As her knowledge of, and interest in, Gandhi’s educational ideas grew, and the politics of communalism took stronger root in the Independence movement, Sykes felt the constraints of working within a government educational system and an institution based on overt Christian agency. By this time, through her membership of the International Fellowship, she had also come into contact with Quakers for the first time. Her biographer describes the attraction thus:
She found that Quakers believed that an essential part of the way of Jesus was that peace, justice and righteousness should be expressed in practical living - ideas that had so attracted her at Cambridge. She responded to the Quaker belief that in all human beings of whatever race or creed, there is something that enables them to recognise and respond to ‘the Truth’, ‘a Light within’, ‘an inward teacher’.61
She formally professed as a Quaker while on furlough in England in 1936.
Through the offices of a Quaker friend, Sykes accepted an invitation from Tagore to work as a lecturer to Santiniketan in December 1938. On her journey to Bengal, she also visited Gandhi’s ashram at Segaon, Eastern Maharashtra, and had her first meeting with him and saw his educational ideas in practice. Although she had doubts about the value of quite so much time spent spinning, she was impressed at the liveliness of the children and their knowledgeable discussions of the cotton they grew, carded and spun; proof of ‘the educational value of doing ordinary work scientifically’.62 She was similarly impressed at Santiniketan where she observed the school children combining research and service in the village health centre. The war disrupted her time at Santiniketan, bringing her back to mainstream education to help out at the Madras Women's Christian College. The principal, Eleanor Rivett, was in desperate need of an English teacher as wartime conditions prevented staff being sent from England.63 It also brought her back into the maelstrom of the Quit India campaign, where the students took up Gandhi's call for non-violent Swaraj by growing their own food sufficient to share with women and children in a Madras slum where Sykes was living, at the rear of a kindergarten she had established. By the end of the war, Sykes was back at Santiniketan, although increasingly caught up in the cross-flow with Segaon and Gandhi’s work.
For Patel, these years saw him finally commit to direct engagement in the anti-colonial movement and Gandhi's program of building Swaraj from the bottom up. He was influential in engineering the Bombay Cotton Exchange's support for the freedom movement, despite boycotts directly impacting on their bottom line. He also came into contact with advocates of Gandhi's work among the poor: Verrier Elwin, an Oxford don now devoted to working among the Adivasi (indigenous tribal communities) of Gondwana, and Amritlal V. Thakkar (Thakkar Bapa) who worked among the ‘untouchable’ sweepers of Bombay. He was also sufficiently active to be shadowed by the police according to him, although to date we have not been able to verify this through archival sources. In 1940, Patel joined the newly established Adivasi Seva Mandel (Aboriginals Service Society) in Thane District under the auspices of Gandhi and Thakkar Bapa. The Mandel worked among the tribal peoples (Warli and Katkari) to develop health and educational services, labourers' cooperatives and housing.
By the time Sykes and Patel met, in late 1944, they were caught up in Gandhi’s grand vision for constructing a ‘non-violent democracy’ that took Swaraj beyond simply ‘brown-skin’ rule in Delhi64 This grass-roots democracy, in Gandhi's words,
... must touch every aspect of daily living and help every man and woman to be a better citizen of their village, and therefore a better citizen of India and the world. It must inculcate a spirit of neighbourliness which would rise above narrower loyalties and do away with untouchability and with communal jealousies and suspicions.65
Here we see how Gandhi weaves the local through the national to a cosmopolitan global mindset, melding not only villagers, or Indians, but humanity, into a single community of fellow-feeling.
In 1945, this was the vision that Gandhi attempted to implement in Segaon village. It was to be the ‘spear-head of a silent social revolution’66 based on the twin programs of Nai Talim (Basic Education)67 and Nature Health.68 It was to this revolutionary ideal that Sykes and Patel committed themselves. Sykes accepted Gandhi’s invitation to join the Nai Talim effort in Segaon, although she did not actually take up the post until after Gandhi’s death in 1948. Patel was recruited to the Nature Cure program - intended to develop and make available effective non-Western health remedies along with preventative education in nutrition and hygiene to the poor in keeping with the principles of self-reliance that underpinned Gandhi’s notion of Swaraj. In late 1945, Gandhi, Dr. Dinshaw Mehta69 and Patel established the All India Nature Cure Foundation, whose mission was to deliver ‘the benefits of nature cure’ nationwide.70