At the start of 2017, I began my year by asking “what next?” Life seemed pretty normal on the surface, and yet it wasn’t. I felt stuck in life, unsure of where to head, and through serendipitous events, found myself as an AIF Clinton Fellow placed at Shaishav, in Bhavnagar Gujarat. To say that these past ten months went as I’d planned it, is an understatement, but I’ve learnt a lot on the way. Through this series of articles, I hope to reflect back and elucidate my two cents on what worked and didn’t work for me and what I’m taking back from it all.
In the first few months, I found myself in a new environment with no understanding of where to begin or even what skill sets to employ. Where was I to begin? I was hoping to be told where to start. I found myself extremely unsure of how to ask for help or direction.
I began by making field visits to the Balsena points and events, took over the task of documentation (read: clicking pictures) for many events and tried to grasp the Gujarati being spoken around me. Yet I had never felt more useless and isolated in my life. I was raring to go “make a difference in people’s lives” as I have announced to everyone back in Delhi, to meet faces mixed with a sense of pride and awe; but here, in Bhavnagar, no one seemed to know what to do with me. My colleagues were exceptionally nice people – who took me to all the events, made sure I was comfortable and attended to, translated for me but also kept a slight distance – worried perhaps, of what I would report back to my mentor.
I had hoped to swoop in, start my work, learn and finish my project with tangible deliverables that I could show (off) to organisations thereafter. I wasn’t the least bit prepared to being treated as a “guest” in the organisation. Reflecting back, I think one of the disadvantages (which can also be an advantage in many ways) of the title “Fellow” is that the workspace does not know what to do with you. You’re not an employee and you don’t have a defined job responsibility. Are you a volunteer? Are you an intern? The interpretation varies from organisation to organisation and between people.
Defining Your Own Space
It all began changing for me by changing my seating space in office. I used to sit in the office at a separate table, far at the back, waiting for someone to tell me what to do or where to start. I waited. And waited. And then had a meltdown (which is another story really). But, as I was writing donor reports for which I needed my colleagues help, I pretty slyly plonked myself right in the middle of the Balsena table. Now what this did over the next few month was phenomenal. It actually allowed me to be in the middle of things, literally! I began to hear snippets of conversation and would find my avenue to enter. “Are you planning for the Leadership Camp? Can I also join in?” – and from there, we would discuss what I could do at the event. In hindsight, I understand this process better. What can your colleagues ask you to help with when they have no idea what you are good at? How can they involve you when they have don’t know what you would like to do? The onus lies on you to be able to find opportunities to display your strengths and willingness to learn on matters you don’t have the knowledge but want to work on.
Using a Network of People
Once I’d figured out the ways in which I could contribute to the programme, we began the journey of actually navigating what needed to be done. Along with my colleagues, I began by researching and organising what had been done. There was so much material, mostly in Gujarati, and it was all scattered. With files being passed from staff member to member, many had to be dug out and colleagues caught over chai and made to go over what activities had worked and not worked over the years. The process involved a lot of sorting and re-organising. My mentors Parul-ben and Falgun-bhai, and senior mentor Roshni Subhash, were also very helpful and gave me excellent resource materials and manuals of other organisations to read through.
Another aspect that really helped me was to ask for help from previous networks. Friends who I hadn’t spoken to since college, based on what they were doing on Facebook, were called up to asked for guidance and resources. Friends helped connect me to other friends working in similar areas. And they all relented – sending me books, articles and websites they had found useful. Slowly but surely, like a Pandora’s Box, I saw a world of information, talent, resources, knowledge and collaborators come together.
Entering a space and trying to re-organise things is not easy. It involves gaining trust of your organisation and colleagues, finding avenues to collaborate, having confidence in each other’s ideas, complementing work styles and a lot of patience on both ends. Things don’t happen overnight. The onus, especially as a Fellow, lies on you to make spaces for showcasing your work and talent. It needs one to get out of the comfort zone and push oneself to see what can I do and then ask to do so, repeatedly, in the most polite manner.
Opportunity to Fail
What definitely works is that as a Fellow, you have the space to experiment, reflect on your workings and fail. It is woven into the design of the Fellowship. While a lot of it can seem very self-initiated, it is a skill that I believe, has brought in some leadership sensibilities into my system. The space to fail, reflect on the failings, take your time to re-work the problem and solution and try again, oscillates between being extremely frustrating and hugely rewarding. But therein lies most of the learnings. How we make use of this, becomes the crux of our experience.
Navigating the office space seemed extremely daunting at the beginning. But finding my space, people and work made all the difference. With effort a bit of patience, the field visits became less physically taxing over time, and work patterns emerged which have helped me to hone what work styles work and don’t work for me. In the truest sense, it’s taught me to trust my instincts and “Serve. Learn. Lead.”