Reflections from Sri Lanka

Reflections from Sri Lanka

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As the woman stood up to speak in a beautiful orange and scarlet sari, the light fell through the shifting clouds and foothills of the Sri Lanka tea plantations in such a way that it seemed to make her, literally, glow. Her name was Thevani, and she spoke with a captivating grace and energy about the changes in her community through CARE’s work. She shared that the biggest change of all was that she was standing in front of us – a group of her fellow community members, men, women, international visitors, and perhaps most significantly of all, the manager of the tea plantation.

She spoke of a time when it would have been impossible for her to be asked to stand in front of a group – like more than 100,000 other women who work as pickers on the tea plantations – she was living in the shadows of society. These women are perhaps the most marginalized in Sri Lanka, an ethnic minority who have been employed as residential workers for generations. Not long ago, the only opportunity workers were given to talk with managers was “Labor Day”, a Wednesday when they could speak through a small window to the manager with their grievances. CARE has created more than 24 Community Development Forums to bring management and workers together to create a better life for workers and contribute to the productivity of the plantations. They meet monthly as a group to handle wide ranging issues from worker disagreements to health and wellness to productivity.

These Forums are delivering results for individuals, communities, and business. A recent study found that for every dollar invested there was $14 of return in the form of community improvements and $24 for the tea companies. Most importantly, these opportunities to join together are creating a virtuous circle of both productivity and community change. The workers we talked with spoke of creating new social norms together that were overcoming domestic violence, strengthening their family life, creating better social welfare for health and education, and giving people a real voice in the community and as citizens. 

As Sri Lanka continues to develop into a middle income country, CARE is changing with it. We are taking this work of corporate social responsibility, of training businesses for inclusive participation of workers and women’s voices, of equipping and training women and young people for the next generation of jobs and creating a new social enterprise called Chrysalis. This remarkable experiment will create sustainable revenue through its work and partnerships –from consulting and training to creating entrepreneurial accelerators.

This trip has gotten me thinking a lot about metamorphosis- about how people transform their own lives, lift up their voices and drive change. About how organizations change and transform themselves for relevance and impact. One of the tea workers stood up and gave a beautiful testimony to CARE’s work – he said that CARE worked not just alongside of people, but “through people.” At our best, we are simply supporting people to create their own change- in the words of another participant – to create “more just and equal plantation estates” and in a larger sense- to create a more just and equal world.