Q&A with Priya Charry: Community work and "jugaad"

Charry_PriyaPriya Charry is a 2015-2016 Scholar and Simmons College graduate currently working in Hyderabad as part of the American India Foundation's William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India. Here, she discusses her experiences so far, the importance of flexibility, and how her MSLIS provided a useful foundation for working in an NGO abroad.

Could you tell us a little more about the American India Foundation's William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India?

The AIF Clinton Fellowship is a 10-month service program for American and Indian young professionals. Each year, 30 fellows are placed at development NGOs across India to work on projects in the areas of education, public health, and livelihoods. The host organizations are young or at a key moment of scalability, with mentors to guide and advise Fellows.

I am working at the livelihoods-based NGO Youth4Jobs in Hyderabad, Telangana. Youth4Jobs runs job training and placement centers across India for youth with disabilities, as well as sensitization workshops for corporations interested in hiring people with disabilities. My project is Not Just Art, a digital initiative created to support fine artists with disabilities and provide art workshops for children with disabilities.

How did you find out about this opportunity?

After receiving my MSLIS from Simmons College in 2016, I worked for a year in academic and public libraries in the Boston area. The work was engaging and fun, but I wanted pursue a bigger goal: to work in library programs with underserved communities abroad. As this isn’t a common pursuit, it was difficult to identify international work opportunities for new librarians in the public sector.

I decided to approach from another angle. I studied for a semester in India during college and wanted to find a way to work there ever since. While researching short-term work opportunities in India, the AIF Fellowship came up as one of the few options for interdisciplinary, cross-cultural community work. (I have some focused Google searching to credit for this discovery--one of my favorite librarian skills!) The program is not directly library-based but I am finding ways to integrate my professional experience with my project.

What are some skills you learned in your MLIS program that you have applied in your role as a project coordinator?

As project coordinator (and sole full-time employee) for Not Just Art, my budding management skills have grown. I prioritize and delegate tasks, collaborate with artists and colleagues, and evaluate resources. My Library Management coursework on strategic planning and project management has been extremely useful here.

Creating artist portfolios and developing the NJA website involves cataloging and resource description. As a librarian, I know the importance of metadata for search and retrieval, but I underestimated just how crucial it is for accessibility. Without proper metadata like descriptive alt text and structured web pages, an entire community (i.e. people with visual impairments using screen readers) is excluded. This has boosted my awareness of accessibility practices in public spaces online and in the real world.

Finally, I am able to gain library development skills. Youth4Jobs partners with a local school for visually impaired girls, and upon learning of my background, one of its teachers proposed a side project: an audio library to supplement the girls’ courses. This opportunity is exciting and daunting, limited by time, funding, and resources. But I am drawing inspiration from my research on libraries in developing regions and services for people with disabilities--as well as basic collection development and reference coursework. Both Not Just Art and the audio library are brand new initiatives, so the sky’s the limit!

You've said before that you “hope to use this opportunity to learn about the Indian NGO sector--specifically, how I can apply my library experience to increase information access in India and in underserved communities in the US as well.” What have been your greatest takeaways so far, and have you learned anything that has surprised you?

One key takeaway is the value of flexibility. Resources in the development sector are limited by accessibility, organizational (dys)function, language, infrastructure, and more; to make progress, one must be willing to adapt. This is well illustrated by the Hindi term “jugaad,” roughly translated as a “hack” or ad hoc solution. For instance, our website’s basic design template doesn’t allow a specific accessibility option; we don’t have a budget for a custom template, so my jugaad was to sneak in a few lines of code to create it myself. Workarounds like this can be positive (clever/innovative) or negative (lazy/“good enough”), but above all they are a creative use of limited resources.

I have also learned to value my humility. No matter what my expertise, there is always something new to learn. This is true in my work--being non-disabled while working with and on behalf of people with disabilities--as well as in my personal identity. While half of my family is of Indian ancestry, my Indian experience is vastly different from those around me. Rather than comparing and contrasting, I try to weave each new experience into a greater tapestry of understanding: of my own identity, of the people with whom I share so much and yet differ so much from, and of how we interact and learn from each other. It has been a truly humbling journey so far--one that I hope to weave into my professional pursuits from here on.

Perhaps the most surprising lesson learned is that the problems faced in the Indian NGO sector are quite similar to those in the American library world: lack of funding and support, few opportunities for people from underrepresented groups, inaccessible public and digital spaces, and more. The context varies, but the people fighting to overcome these barriers are inspiring no matter where they are.

How has your experience as a Spectrum Scholar influenced your life thus far (personally, professionally, etc.)?

It is heartening to know that I can access the Spectrum community’s collective knowledge no matter where I go. I feel lucky to be part of a group so devoted to celebrating our unique identities and accomplishments. It pushes me to achieve my own goals so that, one day, I can be a source of inspiration for others--particularly in this corner of the information world, at the intersection of libraries and international development.

I hope to continue the Spectrum Scholarship’s goal of providing opportunities and resources for traditionally underrepresented groups. I’ve tried to support this mission through diverse MSLIS courses, work in public neighborhood libraries, and now work with artists with disabilities. In the future, I hope to carry this forward through cross-cultural work with underserved communities in a library setting. As a Spectrum Scholar I learned to value my complex identity as a boon to my work; my goal is now to embody this understanding and help others embrace their identities and achieve their goals.

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