The “What will I do about it” Initiative: A Volunteer’s Account

Posted on February 18, 2012 in Social Entrepreneurship, Volunteerism

By Abhimanyu Sarkar:

On the first day of a school in 1840, a nine-year old named Savitribai Phule walked up to the gates of her school in the village and made a simple request: she wanted to enter. She was turned away because she was a girl. She was married off the same year, as was the social custom in those days. However, she didn’t let this dampen her spirits, and she educated herself by borrowing books from the village library. She also opened the first ever girls school in India in 1848 and was the first female teacher of the first women’s school in India. She also became a crusader for women’s education, lower castes and abolition of Sati (i.e. immolation of a recently widowed woman on her husband’s funeral pyre).

164 years after Savitribai Phule asked herself the question ‘What will I do about it?’, I joined the Teach for India Fellowship. In the more than hundred and sixty years that had passed since the first-ever girls school in India, some things had changed in India… but some things remain just the same. Women and lower castes have equal rights to education and Sati is almost non-existent in India, but these social problems have been replaced with more ugly social realities like dowry and female infanticide.

‘One day all children will attain an excellent education’- This powerful statement is what inspired me to join Teach for India and be part of a movement that is striving to end the educational crisis in India. However, one month into my Fellowship, and I was grappling with some persistent questions. What is the true purpose of education? What does ‘excellent education’ for my children really mean? How do I mould my kids to make them sensitive to social issues before their impressionable minds are filled with biases? How do I empower my kids through education to face social issues and drive change in their own community? How do I make my children responsible future citizens of this country? Where can children raise their voices so that their ideas might be considered for change that betters our society? How do I extend my locus of control beyond the classroom and to the community and eventually the country? How do I increase awareness about social issues not only amongst the 60 children in my classroom but the society at large? It was at the same time that I met a few Teach for India 2010 Fellows who shared the same concerns that I did, and were looking to initiate a project to address these concerns. I guess what brought all of us Fellows together was the realisation that while academic achievement is a difficult yet attainable task, changing mindsets can be extremely difficult. This realisation drove us to initiate ‘What will I do about it?’.

What will I do about it?’ provides a platform for children to present their ideas on issues that affect society as a whole to drive change. (Website: http://whatwillidoaboutit.org/) The transformation we want to bring about in children is from being ‘helpless’ to becoming ‘drivers of change’. Our mission is to create a movement of children who will bring about change in this world. We believe that if every child asks himself the question ‘What will I do about it?’ when faced with a problem, s/he will come up with a way to bring about change, and this is the long-term mindset we are trying to inculcate in every child through this endeavour.

This year, we brought together 10,000 students from 50+ schools across the city of Pune from all economic strata to present their ideas on solving corruption. We now plan to showcase all ideas in an exhibition to corporate and government leaders who can then affect change at a macro as well as micro-level. We have already created an impact with this project and the Pune Municipal Corporation has legitimized our event across ALL primary schools in Pune. Next year, I plan to initiate this project in other major cities of India, and add other events and activities in our spectrum to heighten sensitivity and awareness amongst children.

What the ‘What will I do about it?’ team strives to do can be reflected very well in these lines written by Rabindranath Tagore –

“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”

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