The Rush-Hour Crawl of Progress

Heading home from my first day of work, I found myself in a packed Uber Pool in rush hour Hyderabad traffic. We moved at a glacial pace from the Youth4Jobs office in Banjara Hills, the radio tuned to a Telugu pop station. One passenger gossiped on her phone, the other scrolled through Twitter. From the backseat, I tried to focus on anything but the vehicular chaos around me: young men eating at a pani puri cart, a child gazing longingly at a sweets shop.

However, some sights caught me off guard: autorickshaws advertising mobile booking through the Ola app; a customer scanning a QR code to pay for his food; a line of giant unfinished cement pillars sprouting out of the middle of the road.

This is my second trip to India; I spent an undergraduate semester here in Hyderabad in 2013. But a lot has changed since and it is difficult not to compare then and now. Mobile apps have transformed daily life and a long-awaited metro system is in the works. The city itself became part of the newest Indian state, Telangana, in 2014. [1] As I process these updates from the past few years, the traditionally-slow march of progress has seemed less like rush hour traffic inching through crowded streets and more like a competitive road race. I see that I have a lot of catching up to do.

Over the past month I have been contemplating the meaning of ‘progress’, both in the field of development and in my own fellowship placement. Beyond simply building a metro system, for example, it questions the action’s future implications: How will this improve the standard of living in Hyderabad? Is this measurable? Is it the same for everyone? And for me, as a foreigner, can I ever truly understand how this progress will impact India’s diverse populace? I don’t know. But with every unfamiliar experience in this familiar city, I see modern India more and more as a growing organism that requires new solutions to old problems.

At Youth4Jobs (Y4J), the core problem is how to help the huge population of young adults with disabilities enter the workforce, to create and sustain viable livelihoods. The solution in place is a national network of skilling centers, in which Millennial-aged disabled youth are placed in small cohorts and taught computer skills, soft skills, English, and select specializations. They are then placed at companies that have themselves been sensitized through corporate workshops (also offered by Y4J). Potential workplaces include retail outlets, jewelers, hotels, call centers, salons, and more. This program has expanded in five years from one skilling center to 22, from one state to 11. [2]

I had the privilege of visiting Y4J’s Hyderabad training center in my first week here. Students are enrolled in programs ranging from a couple weeks to two months, in which they are equipped with the competitive communication and technology skills needed to work a public-facing job. Over two days I observed classes in session and offered my assistance. It was a lovely opportunity to engage with young adults with vision, speech and hearing, and locomotor impairments and learn their stories. For these students, two months of intensive classes leads to life-changing gainful employment—visible, measurable progress.

Youth4Jobs English conversation group
Questions received during an English conversation group at Y4J’s Hyderabad training center. This class is comprised of visually-impaired students and instructors.

Building on its success, Y4J is expanding into new ventures such as my project, Not Just Art (NJA). Through a comprehensive web portal, social media marketing, and a network of artists and advocates, we will promote the work of disabled artists across India to the international art world. In the coming months we will branch into e-commerce, helping artists earn steady income via art sales. My role in this project is multifaceted: researching disability art initiatives, communicating with artists, learning about web accessibility standards, managing social media, and other tasks that wax and wane from day to day.

Not Just Art logo
Not Just Art logo.

It can be hard to grasp the impact of one’s work when pushing against the status quo—at Y4J, when empowering people with disabilities who have been systematically excluded from mainstream society. But I believe the shift from Y4J’s classroom training to NJA’s digital platform is indicative of an evolving global mindset that makes these initiatives possible. It embraces international and cross-cultural collaboration; it doesn’t shy away from breaking stereotypes. It can be risky, undoubtedly, as digital initiatives involve investing in often-unreliable technologies and distant partners. But this is progress, however slowly it may become visible. As I am learning every day, it requires an honest assessment of one’s limitations and a willingness to step into uncharted territory with humility and an open mind.

Since that first Uber ride in rush hour, I have been less taken aback by the unfamiliar. Hyderabad has changed a whole lot in four years, but so have I. As I ease into this fellowship, I want to cultivate an experience free of comparisons—shifting away from what is known or novel, better or worse, to focus on simply what is; to accept each day as it comes and trust that the process of progress will carry me forward at its own pace.

Hot chai, notebook, laptop
Workplace necessities: MacBook, notebook, hot chai.

In these ten months I will be sharing my rambling thoughts, quick sketches, and unanswerable questions from several perspectives: as an AIF Fellow, a woman, an artist and musician, an biracial American of Indian ancestry, a librarian, a runner, and a lifelong student in India. It is my privilege and pleasure to join the AIF community.

Notes:

[1] Sivaraman, Sriram. “The Story of India’s 29th State—Telangana.” The Hindu, 1 June 2016. http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/telangana/The-story-of-Indias-29th-State-%E2%80%94-Telangana/article14384461.ece. Accessed 20 October 2017.

[2] “PWD Youth.” Youth4Jobs, 2017. http://youth4jobs.org/pwdyouth.php#linkscroll. Accessed 20 October 2017.

priyacharry

Priya is a librarian and artist passionate about connecting people with life-changing knowledge, resources, and experiences. She has a master's degree in library and information science, and has worked in public and academic libraries, archives, and arts institutions. As an undergraduate, she spent a semester in Hyderabad studying Indian literature and culture. Her graduate research includes rural Indian libraries, Indo-Caribbean library systems, digital libraries, and services to underrepresented communities. Prior to the AIF Clinton Fellowship, Priya worked as a reference librarian at the Boston Public Library and as a library and archives assistant at Harvard University. She also volunteered as a youth mentor and has played in a variety of world music ensembles. In her free time she enjoys running, cycling, book and paper arts, and exploring her community through food and music. Priya is motivated by the belief that everyone can benefit from community-driven education and public programming, from the neighborhood to the national level. She is excited to join Youth4Jobs in their newest venture and connect young artists of all abilities to allies and employment.

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