Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Interview with Leigh Evans, GPM-JDC Entwine volunteer, Summer 2014 Cohort

Leigh Evans, a second year student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a recipient of the Brawerman Fellowship for emerging young Jewish leaders from the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, participated in the 10th volunteer GPM cohort in Mumbai this past summer. (Harmony Richman, of the same cohort, was also a Brawerman Fellow).Leigh, who is pursuing a double major in Sociology and Psychology with a minor in Education, works part-time as a paid intern at the UCSB Alumni Association. She is also involved in a variety of activities including the College of Letters and Science Honors Program, the Isla Vista Tutoring Program, Active Minds, Hillel, and “Gauchos for Education”, an organization she cofounded. Leigh hopes to apply her passion for education and background in Sociology and Psychology to her future career in education reform. Leigh is deeply passionate about civil rights, social reform, education, animal welfare, environmental sustainability, arts and culture, and the promotion of tolerance.

Jacob Sztokman sat down with Leigh for a chat a few weeks after the program finished, where she reflected on her experiences at GPM:

How did you enjoy the program?
It’s been really great. It put into perspective how much I’ve grown as a person. It also put my career aspirations in perspective, because it helped me focus on what I really want to do. Before the program, I thought I wanted to go into education but not necessarily working with the people, more like writing legislation and being a lawyer. But now it made me realize that I really do want a day-to-day job of working with students and with kids. That’s definitely important to me. I enjoyed it so much. 

Now that you’re back home, how do you feel about what you experienced?
With everything going on in Ferguson and everything going on with race and difference in the media, it showed me just how important it is to go and put yourself in a place and a culture that you’re not necessarily comfortable in. And I’ve been to Israel but in that case I was completely comfortable from the moment I walked into Ben Gurion airport. This is a totally different thing, and I totally stepped out of my comfort zone being in India. And I didn’t realize how big of a shock it would be. I always had this very idyllic vision of how it would be to study abroad and live in a totally different culture. I listened to what everyone said to me before I left but I didn’t really think it would apply to me. They said it would be difficult and you’ll see some really tough things – and I did. And a lot of what everyone said would happen happened.

What were the hard things for you?
I think what gets everyone is that the poverty was very difficult. And the stray animal problem was really difficult, maybe more for me than other people just because I do a lot in animal care and that’s a very big issue for me – that is, for it to be normal to see starving, emaciated dogs in the middle of the street. But then you see a starving man or woman in the middle of the street and it’s all really difficult. Those things – the human poverty and the animal neglect – both were so much worse than anything I’ve ever seen before.

And then the lack of health care, the physical issues that people dealt with every day, like the amount of polio that I saw, it was a huge shock for me and I was really unprepared for that. Because this is something so simple over here – you just get a vaccine and it’s all taken care of. And then you can’t even access that over there. But then you have antibiotics being administered over the counter and being used irresponsibly, and it’s just such a weird juxtaposition that people aren’t getting what they need but they have lots of extra stuff around, and it becomes a huge problem.

Probably the hardest thing I saw was acid survivors. I remember this one day walking back from the Byculla train station and a man was coming towards me on the sidewalk and at first I thought he was wearing a mask because it just looked so strange to me. But then as he got closer to me I saw that his skin just sagged all the way down to his collarbone and his eyes were gone, and it was a really tough thing to see. 

What also hit me is that you see people with polio on the train just working, doing anything they can to help themselves and survive,  and selling all those trinkets and the little hair accessories, literally dropping their bodies on the floor but being so persistent, and go on another day to make a living and make a life. That is just so incredible to me. You don’t see that here out in the open in that way.
I took a class on African studies, and there is so much aid going to Africa, but in India the striking lack of aid was really difficult. You don’t see clinics in the slums, or at least I didn’t. When I talked to local people, I didn’t hear about clinics. Maybe there are a few in Mumbai, they said, but they’re not totally free and not totally subsidized. I feel like India needs a lot more attention from NGOs and people who are just there to help.

Tell me about the Brawerman Fellowship that you received.
When I was in high school, I applied for the Brawerman Fellowship from the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles. I was the first year of the fellowship. It was donated by Geri Brawerman who is a major supporter of the Federation. She and her late husband did a ton of philanthropic work, and she had this vision for young Jewish leadership work. So she gave a donation that was the largest donation in the history of the Federation. It’s a four year fellowship, it means I get financial aid every year, and on top of that I participate in facets of the special program – for instance in the summers, we have a travel-work experience. The first year we went to Israel because they try to foster our connections to Israel as leaders of the Jewish community. Then we are doing a volunteer experience abroad, which was originally meant to be one or two weeks, but luckily Harmony and I were approved for this program even though it’s longer than two weeks. The third year is going to be a local internship with the Jewish Federation because they want us to be involved with the Federation and know what the Federation is doing for the community. It’s a fantastic program.
Leigh and Harmony in Mumbai
Leigh and some of the children
Leigh and a student

Leigh with some of the children

Leigh with the REAP teachers and other GPM fellows

Taking time out to charm a snake...

On the train...

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