Connecting with a Cause, an Idea, and Communities

The following blog is an excerpted speech given by CEO Nishant Pandey at the New England Gala on March 31, 2018 

Nishant Pandey, CEO, American India Foundation

I feel immensely proud to be a part of AIF which is essentially a movement dedicated to bringing about social and economic change in India. I was in the Bay Area last weekend with an audience of some 500 supporters, in Orange County the weekend before with an audience of around 250 supporters and today we have close to 400 people in the room! AIF is a movement and it is your movement.

So, I want to thank each one of you for turning up tonight to support the cause that AIF stands for. The Gala Chairs Vikram, Kunjan, Asha and Kim, and of course, Venkat, Protima and Raj and Nalini who are the biggest drivers behind the New England Chapter, deserve our gratitude for their outstanding efforts in making the NE Gala so successful.

As some of you may know, I was the AIF Country Director based in India for three years before recently moving to the USA to take up my new role as the CEO. Having now spent a few weeks in the US though, I must also say that I am incredibly inspired by the remarkable passion, dedication and commitment of all those who support us – the AIF Board, our Chapter leaders, young professionals, donors, staff and volunteers.

We work in some of the most remote, inaccessible and secluded rural parts of India. Partnering with dedicated people and organizations, we reach the country’s underserved communities by meeting three of their most basic and essential needs – health, education and livelihoods – through seven flagship programs. MANSI under the health vertical; DE and LAMP under the Education vertical; MAST, ABLE and Rickshaw Sangh under the Livelihoods vertical. The Fellowship program cuts across all themes.

Having designed and evaluated development programs for now almost 20 years in several countries, I must say I am very proud of each one of AIF’s programs that we run on the ground in India. I passionately believe that, supported by successful partnerships, we are making a transformative difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of children, youth, women and men that we serve through our programs. Over the last 17 years, our programs have directly benefitted close to 4 million people.

I had no role in deciding it, but I love the theme of our Gala tonight, “Connect: Connect with the Cause, Connect with Ideas, Connect with the Community”. I love it because in many ways, AIF represents the spirit and philosophy of ‘connect’.

Connecting two democracies

We often call ourselves a ‘bridge’, a bridge between the two largest democracies of the world. And the purpose of a bridge is to connect! We do this in many different ways but the one that’s most visible is our Fellowship program. This connect is aptly captured in this photograph of Alyssa Russo, Fellow from the Class of 2015-16, who came from White Plains New York and went to India to serve the migrant community that works in the salt pans of Kutch, Gujarat. Alyssa’s Fellowship gave her a real-world opportunity to connect, and she has blogged about it here:

Connecting development sector actors

We are a bridge, by doing policy work at the state and federal level, between various development actors on the ground who will otherwise not connect. Take for example, those States where we organize SMC Conventions – a platform for School Management Committee leaders to make a representation to the Ministry for Education in that State.

AIF also practices change at the corporate or community level. For example, in ABLE’s VEER campaign where we work with hundreds of corporates every year advocating for their recruitment policies to become more inclusive towards Persons with Disabilities. And the Swagat Utsav in LAMP which uses community processes to ensure that girls, who are very likely to drop out after 8th Grade, would continue to study. AIF is providing a supportive environment which will enable people to initiate, sustain, and positive desirable outcomes!

Connecting people to effect social change

And finally, AIF represents the ‘connect’ between the aspirations, resilience and perseverance of marginalized people in India and the generosity, commitment and passion of the community here in the USA. Your passion to give back, your passion to do good! It is this passion that transforms poverty into potential! It is this connection that transforms poverty into promise!

Be it the life of a young woman Jyoti, who comes from a very conservative part of the State of Haryana. She chose to enroll herself in auto-mechanic skills training as part of the MAST program, challenging entrenched gender stereotypes that exist in her community and thereby inspiring many hundreds of other girls; Jyoti is one of the 140 thousand under‐privileged youth we have provided employability skills to.

Or the very young girls – Seema and Sushree – from one of the most backward districts, Khorda, in the State of Odisha, who obtained Rank 1 and 2 at the Eastern Regionals Financial Literary assessment test conducted by the Government, because of assistance from our DE program. They are two of the 2 million children we have served through the DE program.

Or Sushma Gope, the ASHA worker, who has handled 12 high risk cases of newborns in her remote tribal village of Hathimara in the State of Jharkhand and saved lives of countless more. She is one of the 3650 ASHA workers we are training as part of our MANSI program. Sushma was recognized at the Healers of India awards ceremony in Delhi where she received this award from the Union Minister of Health.

Small actions. But, powerful results.

This story, this connection works only because of your support. Thank you for being an active agent of change!

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