Stories of Service Day 2

Each year a cohort of fellows embark on a 10-month journey to serve communities on the ground as part of the AIF Clinton Fellowship Program. This year, given the restrictions arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, the cohort was composed of only Indian Fellows, with a total of 11 fellows going to 9 different states to work with organizations to help underserved communities. This week we hear from these Fellows as they talk to us about their journey on the ground and the insights they learned along the way. The Stories of Service series ran for four days from July 26 to July 29, with each day featuring a set of Fellows who came together to share their experiences. We are excited that a total of 254 guests from across the world joined us live for these sessions.

On Tuesday, July 27, Fellows Anushri Saxena, Utsarga Mondal, and Aman Walia came together to talk about their experiences. The session was moderated by Amanpreet Kaur, Program Officer of the AIF Clinton Fellowship Program.  Anushri had served with Seba Jagat in Kalahandi, Odisha worked on a UNICEF-supported project that her host organization was running called Sampurna Barta. Utsarga Mondal spoke about his learnings from having worked with Shaishav, an organization in Bhavnagar, Gujarat that has been working with underprivileged children for more than 25 years. Aman worked on a pilot project on gender integration and mainstreaming, working with the Women’s Federation structure created by the National Rural Livelihood Mission. At the end of each presentation, there was a short interactive question and answer session, where members from the audience asked insightful questions to the Fellows and got to know more about their experiences.

Anushri started her presentation with a short video that summarized her journey as an AIF Clinton Fellow. She talked about her role at Seba Jagat which was to help with the Sampurna Barta initiative which focused on reducing maternal and infant mortality rates. During her time, she conducted several workshops with the staff at Seba Jagat, helping them learn how to organize virtual meetings, write case studies, take impactful pictures and on community engagement. She further talked about how to engage with indigenous communities, explaining how in her experience using participatory methods that allowed members from the community to engage effectively with others around them was a very successful strategy. She also spoke about how conducting a community needs assessment really helped her find what the problems of the community were. The largest problem was the lack of a rice mill, and to address this she and her team submitted a proposal for a rice mill to the block administration, which they are hopeful will be implemented in the near future. Finally, she discussed her own learnings and insights from having spent 10-months in Kalahandi, speaking about going into a new environment that had a new language and a very different community forced her to adapt and learn new ways of thinking to ensure she could make an impact.

Indigenous communities that live in remote areas continue to suffer problems that we have solutions for. For them, maternity and infant mortality rates continue to be massive challenges whereas, in more urban areas where there are more medical facilities available, such problems have been largely eradicated. Moreover, these communities do not get a voice in a lot of decisions that are made on a broader scale, leading to a lack of resources and lower quality of life. Anushri’s presentation highlighted the need to listen to these communities to understand what their problems are and how we can address them. Getting local communities to be part of the process is crucial in creating effective and sustainable solutions for the long term.

A Screen Shot from Anushri's presentation
A Screen Shot from Anushri’s presentation

Utsarga outlined the need in society to help marginalized communities, and how in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, he thought it was critical to help these communities that are disproportionately impacted during times of crisis. His host organization, Shaishav works to help children from these marginalized communities, doing so by initiatives such as Bal Ghar which aim to place any children that drop out of school back into school or into Angadwadi center. After school hours, Shaishav further helps rehabilitate children by organizing activities to build skills by providing tuition lessons, extracurricular activities and workshops. Similar to Anushri, Utsarga also conducted a needs assessment survey, learning about the large problem of child labor despite children wanting to study in school. Alongside, Utsarga during his time helped conduct several zonal sports meets, with over 300 children participating. Having an interest in sports, he helped train the track team and used sports training to teach life skills such as teamwork and creative thinking to students. Talking about his daily routine, he told the audience that in the morning he worked with his organization helping develop better documentation and communication process. In the afternoons, he interacted with the children in the community and also attended community council meetings. Towards the end of his presentation, he shared his thoughts on measures that could have been taken to combat the loss of education that was created by COVID-19.

Utsarga’s presentation highlighted how drop-out rates continue to be very high in India, particularly because children often have to start working very early due to their families being poor. Due to this, these children often get stuck in poverty cycles where they never have the skills to get more high-paying jobs that can lift them out of poverty and provide a better quality of life. Despite the right of education being established into law years ago, as a country, India’s children do not get the education they deserve. We need to address this problem by using an interdisciplinary approach that Utsarga himself recognized in his presentation, where we can help the parents who are struggling so that the children themselves can also go to school.

A Screen Shot from Utsarga's presentation
A Screen Shot from Utsarga’s presentation

Aman in his presentation talked about the issue of gender and women empowerment. He began with outlining Gender Transformative Approaches, discussing the barriers that exist to gender equality and how to create an environment where women can feel powerful and respected. He then illustrated the problem of gender inequality in India through statistics that highlighted how women faced discrimination on multiple fronts: from economic and financial problems to social biases. He then shared his learning from his experience working in this space as a Fellow for the last year. From a safety perspective, he worked on evaluating the implementation of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act (SHWA) from 2013. From a women empowerment perspective he worked on creating a Gender Resource Center (GRC) and redesigning the training curriculum for his organization using a gender lens. He then went on to detail his work in these three projects, highlighting the critical components and how he navigated challenges posed by the pandemic in making a lot of the work virtual. A key focus during his presentation was on inclusivity and how any training model or resource needs to be available to all people and can be used easily. In conclusion, he provided insights into the future of Gender Transformative Approaches, and how they could be developed to combat gender inequality in India.

A Screen Shot from Aman's presentation
A Screen Shot from Aman’s presentation

Aman’s presentation touched a lot of the same issues that Amiya had talked about on Monday. Aman however differed in providing this comprehensive tool of Gender Transformative Approaches that we can use to combat gender inequality. India continues to be one of the nations facing gender inequality, continuing to face issues such as female infanticide and child marriage. Using the tools that Aman talked about as well as his experience in the field, I thought these issues can be addressed in the future if there is a larger concerted effort to combat these problems. Organizations such as the one Aman worked with are a critical part of the solution. Through them, we can change the discourse and have much-needed conversations that can finally establish a more equal and free society.

Hearing about all three fellows’ work was very interesting. You can watch the full session by clicking here.

Devang Laddha is a second-year undergraduate student at the University of Chicago, where he studies Political Science and Economics. His main area of interest is international development. He's originally from Kolkata and very excited by the work AIF is doing, particularly through the Fellowship program and more recently with COVID-19 relief work. Being from India, he's passionate about learning from and helping people back home. During the summer of 2021, Devang worked as an intern for the AIF Fellowship Program through the University of Chicago's Jeff Metcalf Internship Program to support AIF's 20-year anniversary campaign.

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