Community Dialog Presents Plan for New Vrindaban Village Association

By Madhava Smullen

Village Association Meeting Vyasasana Lokadristi New Vrindaban

Village Association Meeting at Vyasasana and Lokadristi’s Home

Possibly the hottest topic at the Fall 2015 ISKCON New Vrindaban and Eco-Vrindaban Board Meetings, and certainly the one that drew the most interest, was the Community Dialog about a proposed new “Village Association.”

For decades, New Vrindaban residents have felt a need to be heard more by the ISKCON management and to have more influence on how their community is run.

So with a possible solution at hand, they were buzzing as they crowded into the Palace Lodge community hall after lunch on December 5th to learn more about it.

Longtime residents Nityodita Das and Advaitacharya Das guided the session, beginning with a half-hour Power Point presentation on the history and plan for the proposed Village Association.

The idea, they explained, has its roots in Srila Prabhupada’s 1973 statement, “We will establish a local self-governing village.” Varying attempts to make inroads towards this were made over the years, the most recent being the Advocacy Sanga — first launched in 2013.

Then, during the March 2015 board meetings, members of the INV and ECO-V boards themselves, led by Chaitanya Mangala and Jaya Krsna, encouraged the creation of an official Village Council, which would participate in the management of New Vrindaban from a broader “village” perspective.

Chaitanya Mangala Das New Vrindaban Village Association

Chaitanya Mangala Das introducing the New Vrindaban Village Association Concept

To do this, volunteers began the process by first forming a Steering Committee of seven. These included Jaya Krsna and Ananga Manjari (representing INV), Mukunda (representing ECO-V); and Advaitacarya, Nityodita, Devala, and Vyasasana, representing long term residents and broader community interests.

Over the next six months, the Steering Committee conducted many meetings with different interest groups in the village of New Vrindaban to develop their proposal. They then organized three larger gatherings – increasing in attendance each time from 20, to 40, to 60 people — where they continued to tweak the “blueprint.”

The version presented at the December 5th Community Dialog proposed a “New Vrindaban Village Association” made up of residents who would elect their chosen representatives to a “Village Council.”

The Village Council would then regularly meet with the ECO-V and INV boards and interact in a cooperative framework which is provisionally being called the “New Vrindaban Village Board.”

Advaitacharya and Nityodita explained that membership of the Village Association would be very open and inclusive, with the only requirement being that members must reside in the Ohio-Valley area.

Advaitacharya New Vrindaban's Eco-Vrindaban, ISKCON New Vrindaban Village Council.

Advaitacharya presenting  a cooperative vision for a proposed Village Council.

“If you raise your hand and say, ‘I want to be a member,’ that qualifies you to be a member,” Advaita told the intrigued crowd.

The requirements to be a voting member aren’t much more restrictive: one need only be at least 18 years of age, an Ohio-Valley resident for at least one year, and attend at least one function of the Village Association per year.

In return, the Association aims to create a loving family environment among its members that helps to empower and assist devotees to live happily in and around New Vrindaban.

One priority will be to enhance fellowship and friendships amongst New Vrindaban villagers through regular spiritual and social group activities, such as men’s and women’s groups, youth groups, reading groups etc — a much-needed feature. Another will be to care for members by helping them understand housing options available and the land acquisition process, as well as by encouraging economic development through the establishment of local businesses.

And perhaps the most important facet will be to set up a system where concerns can be expressed, shared and addressed with action. This will help New Vrindaban residents feel cared for, and empower them with their desired participation in governing the village.

The system would likely see residents – soon to be members of the Village Association – address their concerns to their Village Council, who would then either handle the issue themselves or act as the go-between with ISKCON New Vrindaban or ECO-Vrindaban if it fell under the purview of either of those organizations.

The main difference would be a shift in expectations; not all the concerns of the Village would be funneled through ISKCON, allowing the temple – with its limited capacity – to act more as a spiritual center of the Village. This would reflect the fact that while residents and the two main non-profit organizations in New Vrindaban share many common concerns, there are some aspects that can be better handled in simultaneously cooperative and self-determined ways.

Nityodita Village Association Community Dialogue. New Vrindaban

Nityodita explains the mission of the Village Association during the Community Dialogue.

“We need to break out of the old mindset of trying to use the legal structure of a religious non-profit in ways it was never meant to be used,” says joint-board member Chaitanya Mangala. “The analogy I use: If I went to the town of Moundsville, and said, ‘We’re now going to funnel all city management decisions through a local Church,’ everybody would look at me with a puzzled face and ask, ‘What are you talking about?’ Clearly, it doesn’t make sense. But that’s exactly what we’ve been trying to do for decades in New Vrindaban.”

After Nityodita and Advaitacharya’s presentation, the floor was opened up to an hour-and-a-half of discussion, beginning with everyone in the room getting the chance to express their feelings about the idea.

Many long-term residents, including Advaita himself, felt somewhat guarded, having seen multiple similar attempts fail in the past. They expressed that they were reserving their full enthusiasm for when and if the idea succeeded.

“Personally, I had never intended to get involved in something like this again – I had been through it too many times,” says Advaita. “But this time it came from the leadership outwards, saying, ‘Yes, we recognize this problem, and we know it really needs to be addressed.’ It’s the first time I’ve ever seen that, and that makes me hopeful.”

Some residents wanted more clarification on how the new structure would work. Board and Steering Committee members explained that this is a new, learning experience for everyone, that every detail has not yet been figured out, and that the mechanics will naturally be established over time with members learning as they go.

Others were concerned that the new Village Council would not really be on an equal footing with the other boards or have enough power to make things happen. In response, Advaita pointed out that the key to successful results is working together with trust and a cooperative spirit – something Srila Prabhupada stressed many, many times.

The qualities of patience, determination, and enthusiasm (utsahan niscayad dhairyat) – which Tamohara Das cited in Saturday morning’s Srimad Bhagavatam class – were also repeated throughout the Community Dialog and the weekend in general, as necessary qualities to practice in order to be successful in such efforts.

Finally, Board and Steering Committee members emphasized that differing viewpoints are all right, and in fact expected, as long as everyone maintains an underlying assumption of goodwill, and continues to communicate and cooperate with the shared goal of doing the best they can for the devotees, Srila Prabhupada and Krishna.

Overall, the mood of the Community Dialog was one of optimism, with many comments like, “I’m feeling enthusiastic,” “I’m enlivened to see things get this far,” and “I hope it will be successful.”

The Dialog concluded with the Steering Committee asking who would be open to joining the Village Association, and receiving a near unanimous show of hands.

Next up, the Steering Committee is planning a local event to officially launch the Village Association. Invitiations will include a print-out of the Power Point presented at the Community Dialog, along with membership applications. The event will feature entertainment, kirtan, prasadam, and a chance to sign up to get involved in community interests and concerns.

“I see this as a positive step, to paraphrase Srila Prabhupada, ‘In the gradual development of New Vrindaban as a self-governing village,’” says Chaitanya Mangala. “The previous culture, where every decision had to go through the ISKCON New Vrindaban management structure, disempowered individuals and put a huge burden on a handful of people. Distributing that load and increasing individual empowerment is necessary and will be incredibly beneficial for both local residents and ISKCON management.”

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