Sunday, January 25, 2009

Get inspired!!

Recently, I came across a very nice article in the Times. Its an inspiring story of a woman, who's one visit to a Mumbai slum as a teenager ignited her to take charge and transform lives! This is Shaheen Mistri, who started an NGO for slum kids when she was just 18! She now heads Akanksha, the NGO she founded that caters to more than 3500 slum kids today. She also leads the Times of India's famous Teach For India campaign:

"When I was 18, I walked into a slum and started teaching. I had spent my life outside of India, graduating from a small, elite girl's private school in upmarket Greenwich, Connecticut, in the US. Back in India, curious, I walked into a Mumbai slum and was confronted by the deep inequity of a world where some kids attended top-notch academies while others just didn’t go to school at all. Entering the slum on that first day, I was prepared to feel disturbed, sad, and angry. I wasn’t prepared for the bright eyes filled with untapped potential. Within a few days, without language, coming from a very different world, I found a base in a little home and started teaching. Those days stay vivid in my mind; sitting on the floor of a 10 foot loft in Shakeel’s shanty with a growing group of kids of all ages around me. So many memories—cutting out alphabet ladders to teach three year-old Sameena, who is now in Sophia College; seeing a young girl on fire and rushing her to the hospital; looking for space to teach in a school and getting turned away by a nun who felt that her students would get diseases from our children— the idea is good, she said, but “revolutionary”. And then, after 20 schools said no, finding our first classrooms in the Holy Name School. My days were immersed in thinking about children— trying to understand who they were, making sense of the communities that they lived in, discovering the deep prejudices that exist in society against them, trying to learn ways to make them engage in learning. For the next 18 years, we built an organization, Akanksha, “aspiration”, that grew out of those days of teaching. Akanksha’s deep belief that every child has immense potential has created opportunities for thousands of less privileged children. And from our teachers, and from our children, I have learned my most significant life lessons. Take Rajshree, whose unshakeable belief in Sumeet through a decade of work where he tried to commit suicide several times, juggling huge home problems with repeated attempts to pass the SSC who today embarks on a journey to run his own NGO and has been nominated as MTV’s youth icon. Or Niki, who has rented a tiny home in the slum which is an after-school center for extra help. Or Nahida, one of our Akanksha alumni, who today teaches three year olds through song and dance. Or Anjali, whose kids after being relocated two hours away still commute to come to her class. Often when I have thought I understood something, the Akanksha children have taught me that I really hadn’t. I don’t think I understood what it means to persevere until I saw a 17 year old Akanksha child get sexually abused in her home, have a baby, give it up for adoption, and come back to school. I don’t think I understood courage until I saw an Akanksha teenage boy stand up in a group of kids and parents and break down saying to his mother how much he loved her and had never told her that. I don’t think I understood what it meant to give until our student Latif passed away a few months ago; his grandfather told me that he had given him Rs 14,000—all his savings—to go to a private hospital. Latif quietly put it back, going instead to a government hospital. From countless teachers and children I have seen how what matters the most is connecting, caring, believing in another person. And then, a couple of years ago, I began to feel increasingly overwhelmed. As the stories of success with children increased, so did the realization that real change needs to be systemic; that quality needs to be scaled to reach every child. On one hand was this grave, overwhelming inequity and on the other was a huge dearth of talented minds addressing the issue. The idea of Teach For India began through a conversation with Anand Shah, a friend and thought partner, who spoke about his vision for a domestic service program in India that got young Indians engaged in changing the country. A small group of us from Indicorps, The Piramal Foundation and Akanksha started talking about what a “Teach For India” would be. Through that time, four Teach For America alumni came through Akanksha. I was struck by their mission, by their deep commitment to end inequity. These young people— some of the brightest had chosen to spend two years in incredibly challenging classrooms. A few months later, I met Wendy Kopp at the Teach For America office in New York. We talked about children and India and inequity and I left asking her to come to India. Intrigued by the possibility of some form of Teach For America’s idea working elsewhere, Wendy spent a few days in India-in schools, on campuses, with business and education leaders. Wendy left and our discussions intensified. We worked closely with McKinsey and Co to e x a m i n e the feasibility of Teach For India in a context so vastly different from the U.S. At the end of the three month long study, we were convinced that Teach For India was not only possible, but critical. The challenges of building the Teach For India movement are immense. The idea seems preposterous to many. Why would the best minds in the country teach? How can a force of a few thousand idealist, untrained young people bridge the stark achievement gap in our struggling schools? Why would corporate India (especially in the current financial crisis) encourage their best talent to go for two years? Teach For India will answer these questions with action. Already, applications are pouring in. Already, the most visionary companies are signing up. And we know that our first hundred Fellows, trained and supported, will define a new way of teaching, a new way of learning, a new way of being. So, Teach For India now seems the right thing to do. For TFI’s fellows, this is a chance to study leadership in a classroom of life. For TFI’s students, this is a chance for them to bridge their staggering achievement gap, feel cared and valued and experience meaningful learning. And as the movement gains momentum and grows across the country,we will move closer to our vision that one day, every child across India will attain an excellent education."

Friday, January 2, 2009

Unconventional Mind

I came across this article recently in Mid-day. It talks about the experiences of Sapna Bhavnani, an elite rich Page 3 woman from the upmarket Mumbai, who, rather unconventionally, decided to venture into the streets of Mumbai and look for herself the affected areas and the state of its middle-class right when it was under the 26/11 terrorist attacks:

"North, south, east, northwest, southeast, west….who bloody cares…"
"I'm tired of this separation amongst Indians.."
"A civil war is bound to happen….soon.."
"I wish we had educated people in politics.."
"Why are we still so third world?"
For weeks I have been hearing comments like this from people like us. By us, I mean modern, educated, liberal, the 'cool' people. US! Us who think we can change everything by sitting in our bedrooms chatting online and throwing political statements around like pillows. Us who think we have the answer to everything because we own an expensive laptop and can type the word "Google." Us who slow dance with words and whine more than Amy 'freakin' Whinehouse. Yup Us!
Bandh Bombay Bandh!
Run North Indian Run!

Last Night:
I slept through the entire night of mayhem with my phone bleeping next to me. Had gotten used to ignoring the dam thing. I woke up at 7 am with my eyes wide shut. The phone still bleeping, so I picked it up.
"What? What do you want at 7 am?"
"Are you ok?"
"Why wouldn't I be?"
"Don't you know what has happened and what is still happening?"
"No…out with it..What!"
"Just switch on your telly…"
The telly had the scene of horror on repeat. I watched every second of gore like a deer in headlights. I stared at it for half an hour till I just couldn't do it anymore. I couldn't sit around and watch. The phone kept bleeping with messages from concerned 'us" people asking 'us' to stay at home and be safe.
"Stay at home and be safe?" What exactly did that mean? Isn't that what we do everyday? Us politically incorrect correct people!
The phone kept on bleeping…..
I headed straight to Colaba. I had to see my city burn with my own eyes. Call me a dramatic fool if you wish. The roads were clear of all traffic. All cows. All dogs. All cyclewalas. All beggars. All hope.
I reached the causeway in record time and followed the smoke. People stood around and watched silently. A flock of kites hovered above screaming "lunch lunch." A silent movie could not have been so silent. It broke my heart to see the causeway completely shut down but this wasn't about my feelings. After standing around with the rest of the people for a while aimlessly staring at the blaze, I realized that there was nothing I could do that the army couldn't do better, so I left and headed straight to St George's Hospital in VT. This is where all the victims were taken.
Hoards of reporters stood outside with their cameras trying to get the first glimpse of the dead corpse. Ambulances pulled in every five seconds. The silent movie had plenty sound effects now. Crying faces looking for their loved ones stood around in despair as the nurse kept on updating the list of dead people outside. I headed straight to the blood bank on the first floor, passing the charred bodies on the right. It was only 10 am and the room was full of people. All kinds of people, northwest people, south people, east people, north people, poor people, middle class people, pregnant people, old people, Kandivli people, Mulund people, Dharavi people, all kinds of people except people like 'us.' I did not see one hipster walking around with his arms wide open. I watched a four foot man fight with the nurse insisting on giving blood even though he was underweight. "Take my blood nurse, I swear I'm fit." I watched an old man walking with a stick, standing in line without a complaint. I watched the pregnant woman on a mission to give rebirth to all the victims. I smiled with so much pride.
The phone kept on bleeping…this time with messages from my co workers who refused to come to work and insisted on sitting at home with fear. I was sad that the terrorists had accomplished what they had planned to do. They had managed to install fear in every 'us' heart. I shut the salon down reluctantly.
On my way back to my safe suburban heaven I decided to stop by 'chor' bazaar and walk around window-shopping since I had the day off anyway. A little bit of retail therapy never hurt anyone, right? The hustle and bustle on Mutton Street put a skip in my heart instantly. Every shop was open and every chor, in business.
The poor didn't seem so poor yesterday. The rich didn't seem so rich imprisoned in their gold walls. The 'us' people did what they do best; send text messages of hate. I left home poor but came home rich. And maybe exhausted.
"One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."

Sapna Bhavnani runs a famous salon, Mad O Wot in Bandra, Mumbai.