Florina Benoit and Ashok Gladston were Fulbright Scholars at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at EMU, earning their master’s degrees in 2004. Both subsequently earned PhDs and now hold leadership roles in organizations doing impressive educational and relief work. (Photo by Kara Lofton)

Alumni couple are movers and shakers in Southern India

[Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the spring/summer 2014 issue of Peacebuilder magazine.]

Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, move over. Ditto for Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. The Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University has its own version of a “power couple” – but the two truly represent “power for suffering people.”

The man is 38-year-old Ashok Gladston, dean of 23 departments comprising 350 teachers at one of the most prestigious universities in India, Loyola College in Chennai. Based on assessments by India’s national accrediting agency and the media outlet India Today, Loyola-Chennai – founded in 1925 by the Jesuits (just eight years after EMU opened) – ranks among the top three of 35,000 liberal arts colleges in India.

In a normal day, running 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Gladston says he meets with about 70 people, always maintaining an open-door policy. He supervises 160 post-graduate students, plus seven full-time doctoral students. His egalitarian philosophy: “There’s no time to hate, no time to hurt, only time to work and love.” He also believes in practicing what one teaches – in getting his hands dirty, as he puts it.

The woman is Florina Benoit, chief zonal officer (CZO) for Churches Auxiliary for Social Action (CASA), for which she oversees CASA’s work in the four southern states of India, comprising 50 staffers in 10 offices addressing needs in 1,000 villages, encompassing 7 to 10 million people. At age 40, she is the youngest CZO ever employed by CASA.

“CASA’s focus is on poverty alleviation and political awareness and empowerment of the oppressed classes, particularly the dalits, tribals, women and backward castes,” Benoit says. She is on the road about two-thirds of the month. CASA also organizes emergency and disaster responses, often being the first organization to step in after crises like major floods and landslides.

Gladston and Benoit knew each other before coming to CJP, but they were not married and had no marriage plans when each applied separately for a Fulbright scholarship to study conflict transformation at CJP. That each beat countless competitors to be Fulbright Scholars testifies to their respective abilities and accomplishments. Just before arriving at CJP in the fall of 2002, they married and became a couple of dynamos for the next two years in Harrisonburg.

They presented street theater to CJP and embraced additional techniques offered by playback theater. They were in the first group to do fundraising field trips on behalf of CJP to Pennsylvania, where they helped cook an Indian banquet and where they posed in Amish garb borrowed at an Amish-themed museum. They could be counted on to attend any peace-themed talks or conferences on EMU’s schedule. They did everything required for academic excellence, and then more.

As soon as they returned to southern India, they plunged into advocating for, and doing trainings with, suffering minority groups in their own region around Chennai as well as in nearby Sri Lanka. Applying themselves seven days a week, sunup to bedtime, they both also managed to earn PhDs – he in social work from Loyola and she in social work from Osmania University in Hyderabad, India.

Ten highlights from their lives since 2004:

1. Benoit and Gladston arrived back in southern India on January 1, 2005, soon after an undersea earthquake that precipitated a tsunami that ranks as one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history. By the following day, Gladston was organizing a state-level survey to be conducted by 1,500 social work students of the affected areas.

2. Over the next several years, both Gladston and Benoit worked frequently in devastated regions of Sri Lanka and in refugee camps in India among people who had fled from both the tsunami and civil war in Sri Lanka. They published results of studies of social needs gleaned from 178 sites, while simultaneously doing hands-on trainings, usually under the auspices of Organization for Eelam Refugee Rehabilitation.

3. Their trainings covered conflict transformation, dialogue for peacebuilding, trauma resiliency, community development, relief and rehabilitation, advocacy for justice, and women’s empowerment. Their system was to train trainers – dozens at a time – to prepare the trainers to go further into the field and cover as many regions as possible, training hundreds of field staff. The field staff then extended the trainings to the grassroots. Thus Gladston and Benoit were able to reach tens of thousands of affected people with information and skills helpful for improving their situations. (Part of this work was funded by Mennonite Central Committee.)

4. Meanwhile both held “day jobs” – Gladston as a senior faculty member in social work at Loyola College-Chennai, Benoit as the associate director in charge of practice at the Henry Martyn Institute: International Center for Research, Interfaith Relations and Reconciliation.

5. For three years, they were based at institutions 400 miles apart, until Benoit finished her PhD in 2008 in Hyderabad and resigned from the Henry Martyn Institute to return to Chennai. (At the time, both posted online remarks about missing each other when apart and relishing being in the same location again as a happily married couple.)

6. In early 2009, as the Sri Lankan government grimly and bloodily brought the rebel force known as LTTE to its knees, Gladston and Benoit were alarmed at the situation of 250,000 people trapped with the LTTE. “The government in the name of surgical strikes is shelling the civilians,” wrote Gladston. “There are no words to describe the situation of the civilians,” adding: “We keep crying out loud so that the world’s attention will be attracted.”

7. When the war was officially over, the suffering was not. For the last five years the twosome has devoted their weekends and vacations to volunteer work among the displaced peoples. Early in their work, Gladston wrote:

I am filled with a lot of uncertainties and concerns: All the materials are in English and the training is in Tamil. How do I contextualize what I learned? How do I adapt the training methods to this situation? How do I include the indigenous ideas and methods of conflict transformation? I am braving the effort of going ahead with the workshop and will learn lessons from it. I hope to consider this as an extension of CJP.

8. In addition to the manuals and printed training materials typical of peacebuilding workshops, Benoit and Gladston frequently organize experiential activities designed to reduce conflict – interactive dramas, sports across conflict lines, cooperatively run preschools, and shared activities like basketmaking and gardening. In one mixed Tamil-Sinhalese village in Sri Lanka where the couple had been working, says Gladston, Sinhalese families hid their newly made Tamil friends when government forces came searching for Tamils to arrest.

9. Responding to widespread requests for help – especially by fellow CJP alumni – both Benoit and Gladston have done consultations in three dozen other countries in the last 10 years.

10. In the spirit of the Summer Peacebuilding Institute, Benoit used to run an annual peacebuilding workshop at the end of October and beginning of November at the Henry Martyn Institute.