Monday, November 16, 2015

The Learning Tea

Katrell Christie
When Katrell Christie switched gears on her career choices, it wasn't in anyway something she anticipated. Starting out as a tourist to India, Katrell's chance encounter with a few girls in an orphanage carved a path that would take her to creating a movement to help girls build a future that would save them from violence. Here's her story.

Let's start by talking about Tiger Heart. What inspired it?
A: The name? Well one of the young Indian women in my program called me that because she said I was fierce, like a tiger, but also had a big heart filled with compassion and I do have a lot of yellow hair. The nickname just sort of stuck. Tigers have a lot of symbolism in India and they do live in West Bengal , where the Bengal tigers live.

You founded and run The Learning Tea. Tell us about the story behind it.
A: The Learning Tea began after I took a trip to India and met some amazing young women at an orphanage in Darjeeling. They were older teens and were going to be aged out of the orphanage when they turned 17. They had no place to go and it's hard to even imagine what their future might have held - manual labor, begging or possibly even sex trafficking. After spending time with them, I found I just couldn't walk away. I returned home to Atlanta and started raising money like crazy to help them continue their education. One thing led to another and The Learning Tea began. We now provide housing, tuition, food and books to a house full of young women in Darjeeling. One of our scholars has just moved on to graduate school, which is pretty remarkable for a lower-caste Indian.

From roller-derby-queen to tea-shop-owner, the transition must have been a challenge in its own right. What inspired it? What are some of your sacrifices on the way to make it happen?
A: You know, even when I was playing roller derby I was always very involved in the promotional and business side of things. I was actually better at that then I was at blocking! So, when a ice cream shop near my home announced they were shutting down I took a chance and dove in. If nothing else, Dr. Bombay's Underwater Tea Party has become a place to store all the vintage tchotchke I've collected over the years. But we are also a community gathering place where folks come to meet, read,  talk, study or simply linger. We get a lot of first dates. We also host high teas for bridal showers and kids birthdays etc.

What made you choose India, and women's entrepreneurship / education in India?
A: It had everything to do with timing.  As I say in the book, I don't do yoga or study Buddhism. I knew next to nothing about the country when I first traveled there in 2009. A woman who was a regular at my tea shop was going there on a Rotary Club project focusing on women and entrepreneurship and she kept urging me to come along. I said no for months. And then one day, I suddenly said yes. I had just gone through a rough day, week, year…and for some reason that days she got me. As for education, that was something I realized in India, the one thing you could change that would have the trickle down effect. The one thing you could change that would change everything in its path and everything it touched. I thought to myself when I got to India and saw all the awesomeness that is India, what can I do? How can I make a difference? What skills do I have to offer these women to aid them on the path to success?  The obvious choice was education because education is freedom. Also my grandfather lived in South Georgia and really taught me the value of giving back. He didn't have a lot, but he funded a scholarship at the college where he taught. To him, education was the ladder up and that stuck with me. He always said, “no man is an island”.

As a person working in a completely different community with people of a different ethnic background, what challenges did you encounter?
Getting used to really mind-blowing spicy food and on a more serious note, building trust! There was a lot of suspicion from locals when I first started trying to launch my project in Darjeeling. I'm a blonde American woman and I would sometimes get the reaction of 'who does she think she is?" There was also some legitimate fear that I could be involved in sex trafficking or some other bad activity. I mean, that is what they've seen sometimes from foreigners coming in. Over time people learned what I was about and started to trust me, and help me. I now have a trusted group of people there who are my eyes and ears on the ground when I'm back in the U.S.

What inspired you and kept you going?
Seeing the success of the girls - as they ace their tests and thrive at things like sports and music - that's what keeps me going. All they needed was the opportunity. They didn't have a dad to lace up their skates, like I did.  This project also makes me happy. It gives me a lot of satisfaction. That's something I think some people don't realize, that you can get a lot of fulfillment in helping others. This project gives me back tenfold of what I put into it in happiness. 

What do you see as the future of your work? Is there a particular plan in place for what you're hoping to achieve?
Well, of course, I want all these young women to graduate and end up in careers that make them happy and self sufficient. I'd also like to open another center in India, maybe Kolkata. My first attempt to do that failed when the funding fell through. That was a really tough lesson for me. But I still think it can be done and the need is certainly there. I want any new centers to remain small though. I think the family feel that develops with a smaller group is extremely important, especially for some of these women who have had struggles with their own families.