May 24th, 2013
January 19th, 2013
Canadian volunteer Emma Moore worked with Atma from December 2012- March 2013. She was placed with Atma Partners Sparsha and Sahyog during her volunteership.
” Almost two years ago I finished a degree in International Development – an ideal background, one would think, for a volunteership at an NGO in India. However, my three months working with Atma in Mumbai have been much more illuminating of the actual processes of development – of the ‘hows’ and the ‘whys’ – than school ever was. While my degree definitely taught me how to learn, I think Mumbai, and this experience, is teaching me how to appreciate, how to empathize, how to understand, and how to act.
I think it is easy to look at social problems, especially in India, and only see just that- the problems. Big, scary, devastating problems. It’s much too easy to feel overwhelmed, paralyzed and confused when confronted with these daunting challenges. In these dark moments what I feel most is helplessness – What can I possibly do to change anything? What I’m slowly beginning to learn is how to see the positives – the solutions, the growth, the sometimes tiny but important moments of change. Working with Atma and Atma Partner Sahyog really allowed me to see these almost-hidden glimmers of hope and taught me how to appreciate them for their real worth. The more time I spend in Mumbai the more I see these glimmers and it gives me faith that things are changing – sometimes slowly, but changing nonetheless.
India is almost exactly what I expected and true to the descriptions I’d been given. However, knowing about a place and experiencing that place are two very different things and I’m not sure that all the information, knowledge or advice was all that helpful in the end. I was often overwhelmed, surprised, awed, angry and confused by everything around me. I think this is a pretty typical reaction to India, and Mumbai in particular, and I don’t see my own experience as being particularly unique or different from any other newcomer’s. I guess what was truly surprising was not the poverty or living conditions. I had already read about these things, seen the statistics and the bleak photos. I was more surprised by the kindness shown to me, not just by my colleagues and neighbours, but by complete strangers. Women on the trains would make sure I didn’t miss my stop. Men on the street would stop to patiently give directions. It seemed like everyone I met offered to share their lunch with me. This was a beautiful and unexpected dynamic of Mumbai that often overwhelmed me more than the stark realities, because these were the things it was impossible to take photos of, to show in statistics. I guess you can’t quantify kindness.
My work with Sahyog made me privy to even more kindness. My role there was to help collect success stories (or significant change stories) with the goal of developing content for their website and social media. This was a job that was almost too good to be true. Sahyog is already doing incredible work, and my task was merely to find ways to capture this work and share it with others. Without my local guides, the ambitious, young women who work at Sahyog, I would have been completely lost. They gracefully navigated the hectic neighbourhoods, introduced me to our interviewees and simultaneously translated conversations. It was an amazing collaboration and an exciting process to be a part of.
A favourite moment stands out in my mind after a focus group we ran with current Umang participants, as well as graduates and staff. Beena asked the girls if they had any questions for myself or the other foreign volunteer. The usually shy girls were interested to hear how we were finding Mumbai, and in particular, how we dealt with challenges like language barriers, navigating and confusing train stations. This conversation really broke the ice with the group and afterwards girls approached us in nervous knots of twos and threes to practice their English and chat with us about everything from food to religion. It was incredible to think that despite all the seeming differences, we were all just curious young women hoping to learn something from each other. For me, this was a powerful lesson of what working in a cross-cultural situation should be like – learning from both sides and a discovering a solidarity, even a camaraderie, that transcended language or geography. In that room that afternoon I really felt like our backgrounds, everything that we think makes us who we are, didn’t actually matter.
However, this was just one of many lessons learned in Mumbai. I’ve learned so much from seeing Sayhog’s work on the ground – the way they forge positive relationships with the community, how they have invested in capable, motivated young women from the areas where they work, and how they are creating real change without forcing too much too soon. I guess what I realized most is that change – real, meaningful, sustainable change- doesn’t always happen loudly. It’s not always ushered in by a revolution, with parades or radical characters, and it’s not always glossy and sexy enough to end up on the cover of a magazine. Sometimes the most important change of all is in the everyday acts of brave people trying to do a little bit better. The people who are quietly taking the boundaries that have been laid out for generations, and pushing them just an inch, maybe two, maybe even three. It is a girl choosing to ride the train alone, a father deciding to send his daughter to school, a mother defying tradition to give her child a slightly better start than the one she was given. The most important thing I have learned is to stop waiting for a brilliant, game-changing idea or an all-knowing messiah-like political leader and to start having faith in everyday people making bold decisions. These are the people who are worth our investment.
In terms of whether I would do this again, I know I would. But I would hope to come back with more to offer. Seeing women work so hard to improve who they are and what they have to give, it makes me want to do the same. I hope one day soon I can return with a useful skill or expertise I can pass on to a similarly ambitious young person. I think Mumbai will be a difficult place to not return to, and the connections I have made at Atma and Sahyog won’t be forgotten easily.
Everyone talks about how rewarding volunteer experiences are, particularly ones in new, unknown places. My time in Mumbai has made me feel of lot of different things (frequently contradicting emotions) but what I feel most often is lucky. Lucky to have been born into certain, arbitrary privileges, but more so, lucky that I had the opportunity to see and even briefly be a part of the important work these organizations do every day. Their positive outcomes are not based on luck – they are based on hard work, dedication and commitment.”
January 13th, 2013
Photo Credit: TEDx Masala
Are obtaining degrees the only point of education? What does it mean to live your life in a 10x10sq. ft room in Asia’s largest slum? What does it feel like to explore your sexuality in a country where sex is a taboo? What if NGOs were to admit their failures and publish failure reports?
With an interesting line up of speakers, last week’s TedxMasala conference offered a lot of food for thought to hungry minds. Caught in the rut of routine, people need a little something different to think about every so often. Something to question everything we think we know. Something to inspire us to aspire for more.
Atma staff and volunteers had a great time attending this event organised by Bombay Connect. Atma’s top picks from the evening:
Degrees do not make a man, life does :Founded in 2010, Swaraj University is a first of its kind education programme that focuses on self-designed learning. An engaging orator, Rahul Hasija an ex-student from Swaraj talked about pursuing education outside the walls of a school or college. “Let’s step outside our circles of comfort. Learning can happen simply through living.” His earnest pleas left the audience with plenty to ponder about.
Of unheard dreams: Dharavi is one of the largest slums in Asia. Enough and more has been said about the abysmal living conditions, its so called “immigrant” communities, etc. A lot has been said about its flourishing leather and recycling industries among many others. Little however has been said about their dreams, hopes and desires in the face of their realities. Through a short dramatic piece, a group of 10 year old girls from Reality Gives shared the realities of everyday living for young women in the slums and also their vision of a better world. Heart warming to say the least, the play was a rare opportunity to see the world through the eyes of these young girls.
Camp stoves for a better life: There are problems and then there are problems. Some of us pray for phones with more power in their batteries. Over 400 million of our fellow countrymen meanwhile have no access to power of any kind. Living in a parody called India, we understand disparity like no other. Gaurav Gupta (Regional Director, Dalberg) talked about using disparity to our advantage. “Technology that we want is the technology that the poor need.” Biolite produces a stove is that is used by campers to meet their cooking needs. If this eco-friendly stove were to be used by poor communities across the globe it would significantly reduce the burden of acquiring expensive, non-renewable fuel. By better using existing technology we can try to solve the problems of poverty.
Gay but not Proud : Talking about sex and sexuality makes India uncomfortable. People prefer to press the mute button on these discussions. Harish Iyer belongs to a growing number of voices that want to be heard above the din of this silence. A victim of sexual abuse, he became a familiar face after he shared his story on Aamir Khan’s Satyamev Jayate. Through honesty and humour he talks about sensitive issues such as sexual abuse and sexual identity, with much ease. A gay man himself, he said something very simple but remarkable- “I am gay, but not Proud. Just like heterosexuals don’t feel the need to be proud of being straight.”
Failure for Good: Sometimes development organisations need to acknowledge failures to make real change. David Damberger of Engineers without Borders talked about their failures when trying to provide solutions to problems faced in developing countries. Through their annually published “Failure Report” Engineers without Borders is able to make an honest assessment of their work and learn from their mistakes.
With just the right amount of “masala”, conferences like TEDXMasala give our minds the much needed kick from time to time.
December 7th, 2012
A few days ago I wrote a post about the Delhi gang rape. It was called “Angry” and it detailed the rage I felt both about what that young woman had suffered and what every woman in this country experiences to greater or lesser degree.
I’m not the only one writing. Or talking. Or expressing my anger. All over the country, and now in Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan – people are out on the streets protesting. They are being interviewed on the news; they’re talking with their friends. Their stories are finally coming out. Women are sharing what has been happening to them for as long as they can remember.
But anger isn”t enough. Anger needs to be channeled, directed, made useful. Otherwise, it’s just ranting. Scolding. Nagging. After a while, people stop listening. More to the point, the angry people themselves begin to lose hope. They start to believe that nothing can or will ever change.
Anyone can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right people, at the right time, for the right purpose and in the right way – that is not within everyone’s power and that is far from easy.
We need a strategy, a plan, a timeline. We need to stop lighting candles and shouting slogans and get down to the hard, rewarding work of organizing. That happens person to person, door-to-door, and it ends with concrete political and social change.
This is our moment. What are we going to do with it?
Two suggestions – simple, but effective:
1. Older Women Unite. Women over 40 are a force to be reckoned with. “Old enough to know what you want and young enough to enjoy it,” my Aunt Sheila told me on my 40th birthday.
Aunt Sheila, I’m paraphrasing here: “Young enough to notice an a**h*** and old enough to do something about him.”
Older women are everywhere. We shop, we ride the buses and trains, we teach, we work in offices. We attend weddings, we visit hospitals, we go to the post office. And a lifetime of observing human nature has refined our “something’s not quite right” detectors. We can tell by the way a girl sets her shoulders that she’s expecting trouble. We can smell the testosterone as a gang of boys spots an easy target. We are watching all the time and, because being over 40 renders us invisible: no one is watching us.
Oooh. What could be better? POUNCE!
Women over 40: We have the power to change the world.Or at least the course of one young woman’s world. If all of us simply resolve never to allow boys or men to intimidate girls or women, just imagine how our neighborhoods could change.
I tested this out yesterday because I didn’t want to just spout advice. I was walking to the local shop and I watched a young girl round the corner. There were three young men standing on the roof of their house and I saw her body stiffen as she noted their presence. She pulled out her cell phone and pretended to be engrossed in it as she walked past. I stopped stock still in the road, turned slowly and dramatically, folded my arms and glared up at them there on the roof. All three of them saw me. All three of them dropped their gaze, looked slightly furtive and ashamed, then turned to each other and started chatting. The whole scene changed. The power equation altered. I was in control and they just looked silly.
Women over 40: All we need to do is to swagger in and take charge. We own this place.
2. Dump the politicians. This is key. We all know that the system routinely, deliberately, systematically fails women. Police, social services, the IAS, the lot. There are procedures, protocols and laws in place. They are excellent as laws go and, if enforced, they would change the face of the nation. But they are not enforced and we all know why. Why on earth would MLAs and MPs welcome harsh sentences for rapists when most of them have rape charges pending themselves?
Get rid of them. There is no other option.
The “India Against Corruption” Movement exists. We have a choice. We can get rid of these blood-sucking, life-draining sycophants forever. Just say it: No candidate with any charge against him will ever be allowed to win.
And like everything else worth doing, this means hard work, one voter at a time. Do it! Get out on the street and start talking to your neighbors, your family, your friends. Tell them how you feel about the humiliation, the abuse, the rape – actual or virtual – that women go through every single day. Remind them that they are also women; that they are fathers of girls.
We can change the world. We really, really can.
(This article has been re-posted. It was posted by Jo Chopra, Founder of Latika Roy Foundation here. This post was a follow up to an earlier article titled “Anger” in response to the Delhi-gang rape.)
October 12th, 2012
Fahrinisa Oswald-Atma Volunteer Photographer
“I can’t say my motivations are entirely selfless. Yes I want to help change some of the injustices in the world. Yes I want to play a part in changing all that needs to be changed. But I also know that this experience, this opportunity for personal and professional growth will be irreplaceable. I will look back at this and know that this is where I really began my journey as a responsible world citizen.”
Fahrinisa Oswald came to Atma to volunteer her services as a photographer. Through beautiful images she has been able to capture the amazing work that our partner organisations are doing in the field of education. Born in the United States, she belongs to a large contingent of Volunteers from across the world who leave the comfort of the known for the unpredictability of the unknown.
Not everyone needs to travel thousands of miles to do this though. Vishal Chauthmal comes from a small town in Maharashtra. Curious about the development sector, Vishal an engineering student from IIT Powai came to Atma not just for honing his professional skills but also to work with people from different cultures and backgrounds. His advice to aspiring volunteers- “Be clear about what you want to get out of your volunteering experience. Set a goal for yourself and work hard to achieve it.”
On the occasion of International Volunteers Day on December 5th, the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme published an infographic that said, ‘If volunteers were a nation, they would form the tenth largest country in the world-over 140 million’. That is a considerable amount of people who are trying to help organisations make our world a better place.
Over the last five years, Atma has hosted over 150 volunteers from over 25 countries. They may look different, they may speak different languages. At the end of the day however, they want to have a say in what the world will look like tomorrow. They do so by giving- giving a small part of their lives to play a bigger part in the world.
Giving really does come in all shapes and sizes. People may choose to share a portion of their hard earned money or share a part of themselves. It is not just a one way street though. Whether it is the satisfaction of seeing your monetary contribution make a difference to someone’s life; or the personal & professional growth that one may experience in exchange for contributing your skills and expertise; giving can change the lives of everybody involved.
(Atma’s Volunteer Professional meetings are an opportunity for volunteers to share their experiences and learnings with each other.)
Be a part of the giving movement. Volunteer with us or contribute to our Global Giving Campaign!
May 25th, 2012
Helplessness is a feeling familiar to all humans but one that has been particularly permeating Indian minds off late. Every sunrise seems to bring with it a new scam, a new conspiracy uncovered and a renewed sense of shame amongst us citizens. Cynicism is no stranger to the average Indian. It can be safely said that India’s political leadership has never failed to disappoint, cheat or frustrate us.
Admittedly however, none of the statements above are surprising or new. What is surprising and perhaps even heartening is the fact that young India is no longer seeking comfort in apathy. Unhappy about the lack of much needed development in our country many are taking it upon themselves to try and change the Indian story. We want to be a part of the conversation. This is exemplified by the significant increase in social enterprises led by remarkable young individuals keen to participate in India’s growth story. (See: MAD, Avanti Fellows)
To quote an article featured in Mid-Day six months ago -the development space in India is seeing an influx of NRIs who choose to return to their home country taking almost 100 per cent pay cuts to work towards affordable healthcare, housing and set up rural enterprises. The success of fellowship programs like Teach for India, Gandhi Fellowship and many more that are essentially trying to build leaders of tomorrow, further evidence this enthusiasm. Co-founder of UnLtd India, an incubator for social enterprises Pooja Warrier says, “We have seen an increase in the number of professionals from various sectors wanting to start social ventures. Their desire to contribute to the development sector despite the seemingly insurmountable odds is heartening to see.”
MUMBAI+ acumen recently organised an event aptly themed- Passion with a Purpose. The event saw Jacqueline Novogratz-founder of Acumen Fund address a room full of development professionals from across the globe. Having transitioned from the banking sector to development herself, she talked about her struggles and triumphs through this journey. When asked to advise the leaders of tomorrow she said, “Focus on being interested, not on being interesting.”
An interest in tomorrow is perhaps what has led to the rise of a generation of young change makers, not just in India but the world over. Events and forums like these that bring together bright minds often turn into opportunities to share war stories and lessons. This talk was exactly that and more- An inspiring speaker with an engaging audience.
Corrupt leaders indifferent about the fate of India seem like a distant nightmare when I meet so many inspiring folks who are working to find solutions to the world’s problems. It is here that the cacophony of scams attenuates. It is here, in the social sector, that I find hope as an average Indian struggling to be optimistic about my country’s future. It is here that the glass appears half-full.
An Evening with Jacqueline organised by MUMBAI+acumen witnessed a huge turnout of development enthusiasts.
(Author: Anushka Gole is a communications coordinator with Atma and a Mumbai+acumen chapter member)
Recommended- Betting on causes
This article was also posted on the Acumen Fund Blog.
“India Shining” was a marketing slogan referring to the economic optimism in India in 2004. The slogan soon became the focus of the then-ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s election campaign for the 2004 Indian general elections.
The campaign drew criticism from various factions of Indian society for trying to gloss over a myriad of social problems including poverty and social inequality.
Turning a deaf ear or a blind eye to social issues is second nature to most of us. Apathy could be one reason, but primarily it is a survival tactic. As citizens of a country defined by its parodies and inequalities, ignoring in-your-face socio-economic issues can sometimes be the only way to preserve your sanity. So why blame the government for trying to do what we do every day? We are experts at selling the India story-rich history, cultural diversity, strong family roots and so on. But talk about the problems plaguing our society and most of us will choose to remain tight-lipped. We do not like to participate in uncomfortable conversations.
How will we protect our children from sexual predators when talking about sex is taboo? How will we end sex selection (read: female foeticide) unless our society acknowledges men and women as equals? How will archaic traditions like dowry be eradicated when marriages are treated like business transactions? How will we ever start addressing any of these issues unless we are ready to acknowledge that they exist? Aamir Khan’s Satyamev Jayate is doing just that. The show focuses on a unique socio-economic issue each week, forcing viewers to take a step back and introspect.
Shows like The Big Fight or The Newshour on NDTV and TimesNow debate over a host of societal afflictions. However, in a nation where Bollywood is a way of life, chances are that Aamir’s show will attract a wider audience.
Satyamev Jayate has and continues to receive a fair share of criticism. To quote from a review published in The Hindu (a leading daily newspaper) post the pilot episode that focused on the issue of sex selection, “The concern is that he (Aamir) presents both a populist and one-dimensional truth’ on an enormously complex social issue with a dangerous authority that only his kind of stardom can muster.”
With the complexities of issues that exist in our society, the makers indeed run the risk of not being able to showcase the complete picture. The effort however needs to be recognised. Where Bollywood is usually associated with escapist, over-the-top cinema, you have a leading actor bringing reality to your living rooms every week. Much to the show’s credit he does so without sensationalising the issues at hand, something even our news channels are resorting to these days.
The final segment of each episode involves an appeal made by the host to make direct or indirect donations (via SMSes) to an organisation, selected by the producers, that specifically works to address the subject issue. Whether there will be any outcome from the awareness or the ‘call to arms’ message that this show aims to propagate; only time will tell. For now, it seems to be changing our Sunday afternoon conversations. This could be a start.