Service and Giving Back around Diwali: A Volunteer-Led Panel

Diwali; a special time of the year, filled with lights, joy, and celebration. As children, amidst the bright fireworks and unlimited supply of sweet treats, we often miss to notice the neatly packed gifts that our parents handpicked for family and friends. Diwali, the season not only of lights but of warmth and giving.

For Darshit Mehta, this has a very personal meaning. Growing up in Mumbai, he came to the U.S. to pursue a degree at Purdue University. There, he got to know about AIF through a student-led group on campus. Having witnessed the disparity between rich and poor in Mumbai, AIF’s mission deeply resonated with him. He soon stepped up to become an AIF student leader at Purdue. After moving to the West Coast to accept a job with a premier sportswear brand, he sought out ways to get involved with AIF as a young professional. This year’s Diwali celebration was the perfect opportunity for him to organize an event at his company to raise awareness for AIF’s cause: “It’s not only a time of celebrating with family, friends, fireworks and food, but it’s also a time to give back to the community.”

On November 17th, 2020, Darshit moderated a panel featuring three diverse representatives from AIF:

Anee Brar, who is AIF’s Director for the West Coast based in the Bay Area. In her role, she oversees AIF’s fundraising and partnerships in the region. Born in India but raised in the U.S., Anee has spent most of her career advancing anti-poverty work in the nonprofit and public sector. Joining AIF gave her the opportunity to leverage her background, skills, and interests for a direct impact on communities in India. She finds AIF’s mission very rewarding.

Mayesha Huq, who serves as president of AIF’s Young Professionals (YP) chapter in the Bay Area. As a volunteer, she mobilizes young people to support AIF’s cause. She has been associated with AIF for the past three years. She works in a finance start up and believes philanthropy is a very important part of one’s professional ecosystem. As a South Asian of Bangladeshi heritage, Mayesha feels very strongly connected to the pillar of giving that AIF focuses on.

Priya Charry, who is a librarian and served as a Fellow under AIF’s William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India from 2017-2018, joined us from Seattle. During her Fellowship, she supported a start-up in Hyderabad, in promoting and selling artwork by artists with disabilities and conducting art workshops for youth with disabilities. She believes she has grown tremendously with the Fellowship experience while making a tangible impact at a grassroots level. Her journey has also given her personal balance. As a person of biracial identity and being raised Jewish in the U.S., the time she spent working on the ground in India has brought her closer to her South Asian heritage and helped her understand this part of her identity better. Priya continues to serve the AIF community as an Alumni Ambassador and Alumni Mentor.

Hope, Empowerment and Service: Reasons to Give Back

Darshit opened up the panel with an introductory round and swiftly moved onto discussing why each of the panel members decided to work or volunteer with AIF. Each speaker spoke fondly about what motivates them to contribute to AIF’s cause. Anee shared her journey of finding the missing link between her professional passion and personal connection to India in AIF. As a nonprofit professional, AIF is her way of giving back to her community in India.

A group of 20+ students in uniforms posing with AIF staff, smiling and arms raised in the air, outside the classroom.
Anee with a group of students, teachers, AIF board members and staff during the annual AIF Leadership Trip to India in early February 2020, pre-COVID.

 

As for Mayesha, she finds hope in AIF. One of the pillars of Islam is giving back, which is what motivates her as well. Growing up in the U.S., she considers herself very fortunate in terms of having access to resources and opportunities that many of her peers in Bangladesh and India are not privy to. In her own words: “Many of us are children of migrants, whether it be first, second or third generation. We all come from somewhere. We have the ability to give back and that’s really what we should be doing because living in America, we have so many opportunities and so many blessings here. When I look at AIF as an organization, I look at it as an organization that’s giving people hope in India.”

As for Priya, it’s all about empowerment. As a librarian who believes in the power of education, learning with the community is a very important value for her. She embraced AIF’s motto of “Serve, Learn, Lead” as a guiding principle not just while in India but also when returning to Seattle: “Learning from everyone you’re interacting with, whether that is your co-workers, people on the ground, community partners, random people you meet on the street. Everyone has something to teach you. And then using what you’ve learned from people to ground you in leading gracefully and sensitively and compassionately.” As she has personally experienced AIF’s commitment and impact at the grassroots level towards empowering communities in India, Priya feels the best way to give is to empower so that people can advocate for themselves.

Priya guiding a workshop participant on how to use a tray with differently textured colors.
Priya training girls with low vision and total visual impairment on how to create fabric collages and paintings during a workshop in April 2018.

 

The discussion then moved towards speaking about their current focus and engagements with AIF in light of the pandemic.

Anee elaborated on AIF’s long-term efforts and focus on eradicating poverty through sustainable impact in the fields of public health, education, and livelihoods. Anee explained that poverty is multidimensional: “It’s like a three-legged stool. You can’t address one without the other.” This approach also informs AIF’s COVID-19 response, with all focus now being on #RebuildingLives. Anee provided an overview of AIF’s current initiatives with a focus on migrant workers and their families, who have been hit the worst by the pandemic. She announced “Light a LAMP,” a volunteer-led year-end giving campaign for AIF’s Learning and Migration Program, with a goal of raising $100,000 to give 20,000 children in India access to remote learning opportunities and ensure the continuity of their education during the pandemic.

What Giving Back Means to Young People

Priya took this opportunity to elaborate on her experience as an AIF Fellow and as an Alumna. She reflected on her learnings on the ground, which helped clear a lot of misconceptions she was carrying as an American citizen about what it means to live and work in a multi-faceted country like India. She mentioned facing dilemmas as a young professional trying to figure out her place in the world, and how the experiences on the ground shaped so much of her path and finding answers to the question of “How can I give back?” One of them is her engagement as an Alumna to mentor new cohorts of volunteers. She has enjoyed contributing to the strong existing Alumni network to support each other and continue a joint commitment to service in India, be it through mentorship, facilitating dialogues, hosting events, writing blogs, and engaging through social media.

Fifteen AIF Young Professionals in the Bay Area posing for a group picture.
Mayesha and her co-volunteers from the AIF Bay Area Young Professionals leadership team, pre-COVID.

Mayesha spoke passionately about the commitment to give as a corporate professional, and the joy she finds in creating tangible impact on the ground in India by volunteering for AIF locally in the U.S. She understands the power of channeling corporate sector skills and knowledge for charitable work. Whether it’s finance, consulting, tech, or graphic design: all can be put to use for great impact.

As a finance professional, Mayesha is applying her skills to running the Bay Area YP chapter’s fundraising efforts and translating numbers into impact. She believes if one cannot spare time as a resource, one can always offer monetary contributions: both are equally important and equally needed in this ecosystem. “You may get busy with jobs, kids, and family, but those $10 can make a big difference for people in India,” Mayesha noted.

Ways of Giving during the Pandemic

The discussion ended with a short Q&A where the attendees asked thoughtful questions like: “How can you get involved to learn rather than just donating?” Anee recommended donating your skills and time by volunteering in marketing, social outreach, and campaigning, as nonprofits are often stretched thin for resources and talent. Adding to this, Mayesha suggested that you can always learn and contribute by becoming a philanthropic ambassador, sharing AIF with your friends, family, and network: “You can take time out of your day to just talk about AIF, share it on your social media. That will give us outreach to people that can help in many ways.”

On a closing note, Priya and Mayesha both spoke about the importance of giving under the current circumstances. Priya explained the many ways to give that she and her family are putting into practice, like donating in lieu of holiday gifts, spreading the word on valuable causes like Light a LAMP, and other ways to find connectedness with their community. Priya is personally organizing a $25 donation drive with her family and friends, encouraging others to join and give $25 as well.

Mayesha added to the importance of giving right now. In her own words: “This is the season to give back. COVID is a very difficult time for everybody. We’re doing a lot of soul searching and part of that soul searching is giving back to other people, whatever way you can. It’s so important now for us as a world community to come together and help each other out. Because we’re super lucky to have what we have while other people are struggling. So if you have money, time, the resources, every little bit helps somebody in need.”

School girl drawing "Light a LAMP 2020" on a board
AIF’s Light a LAMP campaign runs until January 15, 2021. Learn more at: https://my.aif.org/campaign/light-a-lamp-2020/c310512.

 

Dr. Katja Kurz is the Program Manager for AIF's William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India. She manages U.S.-based operations out of the New York office, or currently, remotely. She also oversees AIF's Young Professionals chapters, supporting them in raising awareness and resources for AIF's mission. Katja believes in the power of community for collective action. She joined AIF in 2016 and enjoys being part of a team that creates a lasting bridge between the U.S. and India to accelerate social impact. Katja's background is in international education, academia, and nonprofit management. She earned her Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Mainz, and her Master’s in English from Clark University. Born in Germany, Katja spent most of her adult life in the U.S., with occasional travel to India.

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