance, and patience. She's got the first two down, but she's having a little trouble with the third. “I'm a little impatient. I just want to get things done,” she says.
Sreedhar, director of one of the Unitarian Universalist Association's most successful social justice initiatives, the Holdeen India Program, has used impatience as well as planning and perseverance to build a program that has helped thousands of Indians help themselves. Sreedhar, who turned 70 this year, has been the first and only director of the 20-year-old program. Sreedhar and the program were honored with a party at this year's General Assembly in Long Beach, California.
The Holdeen program has helped fund more than 90 groups in India since 1984. The groups have fought to enforce land rights for indigenous tribes, free laborers enslaved by landlords, educate child laborers, and empower poor women. They have also demanded dignity and equality for dalits, the so-called untouchables of India's caste system.
Sreedhar, who lives in Washington, D.C., and visits India three times a year, continues to marvel at the activity the program has helped to generate. “Not on my life could I have imagined what the program and its Indian partners have accomplished,” Sreedhar says.
The Holdeen program is different from many other funding programs. “Most development agencies focus on projects,” says Sreedhar. “Rather than funding specific projects, we support the most disadvantaged groups in their own efforts to organize, build movements, and demand their rights.”
Sreedhar came to the Holdeen Program from a series of other jobs that have all contributed to social justice. She was one of the first staff members of the new Peace Corps in the 1960s (including five years in India), and she has worked with community and international development organizations and civil rights programs in Washington, D.C.
The basis for the Holdeen program dates to the 1940s when a wealthy New York lawyer, Jonathan Holdeen, who had never been to India and was not a Unitarian, chose the American Unitarian Association, later to become the UUA, to administer a fund for “maternity, child welfare, education, and migration expenses” in India. The program gave about $750,000 a year to organizations in India until the stock market decline in recent years. Now it gives about a half million.
One group the program has supported is Navsarjan, founded by Martin Macwan in 1989 to strengthen the dalit movement. Macwan said that when he met Sreedhar for the first time he had resigned from his previous organization because it excluded dalits and women. “There was hardly anyone who would take me seriously before I met Kathy,” he says. “She has been a pathbreaker and a model for funding. She is totally immersed with whatever issue she is associated with.”
Vivek and Vidyulatta Pandit founded several groups that organize, liberate, and reintegrate laborers who had been slaves. “Kathy became our source of inspiration and galaxy of energy,” they wrote in an e-mail. “Each member of our union knows Kathy by name. She has danced with us, sung with us, and marched with us in our struggles and celebrations. She is part of our movement.”
Ela Bhatt, an Indian activist who founded a women's rights group, the Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA), which has 750,000 members, says of Sreedhar, “She has stood by the Indian poor like a rock, helping them to stand on their own and seek justice.”
Sreedhar is a fierceand impatientadvocate for Holdeen partners. Once, invited to a lunch put on by Vice President Al Gore for the Prime Minister of India, Sreedhar arranged an invitation for Ela Bhatt. Arriving early and noting that Bhatt was to be seated at the far end of the table, Sreedhar switched place cards, putting Bhatt, one of the few women present, at the “power” end of the table. “I didn't do it as a revolutionary act,” says Sreedhar. “I did it because it was the right thing to do.” Bhatt ended up having a good conversation with Gore, says Sreedhar.
Sreedhar survived the death of her husband, Indian native M.A. Sreedhar, in 1968, after just eleven months of marriage. She is also a survivor of breast cancer. “What pulled me through,” she said, “was a wonderful oncologist and this work that I had to do.” Over her 20 years at the UUA, Sreedhar has been entitled to three sabbaticals. She passed up two, but she's taking the third. She used the first part earlier this year to take care of her first grandchild and will use the second half to volunteer in the Kerry-Edwards campaign this fall. She has no plans to retire.
What will her legacy and that of the Holdeen India Program be? “It will be that we have not saved the world, but where our partner groups have a presence they've made a difference,” she says. “We've helped people become stronger and more organized and successfully challenged unequal power relationships, unequal distribution of resources, and unjust social conditions.”
“Kathy Sreedhar is the most focused social justice activist I know,” says the Rev. Meg Riley, director of the UUA's Advocacy and Witness Staff Group. “Her work embodies Gandhi's advice that, whenever making a decision, we should imagine the poorest of the poor and ask, 'Will this help them?,'” Riley says. “In my opinion, the Holdeen India Program has done the most effective work for social justice in the history of Unitarian Universalism.”UUA President William G. Sinkford adds, “Kathy has seemingly boundless energy and hopefulness with which she builds on relationships nurtured over decades. And by virtue of her credibility, she has drawn other institutional funders into support of our partners. Jonathan Holdeen could never have imagined the effect of his gift.”