Agents of change

Agents of change

Social responsibility

Agents of change

Young guns: An Indicorp volunteer interacting with children. Photo by Indicorps

Karthik Raman didn’t want to just sit around and complain about what was wrong in the world. He wanted to do something about it. “Instead of sitting in the US and merely comment on the problems that existed in India, I wanted to come here and create change,” says Raman from Ohio, whose family is from Tamil Nadu. “Also, by relocating to a tribal village, I felt I could learn about Tamil culture.”

Raman got to work for social change through Indicorps, a Texas-based NGO. Through its office in Gujarat, Indicorps helps people of Indian origin all over the world to volunteer for a year with an NGO in India. Raman arrived in India in 2007 and was placed in the Naickaneri Hills in Tamil Nadu’s Vellore district. His project was to work on nutrition seminars a small Adivasi community. “As often happens in India, things didn’t pan out as planned and I ended up spending most of my time working with a local potter to design and distribute pot-in-pots,” he says.

Pot-in-pots (PIP) are rural refrigerators created by placing one clay pot inside another with sand and water filling the gap in between. “With this device, villagers were able to keep their fruits and vegetables fresher for longer periods of time, thus improving their health and nutrition. Even better, the PIPs were so affordable that villagers paid for the technology and didn’t need a subsidy,” says Raman. His fellowship ended in 2008, but Raman stayed on to work with ‘Source for Change’, an all-women, rural, business process outsourcing venture in Bagar, Rajasthan. “Selfless leadership is a life lesson that is often misconstrued. I have realised its meaning. It’s  as simple as working towards an objective and not for one’s own personal gain,” says Raman.

Indicorps was started in 2001 by Sonal Shah, now head of President Barack Obama’s Office of Social Innovation, and her siblings Roopal and Anand. Fellows for projects at Indicorps are chosen through a two-part application process. Aspirants must have a university degree or five years of applicable work experience from anywhere in the world.
The fellowship year starts with a rigorous, month-long orientation camp at Ahmedabad where participants are given practical lessons from grassroot developmental experts and they also participate in group discussions and community activities. “Indicorps stresses the idea that service is not transactional. For us, to seek a better world means to connect the process of personal change to societal change and to make our story part of the community’s story,” says Adam Ferguson, who works on fellowship support at Indicorps.

In the past seven years, more than 100 fellows have spent a year in India. In August 2009, Indicorps placed two to four fellows each with 12 community-based partner organisations. Though they come from different backgrounds such as medicine, public health, marketing, finance and nonprofit management, what the fellows have in common is the drive to make a difference. “I have not come to ‘help’. I have come to make genuine relationships and to work on solutions for rural poverty,” says Vivake Prasad, who is associated with an NGO called grassroot Development Laboratory in Bagar, Rajasthan.
Prasad graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania where he had founded a student organisation dedicated to service and social justice issues. He is working on a start-up social enterprise called the Bagar Employment Institute (BEI) which was founded by an Indicorps fellow, Ashish Gupta. “The goal of BEI is to reduce the prevalence of unemployment and underemployment across rural India,” says Prasad, who is working with two other volunteers, including another Indicorps fellow — Sahil Chaudry.

Prasad along with his peers, conduct training courses that aim to fill the gap between the skills rural youths attain through formal education and what they actually require in the modern Indian job market. “To this end, we teach courses in spoken English, basic computer skills, and accounting software. In all our courses, we emphasise confidence building and invaluable soft skills such as public speaking, presentation skills, workplace etiquette, job hunting skills, interview skills, etc,” says Prasad.

Chaudry and Prasad conduct presentations every night at Bagar and the surrounding villages where they educate villagers about the job market and recruit students for the institute. “Much of our impact, however, comes not from these more formal interactions, but from our personal relationships with our students. These go a long way in changing the mindset within the community,” says Prasad. He plans to attend law school when he returns to the US, but his ultimate goal is to return to work in the development sector in India.

Another changemaker is Himabindu Reddy, whose motivation to work for social change comes from her parents. “I’ve witnessed both my parents working incredibly hard and struggling to provide their children a comfortable life. I see volunteering and social work as a way to pay it forward,” she says. Reddy is associated with Chaitanya, an NGO based near Pune, which works to spread the self-help group movement in the state as a means of empowering rural women financially and socially. “Women  health issues are of major concern in this area. Low-cost public facilities often lack in quality while private facilities can be very costly. As a result, medical emergencies can force families into poverty,” says Reddy, who moved to the United States shortly after she was born in Andhra Pradesh.

“It’s for this reason, we’re designing a low-cost, community-based health insurance scheme for women to enroll in. The idea is, to make the program entirely community-driven and operated in the same way, microcredit schemes function within self-help groups.”

For, Rahul Brahmbhatt, volunteering in India is about working directly with the people, in need for help and change. “After years of working in the corporate world and not being able to see the end result of my work, I decided that community work and social entrepreneurship were areas I wanted to invest my time in,” he says. Brahmbhatt is working with Ahmedabad Ultimate in Gujarat, an Indicorps sports initiative focusing on Ultimate Frisbee, a high-energy team sport that combines elements of many other sports, such as football and basketball.

After studying chemical engineering at the University of Texas, Brahmbhatt worked in technical fields like oil and gas as well as IT consulting.  In 2009, Brahmbhatt earned a sports management degree from George Mason University in Virginia and conducted research on how to increase the popularity of basketball in India.

All fellows agree that working in India is a challenge, but brings its own rewards. “The style of work is extremely different than in America. At the same time, working in rural India is also extremely rewarding. There is rarely such a thing as a ‘strictly business’ relationship. People are warm, hospitable, humble, and generous beyond measure.”
As for Reddy, the challenge was adjusting to a different work culture and working without facilities, like electricity and the Internet, she had grown used to. “Replacing the instant gratification of instant messaging and e-mails are the drawn-out conversations over ‘chai’. I’ve been given a  lifetime opportunity to enter people’s lives and hear their stories,” she says.

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