‘I Took A Break From An Ivy League College To Work In Indian Villages, Here’s What It Taught Me’

Posted on November 12, 2014 in Society, Specials

By Zubin Sharma:

Madad. Mehanat. Mannat.

On the first day I reached the Bishanpur village in Bihar, my new coworker Abodh Kumar asked me to live my life by these three words.

The words are so simple, almost obvious, and yet, they were so profound. They reminded me why I had taken a semester off in the first place — to escape from the intellectual world at UPenn, where I had learned to construct and deconstruct complex theories for the past 3 years, but had forgotten how to focus on what was happening right in front of me.

Picture credits: Facebook page of Project Potential
Picture credits: Facebook page of Project Potential

Recognizing how little I knew or understood was liberating. It allowed me to ask questions about relationships, purpose, intelligence and love with a beginner’s mind.

I wanted to see new places, meet new people, and understand how intelligence, ideas, and potential were understood outside of the Ivy League — in places where people hadn’t even heard of the Ivy League.

With this idea in mind, I started a project through an NGO in India, where my father is from, to explore this question. That’s where I met Abodh.

Spending time with people like Abodh, who in spite of significantly fewer resources and many more obstacles, had such strong convictions and were doing so much for the society, confirmed my earlier hypothesis that potential exists everywhere.

And yet, this potential was disconnected and lacked the necessary nurture to grow, so I started organizing community meetings to bring people together–people interested in working for change.

The issue that came up over and over again was education, so we built up educational programs for every stakeholder in the village –from mothers to preschoolers, all the way up to high-schoolers. All of these programs were run by local volunteers from the community. That led to the first organization I started — SEEKHO.

SEEKHO worked to create a culture of learning in the village by involving all stakeholders in the educational process. This included mother literacy classes, anganwadi support, literacy camps for primary school students, subject-wise classes for middle school students, and matric preparation for high schoolers. All of our teachers were local volunteers, who taught in exchange for English, computer, and leadership courses. By involving everyone in the learning process — including the teachers — we were able to start changing norms. SEEKHO has taught over 5,000 community members in total.

Over time, however, we noticed that many of our students were slipping through the cracks due to other issues they faced, like poverty and health problems. Even if we worked hard to change norms and provide quality education, we would never be fully successful until these issues were addressed.

In response, many of our local volunteers and teachers started to address other issues in the community in their free team. For example, they decided to clean up a dump next to our facility to create a sports field for our students. Others taught basic health and sanitation practices to lower the likelihood that their students would get sick.

Seeing their incredible desire, strength, and resilience to improve their village in whatever way possible gave us the idea to start a new pilot in which our volunteers would use existing resources to help the community achieve their self-defined goals. Using local resources — including local skills, physical assets, and government support — our local staff, what we call Village Visionaries, were able to get a new school built, bring electricity, jobs, and cultural programs to their villages.

With this success in mind, we started a new organization called Project Potential, which selects, trains, and supports local Village Visionaries to use local resources to help communities reach their goals. As of January 2015, we will be expanding to three new districts, and by the end of 2015, we will begin work in Jharkhand and West Bengal as well.

All of us have embodied what Abodh taught me–madad, mehanat, mannat–to simply work hard and be devoted to serving others. And yet, this would have been significantly harder without the support we provide to one another.

There are thousands of Village Visionaries across rural India who are doing micro social innovations, and yet no one has recognized or supported them, so their ideas remain small. And yet, as we’ve seen, a little bit of help goes a long way in helping these social change agents transform their communities.