By: Amanda Kamalapuri
I recently had the incredible opportunity to moderate a panel focusing on AIF’s Clinton Fellowship. As a new member of AIF’s New York Young Professional (NYYP) Chapter’s Leadership Committee, I had been looking for a way to learn more about the organization and to interact with those that truly embodied AIF’s mission. The Clinton Fellowship was the perfect place to start, so I decided that the Fellowship would be the feature of NYYP’s first philanthropic event of 2018.
I began my research through the website and I was instantly captivated. The blog posts and stories of past Fellows were inspiring to read about. Individuals had given their time and energy towards causes that focused on social enterprise, education, women’s health and microfinance. I knew that if I learned so much from the website, having an in-person panel discussion would be a great chance educate myself and my peers on the positive impact that the Clinton Fellowship has.
I interviewed Alison Chatfield (2010-11), Kishore Eechambadi (2010-11), Mrinal Mohanka (2014-15) and Alyssa Russo (2015-16) about their time in India. They talked about their specific projects, the people they met, and the lessons they learned. Each of them brought a unique perspective to the panel. The Fellows had been through many tough obstacles and challenges along the way, but they had persevered to help the communities that they were in.
Alison shared a story that I will always remember. When asked about a moment that meant the most to her, she recalled this: She had been working on maternal and newborn health in Jharkhand, and at one time found herself in the same village hospital that she had worked with – this time as a patient. Just before Thanksgiving, she caught a nasty stomach virus. Drifting in and out of sleep in her hospital bed, she saw familiar faces around her. She knew the hospital staff and many of the patients, since she’d worked with them on her project. Among them, she recognized a young pregnant woman from the village. That young women – like so many others – was malnourished and abused by her husband. Her pregnancy was high-risk. Through the work with the NGO, Alison had encouraged this young woman to come to the hospital to give birth instead of staying at home. This way, the doctors and nurses could make sure her baby would receive proper medical care. “I saw her from afar and was pleased to know that she was there,” Alison told us. Waking up the next morning, Alison asked about the baby. “They didn’t make it,” was the response she received. Incredulous, she didn’t quite understand what this meant until the words sunk in. Neither the young mother nor the baby had made the night. They both died during birth. “It was in that moment that I understood the reality of our work, and the enormous challenge that we face – how we had spent so much time trying to improve maternal and newborn health, but yet we couldn’t save these two,” Alison confessed. “But I also understand how important it is that we continue,” she concluded. Shaken to the core, she decided to pursue public health after the Fellowship.
Another moment that stood out to me was when Alyssa spoke about the surprising impact that her presence had on the villagers around her. She worked for LAMP in Kutch, Gujarat, where she hosted focus group discussions. As a foreigner, she relied heavily on the villagers she lived with for daily tasks, translations, and to get by. She talked about how her neighbor became her best friend throughout the year. She would have dinner at her house and pay her. They grew to be close, Alyssa described the neighbor as her best friend. Alyssa remembered how when she was about to say goodbye at the end, her neighbor surprised her with a confession: “Alyssa, I’ve seen your work this year and have decided that I will go back to school and get a degree, so that I can do the same!” All this time, Alyssa had used village-led focus group discussions among the women to explore educational paths, and to make the case for educating girls. And here was her neighbor, who witnessed Alyssa’s work and started taking an interest. “All this time I didn’t realize that our many conversations ‘outside of work’ inspired this adult woman to go back to school and finish her 10th grade education,” Alyssa concluded. “I was extremely humbled by this.” Sometimes your impact may be where you least expect it.
Kishore, who served in India the same year as Alison, shared funny anecdotes about being culture-shocked as an Indian American returning to India. When arriving at his host site, for example, he accidentally threw his suitcases and belongings in a neighbor’s yard which he mistook for his organization’s office, only to return later and “steal” his things back without anyone noticing. In his project, Kishore was able to use his corporate and financial background to help his host organization create business plans to market tofu products in India – not an easy task, as you can imagine. He described himself as a “Tofu Salesman!” He soon realized that he had to let go of a lot of preconceived notions about business models, since they just wouldn’t work in this context. “I had to un-learn a lot of things,” Kishore acknowledged.
Similar to Kishore, Mrinal worked in the entrepreneurial space, for a budding start-up that would grow exponentially during his year: from 30 to 250 employees. Mrinal shared an anecdote about the spirit of entrepreneurship in India, which never ceases to impress him. A young boy came up to him one time and tried to sell him a guidebook with a map. The boy was no older than 7 or 8. He said, in Hindi, “30 rupees – very good price.” Before Mrinal could politely decline, the young salesman continued his pitch: he opened the inside front cover and pointed to a sticker saying MRP Rs. 20. When Mrinal asked him why he was trying to sell the guidebook for 30 rupees if it said 20, the boy answered, “20 rupees for the book, 5 for the map, and 5 for me.” Mrinal smiled when remembering this: “I thought this was a brave move by any salesman, especially this young one. I was impressed. Certainly a lot of entrepreneurial spirit there.”
It was these small stories and more that were amazing to hear firsthand. I was grateful to be able to learn more about the Fellows’ time in India. The panelists were authentic and captivating as they hey shared their ups and downs and brought us along their journey. It truly was a great night!
Being a part of AIF’s NYYP Chapter has given me the remarkable opportunity to not only learn more about AIF, but to engage in AIF’s mission of catalyzing social and economic change in India. Though I was not able to visit India, I had the chance to facilitate an awesome learning opportunity for myself and my peers. It was an honor to plan this event and I hope to plan many more like it.