EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Sonali Gupta, Project Manager, Grassroutes.in

Posted on January 24, 2010 in Interviews, Society

What is the similarity between social entrepreneurship and a road trip?Well the answer can be found in Napolean’s words. “On s’engage et puis on voit.” (“Let’s start, and we will see where this is taking us.”) And what happens if you are able to combine both these aspects? You get a movement called Grassroutes!

Grassroutes is a revolution all set to provide you with Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries experience,bring you closer to grassroots reality, explore rural areas, sensitising you with the problems faced by the community. Recently our correspondent Karuna Ahuja got a opportunity to interview Sonali Gupta,Project Manager, Grassroutes.in. Here are a few excerpts.

Karuna Ahuja: Can you briefly tell me about the history of Grassroutes.in?

Sonali Gupta: Well,It was all started by a group of four students from BITS Pilani.Due to the location of Pilani,these guys often went on road trips to nearby towns and villages, camping overnight, and sometimes striking conversations with villagers, social activists, grassroots innovators and change makers all of which shaped their perspective about social development. They concluded that road trips were the best ways to discover new things: people, places, problems and solutions to these problems. This is when the idea of Grassroutes was materialized.So far we’ve had 2 editions and 24 fellows who have had transformational experiences being a part of this initiative, coming close to the change makers who have devoted their lives for social development. With today’s education system, such opportunities tend to be little. Grassroutes is just an effort to bridge this gap and inspire people to make use of their resources and expertise to bring about a change.

KA: So what do you look for in a Grassroutes fellow?

SG: According to me, a Grassroutes fellow is a young enthusiastic person between the age of 18 to 25,who is open to learning. He is someone who is ready to shun all his preconceived notions, get out of his comfort level and is passionate to witness a social change.He is proactive, inquisitive, innovation-driven, has strong leadership abilities and above all loves to travel.

KA: What are the new innovations in this edition?

SG: This time we have increased the duration of the road trip from 10 days to 30 days in which the fellows will be working directly with an NGO where they will be undertaking individual/team projects. Also this time instead of team applications we are accepting individual entries and then we will club them into teams. This is done to make sure everyone is involved. Also working with new and different types of people will help broaden our Fellow’s horizons by exposing him to different views, different perspectives and different approach to problem solving. Also we are trying to make the pre trip online orientation program stronger to make it more beneficiary for our participants and provide them a wider perspective of social development and also equipping them with useful tools for social journalism before the actual trip. We are also introducing case studies of various organizations this time to help the fellows get a better overview of problem solving in social sector.

KA: What is the application procedure?

SG: The procedure is simple. The first step is to fill the online application form available on our website. This includes a couple of personal essays and also a “Be a changemaker for a Day” Campaign in which the applicant is supposed to work on any local project wherein he is able to make a difference,however small it maybe. Then he is supposed to tell us about this campaign through either a video or a blog. The idea is to get the person an understanding of the incentive that lies in social change.Also it helps us getting to know the applicant much better. We believe that the journey starts right from the application process and during this campaign the applicant learns a lot and is sensitized with the problems which are existing in his neighbourhood. The deadline for these applications is MARCH 1st, 2010. After this we will have a telephonic interview with the shortlisted applicants and then the final 50 odd people will be mapped to 15 different NGOs from a wide spectrum of sectors right from education to women empowerment to traditional art. At these NGOs, the fellows will work on either individual or group projects based on the requirements.

KA: What are the problems you face as an organization?

SG: Well in terms of organization,since most of our applicants are college students, time scheduling becomes a problem.All the conversations are either through mails or over the telephone  so we fail to actually interact with the fellows. Also during the road trip we want the fellows to be as independent as possible. So nobody from Grassroutes actually accompanies them. Sometimes it becomes challenging for us.

KA: What have been the most shocking experiences?

SG: Every edition has brought with it a whole bunch of learning for all of us. We have made many format changes due to many things that we had assumed earlier, some of which went as planned and some didn’t. Our major learning has been around the deliverable that are due to NGOs. We initially had promised them a media kit that would be done by the fellows which would be due shortly after the road-trip. However, the fellows were not able to deliver on it even after a few months which led to some amount of friction from the NGO. It took us some time to get hold of the situation and sort out issues with the NGO. This made us understand that we need to simplify the deliverables and ensure that all the deliverables are completed during the road-trip for the benefit of the fellows (as it gives the more mind space), the NGO (as they know what exactly is being done by the fellows) and us of course!

KA: What type of extraordinary or unusual ground realities have you come across?

SG: Our selection of NGO partners is very stringent and we look at a few qualities that the NGO needs to possess and also make it a point o meet them in person. Certain NGOs don’t fit the bill for us as they fail to understand the power of a young person and the benefit that they would receive through the work of a passionate young person. We come across such organisations on a daily basis and it is something that we need to keep a watch out for.

KA: How has grass routes affected the lives of its fellows?

SG: Grassroutes is about providing a powerful experience to the fellows to build perspectives and to explore and understand a community . We have seen our fellows become a lot more proactive in the development pace.  Many of them regularly volunteer with NGOs, some of them write and some write to us with interesting ideas and solutions they think can help. We have seen so many of them use networks well and attend global conferences and summits to learn and build new perspectives. Infact  I was recently talking to our fellow Hussain who is currently pursuing medicine.The trip made him understand the depleting health conditions in rural India and the lack of medical facilities. Now he wants to go to rural India after he becomes a doctor.

In the more abstract terms we see a lot of them being able to empathise and be sensitive to underserved communities. What never ceases to interest me is that the experience seems to get stringer as time passes. We see our fellows understanding different communities a lot better six month and 1 year later. We hope to see this impact growing stronger as time passes.

KA: What is your favourite definition of Social Entrepreneurship?

SG: Well I don’t believe there is any definition as such.Entrepreneurship itself is a concept creating a solution to an already existing problem.So for me social entrepreneurship means adding value to people through your work.

KA: With the resurgence of youth volunteerism, do you think the urban youth is becoming more and more aware of real problems faced by the society around them?

SG: Yes ofcourse!I myself worked with an NGO after my college.It was a good learning experience which really added value to my life,sensitising with the various problems faced by the society. I think its a great concept since young people bring in a new perspective,they are open minded, not cynical, innovative to say the least . Infact these interactions are very important and contribute significantly to their lives. I guess with social media also gaining popularity as an effective way of communication, more and more youngsters are getting involved, voicing their opinions, bringing about a change.

KA: Lastly ,how does it feel to develop changemakers?

SG: As I already mentioned that I worked full-time at an NGO right after my graduation for over a year, I understood the importance of young people doing developmental work. Young people can contribute a lot but most importantly, such work contributes to the young person and lays the foundation for very powerful work in the years to come.

It’s a great feeling to know that more young people are finding ways to get involved in social action through Grassroutes. It’s also amazing to see the sensitivity that such a fellowship brings to the person and how wonderfully it translates into the smaller aspects of the fellow’s life, be it in noticing the details, being sensitive to people or going that extra mile to help someone in need. Its a great feeling knowing that Grassroutes has enabled all of this. Its brilliant to see young people learn so much at a young age and use all the resources available to them to make a difference o other people. I really wish I too had the chance to do something similar during my college days.

The writer is a correspondent of Youth Ki Awaaz and also a student at BITS Pilani.