A Day in the Life: All Work, All Play

The GOAL Programme (GOAL) at the Naz Foundation (India) Trust is designed to empower adolescent girls with life skills using sports for development — netball in particular. In 2006, the GOAL Programme was launched in Delhi (expanding to Mumbai in 2009, Chennai in 2013, and Bangalore in 2016). GOAL is a 10-month training geared toward girls between 12 and 19 years old, to encourage leadership and personal growth, as well as provide them with opportunities to learn life skills. Delivered in urban slums and municipal schools, the programme combines bi-weekly sports sessions with life skills training that touches on topics such as gender based violence, gender equality, menstrual health and financial literacy. Each GOAL session is delivered to a maximum of 100-125 girls, ensuring a facilitator-participant ratio of 1: 25.

The Work

I had the pleasure of being able to sit in on a session on body image, and body awareness. Giggles abound as the coach called attention to the front of the room, and asked everyone to repeat after her. She started with a simple body part, the head.
“Head” –
“Head” the students echoed in response.
“Shoulders” said the coach.
“Shoulders!” the girls cried.
“Breasts” the coach said nonchalantly.
“BREASTS” the coach repeated.

A few echoed. Some laughed. Most looked down and around – anywhere other than the front of the room.
The goal of the exercise was to highlight different parts of female anatomy, and to start the conversation and get young girls comfortable with talking about it. There is no need to be ashamed of something natural, something we all have – this was the common sentiment that I heard time and time again throughout the session. Even in a classroom full of only women and girls, there was a strong aversion to uttering the word “breast” and “vagina” (as a result of societal conditioning). Although girls’ empowerment and skill-strengthening is important, I realized at this moment how easily the basics (such as being aware of, and comfortable with one’s body) often get overlooked in social impact work.


The Play

Going into the field, I had no idea what to expect; moreover, I didn’t want to have any expectations, as I knew they’d most likely be wrong (for better or worse). When I arrived, I quickly realized that I wouldn’t be able to simply observe a session, as has been the plan. Not unlike a typical elementary school experience, my arrival was treated with many looks of surprise – shock – engrossment. At this point, I realized that my effort to not disrupt the session and blend in had utterly failed. I glanced at the clock: two hours to go.

My biggest fear for the day was being a distraction and less than two minutes into a session, I was well on my way. Thankfully, the coach I was with took control, and directed the girls’ attention back to netball. On that day there were too many girls and not enough coaches. I suddenly found myself in charge of a sports session with 40 primary school-age girls, with others sneaking away to join my group in order to sneak a peek at the newcomer.

Photo Credit: Akiera Gilbert – Naz Foundation Coaches.

The girls in the session looked at me with wild curiosity – in part because I’m a Black female, but more so because my hair was twisted into a braiding pattern that they had never seen before. There stood an interesting picture: 40 girls – with bright eyes and palpable energy – and me, nervous as to how we would communicate due to my being in a Hindi-language school, hoping that my pathetic knowledge of Hindi – at this point in time – would be enough to scrape by and communicate. The questions began to flood over me:

“Aap ka naam hai?”
“Where are you from?”
“Aap kaise hai?”
“How do you do your hair like that?!”

I spoke in English (interspersed with what little Hindi I could stammer out):
“Mera naam Akiera hai. I’m from New York. The U.S. It’s just my hair – it’ll look different, but I can show you if you’d like.”

I knew – I was a distraction, but a welcome one. In my attempt to not intrude in a community, I could have easily shied away and done a disservice by refusing to share my culture, and a further disservice to us all by not allowing myself to learn from the bright-eyed future leaders that stood in front of me. I’ve continued to be shown time and time again that girls empowerment – and social impact overall – has no facet that is simple. There is no prescription for success, or a set way to integrate oneself into a community. But as I continue to learn and grow, I can only hope to do provide the service that does justice for the Naz Foundation, and help cultivate a new generation of leaders.

Hailing from the small suburb of Ossining, New York, Akiera knew from a young age that she did not want to settle down in a mundane locale early on in life. That mindset led her to Boston, where she attended Northeastern University in 2013. Northeastern has a co-op program that provides students with 6-month opportunities (up to three times throughout their undergraduate career) to pursue full-time work positions in their field of interest. Having worked at a local health improvement NGO and a government agency, she decided prior to her senior year that it was time for her to go after her interest in sustainable international development, despite her fears of not having the correct toolkit. During undergrad, she immersed herself in research across a wide variety of social impact sub-disciplines: from human trafficking to drug abuse to sexual violence. Public health emerged as a common thread amongst all of her studies. In 2016, she traveled to Kenya to work with a NGO in Nairobi to evaluate the effectiveness of a sexual gender-based violence (SGBV) resource tool the organization had developed to be put to use in an informal settlement. Later that year, she also worked in a consultant-capacity in Cape Town, South Africa with micro-entrepreneurs that had designed a business to create a foundation for social connections and employ refugee women from other African nations.

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