Reminiscence: Digging into the Past Ten Months

Growing up in a male-dominant and orthodox society, I had never thought that I would, someday, be a part of an international fellowship like the AIF Clinton Fellowship. I always loved to travel and explore new places, people, culture and leave no stone unturned. I think travelling brings out a spanking new self within you through life changing experiences. In this blog, I will share some inner-directed moments of my personal journey in the past ten months.

During my school days, I used to travel across the globe through the pages of my general knowledge (GK) book. Sometimes, I find myself relishing the beauty of the Taj Mahal while at other times, I could witness my finger roving from place to place on the world map in Atlas. I was then quite certain about my cup of tea. However, The taste doesn’t persist the same but we keep adding on new ingredients to that cup of tea into more flavorsome and befitting. When I gave the nod to pursue MS in social work, I caught a glimpse of myself in several other girls in rural areas latching on to a desire for just a few more years of school. I then had a realization that “I am not only one into this trench”. I was disturbed by how their voices were left unheard by their family, community, and the state. I started introspecting, “What is the use of my master’s degree if I can’t help them?”, “What, where, and how I can intervene”, and lastly “Am I really brave enough to help them?”. I realized then that I had to change myself and make my voice louder enough to become their voice. I needed to experience and comprehend more about what, where and how I could give back to the community. This was the reason why I chose to be an AIF Fellow. 

Still, I had fear of doubting my decision and potential. And I thought “Am I really brave and resilient? Could I cope with the challenges and head in a new and diverse environment?

Before joining the Fellowship Orientation program, I received a compilation of all AIF Fellows’ bio. The very first thought which striked in my mind was “how many Indian fellows are going to join the fellowship?” It may be because we, as humans, are bound with proximity and we-feeling and we always want to be in that sphere only. 

Fellows on the last day of Midpoint. PC @ Ismael Byers

I scrolled down the document and found 5 Indian fellows. That gave me a breath again and I thought, finally, I could find my comfort zone among them. Ironically, my comfort zone was found with McKenna, an american fellow. That day, I realised nationality, ethnicity, caste, gender, or age doesn’t bring comfort but it’s just heart, our common values and goals that tie us together. And that comfort space got widened to all the 18 individuals hailing from the US and India. We started our journey as just friends and now in the end of June, we realized how a warm bond (personally & professionally) we have developed with each other and the whole Clinton Fellowship Team. This fellowship gave me an opportunity to widen my perception about communities & people belonging to diverse cultures.

When I landed at my Fellowship host organization (SAFA) in Hyderabad, I became enthralled with their vision to empower women socio-economically and educate girl children whilst retaining the cultural fabric of the community.  I witnessed women surviving in the harshest conditions still doing wonders to their lives. This empowerment actually empowered me enough to take a lead in the path of changemaking. I have seen the run-down neighbourhoods surrounded by the tall glass buildings and lavish restaurants. In the past months, I encountered the intricacies of India and its life, the variation in development system and persistent dichotomies between the rich and poor, the difference and similarities between the north & south Indian communities and the veiled discrimination between and among genders. It is this experience of working on my project that fostered my interest in the power of story-telling and the capacity of a person to share their own to bring change and also draw inspiration from the stories of others.

A jewellery stall in Lad Bazar, Hyderabad.

I truly respect and relish the rich diversity (language, food, culture, norms, traditions) I encountered during these ten months. During the fellowship, I challenged myself to survive amidst the uncertainties and chaos. I saw a new light within myself. From doubting my own instincts to the fear that stopped me in believing my own true self. From facilitating the multi-stakeholder dialogues through  co-creation and collaboration to developing the self-sufficient models with the local communities, I saw communities and social impact through a new lens. 

This fellowship gave me an opportunity to understand the development sector, problems prevailing at the grassroot level, power of collaboration and cooperation among various sectors to find creative and innovative solutions towards sustainable development.

If I look back, it’s beyond belief that I am the same person who used to sit in a corner and was afraid to speak up. Through my work, I have grown both professionally and personally. The biggest thing which i learnt is that i have to keep moving forward. I have to summon all of my inner strength to let go of who I was then and use all of my courage and faith to focus on who I want to be now – and who I want to be tomorrow. It might take time and everything to let go of yesterday, but once I do, I’ll find inner satisfaction. 

In the end I know what, where and how to give back to the community as a social worker and a storyteller which I turned out to be in these past ten months. And now I aspire to tell the stories of profound empowerment to diverse audiences, specifically to those who are the heroes of their stories but haven’t realised how empowered their stories are and how it can bring change in the stories of others who are allied to them.  

Author’s Note: This blog post is adapted from a speech I delivered at the Fellowship Closing Seminar on July 1st, 2020. Listen below (starting at 1:26:26).

Mantasha is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with SAFA in Hyderabad, Telangana. For her Fellowship project, she is designing a communication strategy for engaging illiterate and semi-literate women and children at skills training centers and for publicizing program impact externally. Born and raised in a small district in western Uttar Pradesh, Mantasha pursued her education from Aligarh Muslim University. She graduated in English Literature in 2015, pursued a post-graduate diploma in Journalism and Mass Communication in 2016, and completed her Master’s in Social Work in 2018. All through her academic pursuits, Mantasha weaved a dream of playing a part in the development sector. She began her career in Buildyourself Sewa Sanstha as project coordinator to work on skill development of youth and handicraft artisans in Moradabad. During her graduation, she spent a year to work as block coordinator in Nirbal Samaj Kalyan Parishad in Aligarh, focusing on education, health, and family welfare. She interned with Digital Empowerment Foundation in New Delhi, offering digital literacy to children in slum areas. Mantasha strongly believes in the power of storytelling and the capacity of a person to share their own to bring change and also draw inspiration from the stories of others. Owing to this belief, she particularly gets pleasure from creative works like composing poetry, writing quotes and short stories, painting and sketching, and art and craft works in her leisure time. She also enjoys learning new skills through virtual courses. Through the AIF Clinton Fellowship, Mantasha is tremendously excited to foster her experience and knowledge in the development sector. For her, this Fellowship would act as an incubator where she can implement her ideas and expand her learning.

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