Indicorps’ year in review

Why Indicorps? Why India?

I find passion in service, in work that is rewarded by wider values and in the gratitude of others. I yearn for adventure. I am motivated by challenges. I’m like a thousand other would-be do-gooders. Why me?

Before Indicorps I lacked purpose. I wanted to be engaged in work that made a difference, in work that provided change and opportunity to people who sought it. But I didn’t know where to find it. I was no longer rewarded by my work in gay equality. In honesty, I didn’t invest in it the way that I knew I could. I was distracted; distracted because this work was not what I was looking for – I was not challenged nor was I reaching my potential. I wasn’t achieving. Indicorps promised to push me, mentally, physically, emotionally. So I chose Indicorps.

I’m a huge advocate for equality, for social justice, and for the empowerment of marginalized, discriminated, and neglected groups; especially those I identified with. My mother questioned my commitment to gay equality when there are so many wider problems in the world that I could relate to. Her question made me uneasy; I had chosen the most comfortable conscionable way to exist. I wasn’t challenging myself. I had lost perspective and I was losing my purpose. I was questioning my identity. India would help me find some perspective, a purpose, and my identity. So I chose India.

India and Indicorps’ presented an opportunity to face my problems face on, and I would emerge from the experience with purpose and perspective, and an identity.

When my perspective needs a healthy dose of reality, I think of the children I live with. I think of Manish, who for all his boyish charm and energy, faces a lifetime of challenges – further compounded by stigma – because his disabilities prevent him from communicating. I think of Sonu, who is abandoned at the hostel by her parents and despite being educated, faces an isolated and barren future because she was born with cerebral palsy, and because she is a woman born in Rajasthan. She’s one of the lucky ones.

I think of the people I work with; Ramniwas, a strikingly handsome and well-natured young man who excels at cricket and wood-crafting. He’s also afflicted with polio, an unnecessary, irreversible, and inexcusable disease. He’s inspirational. I think of Sagar, a dear friend who is bound by brotherly duties to live out only a fraction of his potential; I’m torn at my inability to reason with the patriarchs of his family. My perspective is shaken.

These people live and work in the village of Chachiyawas in the Ajmer district of Rajasthan, where my project – Inclusive Education for All – is based at the campus of Rajasthan Mahila Kalyan Mandal, a non-profit working towards social justice for marginalized and discriminated groups. My project is based in an inclusive school; co-educating children from local villages with children with developmental disabilities, and preparing young adults for employment.

Rajasthan Mahila Kalyan Mandal has roots in relief work after successive disasters (a flood in 1975 and drought in 1987) created the need for organised community action. Originally seeking the services of women to provide relief, it matured into an empowerment unit for women across the Ajmer district of Rajasthan, providing training, education and health care.

Rajasthan regularly ranks among the poorest and most deprived states in India and its education record narrowly beats that of Bihar to come second from last. In the heavily rural local population there is a strong legacy of repressed gender roles, caste hierarchies and agrarian tradition. Subsequently, there is a growing need to tackle social inequalities and re-frame prevalent attitudes towards diversity, as well as provide improved and innovative education. For marginalised groups and harder-to-reach populations, like children with disabilities, this need is more pressing.

My school doesn’t reach a fraction of them. But the inclusion pioneered by teachers at the inclusive education school run by Rajasthan Mahila Kalyan Mandal ensures that those we did reach are given a good opportunity. At the school – Minu Minovikas Mandir – I worked in classrooms to improve teaching methods. I enjoyed my work, living with my community, sharing their lives, their problems and their joys. But my project lacked challenges; I was being as comfortably conscionable as possible.

One bitterly cold November morning I wandered across campus to get chai. I lived in the hostel with thirty-five children with disabilities, every one of them a unique gift. Outside the hostel, I found Devinderbhai and Bhagchandbhai heating water over a crude and rudimentary rock fire. Bhagchand explained that the children couldn’t shower with cold water, they’d get ill. I asked why we couldn’t use the gas stoves from the kitchens.

‘Those are for cooking, we can’t use those’.

My dismay was palpable: we lacked something I considered a necessity, and there was no excuse for it.

It was that morning that my day-to-day work with teachers in classroom died; I realised that with a little initiative I could contribute more to tackle problems my community faced.

Before lunch I drew up plans for a wood-fired smokeless chula, using resources on campus. It invigorated me, I am a tinkerer at heart. I got permission to start building, and produced a painstakingly manicured chula that provided the foundation for my year. I began to innovate, experiment, and explore. And I spent too many mornings heating water for the children, tinkering with my grand design.

I wanted to inspire people to think creatively to solve problems. I wanted them to understand what could be achieved, with a little innovation. My next project was to paint a large map of the world across a barren wall of the hostel. It was the most simple of tasks that required hours of labour, but it inspired and made people ask questions. The teachers started to get ideas. We produced more displays, using photos, art, and the work of children. We turned the school into a space that the teachers felt was theirs. I wasn’t directly implementing inclusion, but my project had started to get people thinking and was promoting personal responsibility, pride, and ownership. I felt useful.

Rajasthan Mahila Kalyan Mandal has several projects that work with children with disabilities, and at Christmas I wandered unwittingly into our community-based rehabilitation program, where I came across a reality that I’d theorised about at school.

We educated and trained children so that they could find employment and support themselves and their families. This was about empowerment, but what jobs were these people doing? Where did they go when they left Minu Minovikas Mandir?

When I began working with the community-based rehabilitation team, I realised that finding employment was a significant problem for these young adults. Together with Naveenji, Punitji, Zakirji and Bhanwarji, I interviewed fifty-two families of young men and women who were looking for employment, young people our rehabilitation program was trying to place with employers. They couldn’t find work; there was no work available for them, particularly in the agrarian and service sectors in and around Ajmer district. But their families needed them to work. For our work to be sustainable, I decided ensuring work opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities needed to become a priority.

I live with Mukash, a 16 year old boy who is mentally disabled. He is friends with Karnheyia, a 14 year old boy with Down syndrome. We play cricket and badminton together, I dance with them, they teach me Hindi and Marwari, they give me headaches; and I love them. But these two boys and the remaining thirty-three children I live with face bleak prospects. Despite their strong work ethic, the stigma associated with their disabilities would make it hard to fit into a work environment without adequate support. They wouldn’t be able to support their families when they returned to their homes, however much they wanted to.

I’m deaf in both ears, but I’m lucky. I have access to technology that helps me to hear. Without it, I doubt I would be in India, I doubt my career would have followed the same path. The children I live with are not so lucky; their disabilities are permanent and they must learn to live with them.

When my mother asked me why I had chosen the most comfortable way to live with my conscience, advocating for gay equality, I had considered advocating for disabled rights instead. But I never considered that by doing this, I would end up ridden with guilt; there was nothing I could do to solve their problems in the same way that mine had been solved.

The projects of Rajasthan Mahila Kalyan Mandal are heavily influenced by government schemes run by the National Trust, a government organisation mandated to provide services to disabled people. The National Trust recently launched Arunim to support the development of enterprises providing employment to disabled people.

In February we entered Arunim’s inaugural E3 business competition, seeking to find the best sustainable enterprises across the country that would empower and employ disabled people. I was asked by my mentor, Kshamaji, to prepare the entry, and we went on to win first place as best emerging venture.

Victory in the competition went some way towards easing my guilt, and it was guilt that led me to spend sleepless nights meticulously crafting the competition entry – a business plan – before the strict deadline. But I remember speaking with my Indicorps mentor, Geetha, prior to submitting the proposal.

‘Think about sustainability, have you considered letting Rajeevji or another member of staff write the proposal with your support and guidance?’

In the interest of sustainability, this made sense, and I knew Geetha was probably right. But I was adamant I should do it. Any information that needed to be passed on could be done after the competition was over; this was a rare and timely opportunity to provide employment opportunities to those children whose future I had agonised over. Turning this into an experiment in sustainability wasn’t an option; success in the competition was paramount.

When the phone rang I was sat on an unbearably hot and crowded government bus crossing the Rajasthani desert. Rajeevji ecstatically conveyed our victory to me; tears streamed down my face. But they weren’t tears of joy at our achievement; this proved nothing about what we had done or were capable of. Those tears came from the realisation that I had helped liberate children I felt helplessly bound to. I cried for Mukash and Karnheyia, I could sleep easy knowing that they might be a future for themselves and their families; that I may have provided them with the same opportunities I had taken for granted.

Rajasthan Mahila Kalyan Mandal’s greatest achievements come when it practices innovation. Victory in the E3 competition cemented the organisation’s position as a leader in rehabilitation efforts, and the grant and intense business consulting that was rewarded means that the new business, Daksh, has plenty of support to develop into a sustainable and successful enterprise. Our Delhi-based consultants, Start Up!, are contentious and have held both myself and the new management team accountable to our business plan.

Just as it did with inclusive education, Rajasthan Mahila Kalyan Mandal was proving that developmentally disabled young adults can participate in economic growth, and the organisation was pioneering a model that could be replicated elsewhere.

Creativity and innovation combined with leadership to form the theme for the final leg of my project. I returned to inclusive education and my work in the school in time for the summer holidays, where I planned to run a lengthy and intensive training for teaching and rehabilitation staff. I’d spent a year loosely supporting them; I wanted to solidly invest in them.

The teachers wanted to know how they could include the child with severe autism in their classrooms. They wanted to know how they could provide inclusive learning to children with behavioural problems. They wanted solutions to the problems they faced every day, and they were solutions I’d worked all year to offer them but had fallen short. But Geetha’s words remained true; I needed to provide sustainable solutions to help them solve their own problems. What’s more, Geetha had provided me with a quote early in the year that I couldn’t forget. It reflected my understanding of Indicorps philosophy and I held myself to it.

Go to the people.
Live among them.
Learn from them.
Love them.
Start with what they know.
Build on what they have.
But of the best leaders,
When their task is accomplished,
Their work is done,
The people all remark,
‘We have done it ourselves.’

My two weeks with the teachers pushed both my limits and theirs. My training, ‘Fostering Leadership in Inclusive Education’ – introduced a new style of learning. The content of the training was set in stone; inclusion, the social context of disability, classroom management, and teaching methodology, but the medium of training is what I wanted them to take away.

I was able to use my training as an anecdote for what I was teaching them, about creativity, innovation, initiative, leadership and inclusion. It taught them new ways of approaching problems, how to persist in solving them, and how to work as a team. I encouraged them to take on personal projects and invest in their work. It ensured participation.

I sought to build a team of leaders that were best placed to continue the work that Rajasthan Mahila Kalyan Mandal is so good at; to pioneer their own methods of inclusion.

And in the process I empowered myself. The training was daunting; the participants were friends and family that had adopted me. Kshamaji had trusted me with twelve days of training for fifteen staff. I had no experience running this sort of event. It’s strange how the year has pushed me to throw myself into these challenges head-on. It’s even stranger how often I’ve surprised myself.

I learned from it. I learned about leadership, initiative, problem-solving, and about the quest for sustainable solutions. As one person with one year, I cannot solve all the problems that face my community; but I can empower them with skills they need to face problems themselves.

Empowerment and sustainability, they’re no longer buzzwords that I hear about in lectures.

My work in rural Rajasthan gave me perspective, and that’s something I cannot take from any education. Being here in the hard reality of my community, sharing their pain and joys and experiencing the frustrating inability to undo their challenges; it gives you perspective that you just can’t find in the most convincing of portrayals, in any medium. It sparks a greater purpose.

The space that Indicorps provides is both intimidating and honest. Sharing my fears, worries, and failures with even myself is daunting, but that honesty provides a clarity which with reflection can be the greatest learning tool. Indicorps philosophy pushed me to immerse to the maximum, and the Indicorps experience went on to extract the most from an already intense year of service. I’m exhausted, but the relentless and indefensible assault of questions – questioning my character, my beliefs, and my way of living – has fundamentally changed me, for the better. And it’s changed my way of thinking in a way that no study or lecture ever could.

The most daunting prospect I face is leaving this space, but I’m not concerned about where I’m going. India and Indicorps gave me purpose, perspective, and an identity. India chose me.

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