Empowering People to Move On: Disaster Shakti

It was Christmas-time 2004 and Gargi Roysircar was preparing breakfast for her family. Turning on her television she saw images of an event that would change her life: her homeland in southern India had been devastated by a horrific tsunami. Striking without warning, approximately 230,000 people, living in multiple countries bordering the Indian Ocean, were killed.

Gargi Roysircar is a professor of Clinical Psychology and founding director of the Multicultural Center at Antioch University New England (ANE). She was born in Calcutta and raised in different cities of India, including Chennai/Madras, whose coastal line was hit by the tsunami waves. She was educated in both India and the United States, receiving her doctorate in 1988 from Texas Tech University. She has taught at ANE since fall 2000.

Viewing the unbelievable destruction and chaos occurring close to where she had attended her undergraduate college, and where much of her family still lives, professor Roysircar felt compelled to act in a way that would give back to her native country and, also, offer assistance to communities engaged in the long and arduous task of rebuilding. From these seeds Disaster Shakti was formed.

Shakti meaning force, power, or energy is the Hindu concept, or personification, of God’s female energy. Disaster Shakti translates as empowerment in the face of disaster. The establishment of this outreach and community service group continues Dr. Roysircar’s work to develop and implement psychological services that are sensitive to cultural frameworks and acknowledges the complexity of diversity.

In June 2005 Roysircar and a few students in the Department of Clinical Psychology traveled to South India to outreach to tsunami survivors. Prior to departure, volunteers engaged in lengthy discussions about the needs of people impacted by disaster and how culture, social class, religion, and available resources impact on the ways people respond and recover from crisis and disaster.

At the core of Disaster Shakti is the belief that effective relief intervention requires professionals and volunteers to go directly into devastated communities. Intervention to be lasting and meaningful must be accomplished in collaboration with local resources. For victims to gain confidence, hope, and empowerment, it is imperative that local customs, beliefs, and values be acknowledged and respected. How one finds meaning within catastrophic events, grieves, connects with others, acknowledges the disaster, and then moves on with life underscores the work of Disaster Shakti.

Since 2005 Disaster Shakti volunteers have traveled twice to New Orleans, to aid Hurricane Katrina victims, and to South Africa and Botswana in August 2007 to do support work for HIV/AIDS infected and affected women and children.

“I wasn’t really sure when I arrived in South Africa what type of work we would be doing. I knew we would focus on some psycho-education and brief counseling, but what actually developed was quite beautiful. It was the small moments, interacting with people in the street, participating in songs performed by children that were the most important for me. I guess you could say that our mission was to encourage hope in the people of South Africa and to validate the good work they were doing and encourage them to continue forward with determination,” states ANE graduate student Amanda Blanchard as she reflects on her Disaster Shakti trip to South Africa during the summer of 2007.

Dr. Roysircar is planning a third outreach trip, to New Orleans, during the spring of 2008 to offer emotional support to hotel workers who have toiled unceasingly since Hurricane Katrina. Also planned in late spring 2008, is a Disaster Shakti trip to the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico affected by a devastating August 2007 hurricane (Hurricane Dean).

Traditionally psychologists provide psychotherapy to clients individually. Interventions to entire communities for grief and loss are rarely undertaken. Dr. Roysircar and Disaster Shakti are committed to psychological practices that acknowledge, and indeed celebrate, cultural diversity as they further social justice. By outreaching to those who are least able to cope with disaster, Disaster Shakti enables student volunteers to integrate training in clinical psychology with community disaster work in a way that effects lasting and deep social change.

“In my experience I have discovered that the common thread that runs throughout disaster areas is a collective spirituality that draws people together,” speculates professor Roysircar, “and that people, in general, are deeply resilient.”

Disaster Shakti is an effort that is premised on the fact that each individual is of value and that one person can make a difference in the life of others. This philosophy is manifested in generous and ongoing support from regional businesses, individuals, and other funding sources.

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