Neha Mistry: Improving Life Skills and Livelihoods Of Rural Youth

Fellowship, Programs, Progress Reports

SEPT 15, 2008 – MAR 15, 2009

Neha Mistry, August 2008 Fellow
Mahiti Rural Development Centre

dsc07314Background and Project Vision

I am currently working with Mahiti on improving the life skills and livelihoods of the rural youth in the Bhal region of Gujarat.  Prior, Mahiti has focused most of its efforts with empowering the women in the Bhal region, which has caused the males in the region to be less empowered to improve their development condition.  Consequently, Mahiti has initiated uniting the youth in the Bhal region for the past three years. By hosting various events, Mahiti aims to create a platform where the youth too can become empowered and address issues in their community and homes while understanding and learning how to make choices in their lives to improve their quality of life.

Aim of Youth project…

1) Hold monthly youth meetings to:
a) Livelihood – provide livelihood training opportunities in the region, teaching the value of saving their income and promoting civic responsibility
b) Life Skills – have activities to build leadership, confidence, and interpersonal skills
c)  General Knowledge – share current events that affect their community
2) Create a linkage between Mahiti and vocational training institutes to improve livelihoods
3) Create a communication system between Mahiti and village youth.


Of these various responsibilities of improving the life skills and livelihoods of the youth in my region my focal point is creating a linkage between Mahiti and vocational training institutes, counseling and preparing the youths to attend these institutes, and creating an effective communication system between Mahiti and village youth.

Vision …

Majority of the youths in this region dropped out of school to polish diamonds for many years earning more than the average blue collar worker.  Due to the current global recession the livelihoods of the youth in my project site has been taken away and left with a skill that no longer is in demand.  These rural youth have seen and understood very little outside of the life they lived as a diamond polisher.  They are relying on the possibility that the diamond factories will open any day.  Unfortunately, this is not the case; the recession will leave these youth unemployed for at least another 1-2 years (if not more).

Therefore, it is imperative that these limited skilled youths learn a new skill to improve their livelihoods.  Through providing a linkage with vocational training institutes which cater to rural youth (low income, proximity, language, duration) they will be able to gain a new skill and the knowledge to start their own business for these times where things are not in their favor.  By creating this linkage with these institutes, the youths who complete the course and start a business, will inspire other youths who haven’t taken that step forward and aspire to learn a new skill of their interest.  Through these events, Mahiti will slowly form intimate relationship with these youths encouraging them to not only become self sufficient businessmen but also become leaders for their respective villages and encourage others to begin planning long term for their livelihood.  In essence, this approach will create a ripple effect inspiring and empowering youths to take their matters into their own hands and improve their quality of life rather than waiting on things to get back to how they were beforehand.

Project Goals and Future Plans

My project goals include utilizing and linking available local resources, communicate relevant information to the youth to improve the life skills and livelihood of the rural youth in the Bhal region of Gujarat.  In turn, once the livelihood and life skills of the youth are enhanced these youths will become leaders of their community to promote others to improve their own life skills and livelihoods towards the betterment of their lives and community.

The first local resource I utilized was the vocational training institutes in the region.  A linkage between my NGO and vocational training institutes was formed giving the school dropout rural youths an opportunity to learn a new skill, to start their own business.  These vocational training institutes were surveyed and analyzed to determine if it would be suitable given the rural youths socio-economic condition.

Currently, I have established a linkage between two vocational training institutes, which are aware of the socio-economic conditions of the youth in my region and have agreed to form a partnership between my NGO and their institution.  Mahiti has taken the responsibility of communicating upcoming courses to the community, interviewing the youth, helping to prepare necessary documentation, providing guidance, and counseling pre-training, during training, and post-training.  In a span of three months a total of 21 youths have taken a vocational training course and now are looking into ways they can start their own business or seeking employment.

Now that a significant number of youths have taken a step forward in visioning their future and taking responsibility for their livelihood, they have gained a great deal of confidence, interpersonal skills, courage, vision to become a representative leader, and inspire other youths to do the same in efforts to improve their current situation.  Once representative leaders are selected in their respective village, I aim to work in collaboration with these leaders and create an effective communication system in which monthly events for youth meetings (hosted by Mahiti), success stories, and life skills tips are posted in each public gathering location in the villages where the youth reside.

By creating this flow of communication with both vocational training institutes and village youths through a medium, Mahiti, opportunities that have always existed will now be given to those in need, enabling youths to become inspired and empowered throughout the Bhal region.

Project Implementation Progress and Future Plans

Due to the global recession the youths have spent as much as four months at home earning no income or searching for odd jobs daily to make a living.  Given this present situation it made the most sense to address their livelihoods while taking their present condition into consideration.  My project has two parts:  livelihood and life skills improvement.  I recognized that if we were able to given an opportunity to the youths to improve their livelihoods, then simultaneously, they will gradually improve their life skills.  This in fact was usually the case.  Through weekly progress check-ins with youths attending the vocational training courses they transformed from youths who had no voice, no confidence, and limited skills to youths who were outspoken, confident, and now possessing a new skill.  A new skill with which they were ready to take the livelihood condition and turn it upside down!  Through these vocational trainings their life, which was squeezed out of them at a very young age, was poured right back into their mind, body, and soul!  Through my weekly follow-ups I was able to detect this change.  Through the training course they now regained their hope, their hope to have control over their life and their condition rather than relying on someone else’s word to earn their daily wage.

The second half of my project is approaching has begun to surface.  My project aims to work closely with representative youth leaders to bring the idea and encourage fellow youths and community members how establishing a communication board (created by Mahiti but managed by youth) would benefit the youths in the village.  The communication board aims for the following:

1)    To communicate monthly vocational training opportunities in the region, qualifications the VTI is looking for, interview dates, documentation requirements, and contact information.
2)    To share success stories of youth from their region who have complete their course and wish to share their positive experience with other youths.  Through sharing their story other youths may also see the value in attending the vocational training institute.
3)    To share a “Life Skill Tip” each month with the aim to give savings tips, health tips, spiritual tips, general knowledge, current relevant news.  Due to the lack of information that is communicated to and from a village the Life Skill Tip aims to open the horizon into monthly useful tips that can enhance their mind, body, and soul.

Once the second half of the project is implemented a continuous cycle of information that is relevant to the youth will reach each village.  Here each party is responsible for a segment of the communication cycle.  The VT is responsible for communicating upcoming courses to the NGO. In turn, the NGO is responsible for communicating this information to the youth, counseling and guiding the youth to attend the course and following up thereafter.  The representative youth leaders accordingly will collaborate with the NGO to encourage youths to improve their livelihood (and in turn their life skills) and manage the use of the communication board.

Detailed Goal-setting & Implementation Planning

Linkage b/n NGO and VTIs
Visiting VTIs and discussing the socio-economic conditions of the Bhal Youth and possibly creating a linkage between the NGO and VTIs to encourage youths to attend training course.
Invite VTI staff members to monthly youth meetings in the village to promote their courses.

Communication System b/n NGO and Village
Village stay in four pre selected villages with weeklong efforts to encourage community to see the benefits of implementing the communication board.

Representative Youth Leaders b/n NGO and Village
Hold meetings with potential youth leaders and discuss how they can play a role in inspiring and empowering their village youth towards improving their livelihoods and life skills

Training Staff member to manage flow of communication between VT, NGO, Village
In April have staff member start shadowing my roles and responsibilities in overseeing the communication system that has been created

Understandings and Personal Growth

The understandings I have gained so far in my fellowship year are not only applicable to my project but also plays a significant role in my own personal understanding and growth.

Listen and hear them roar!

Having seen numerous development projects that have fallen short of reaching what it intended to achieve, I came to question what could be the possible cause of the shortcoming and how can I ensure this would not be the case with my very own project?  I found my answer a few months into my project after spending majority of my time looking, listening and learning. I realized that those first few months were the most valuable towards deciding how to approach my project.  This approach soon came to be the basis when interacting with my community.  By, hearing the voices of my community, the community themselves shared their assessment of what developmental issues resided with them.  All it takes is given an opportunity and a platform to share their thoughts, exchange ideas, determine the necessary resources, and work together to implement it!

My first event with the youth in my region involved a life skills three day training session.  It was at that moment that I was able to fully hear the voices of the youth and found the value in doing so.

The life skills training and exposure visit to Mt. Abu was the start to an opportunity for both the youth and Mahiti.  Prior to this training session there was a huge gap as to who the youth were, what their conditions were and who Mahiti was and how Mahiti wanted to take a role in helping the conditions of the youth.

This training session allowed the Mahiti organization to finally share to the youth who Mahiti was and what role they have currently played in the Bhal region and where we would like to be with the youth and its development.  Additionally,  this training session gave the youth an opportunity to speak their mind on who they are, how they live, what their conditions are,  share their thoughts on individual development and community development, and how they wish Mahiti could play a role in helping them out of their current conditions.

Additionally, the training session enabled Mahiti to see how talented and confident many of the youth already were.  Usually the stereotypical description of a youth from the village consisted of depictions like: shy, unmotivated and irresponsible.  For the most part, Mahiti stood corrected.  During many of the sessions a good number of youths continued to voice their thoughts on matters that were discussed.  Presentations were given with complete professionalism as if the youth presented prior.  Discussions about events still continued even after the session was over with the youth themselves.  Youth stood up for that they believed was right even if it meant upsetting those that did something that was inappropriate.

The youth in the Bhal region are highly talented individuals who just do not have the same opportunities as other youths in India.  What they need is a means to gain those opportunities and thereafter make responsible decisions to improve their quality of life.

Following these observations, Mahiti foresaw the role they wanted to play with the youth. By giving them the platform, resources, and guidance that they do not have the means of obtaining (due to their rural location) Mahiti will give them the ability to improve their livelihoods and life skills, to stand united, and see the leaders within themselves, and to change things for the better. Ideally it is the voices of the youth that we Mahiti are here to serve.  We believe many of the youths are capable of improving their own conditions if they are just given a chance.  And we, Mahiti with the resources available, will give them this chance.

Perspectives in the field and in life:

What really helped me approach my fellowship year in an open standpoint was through continuously approaching each situation with an understanding of my community’s’ perspective.  I found myself frustrated in many situations where I was stuck on how to approach the issue rather than taking the time to understand it in full scope.  I changed my ways of seeing it from my eyes and seeing it from the perspectives and understandings of my community. This allowed me to understand their situation far better than before and at the same time implement my project in such a way that it was translucent to the community. This enabled me to connect with my community at a deeper level by approach the matter with their perspective in mind.

Viewing things from a different perspective did not stop just at my project level but this practice seeped into every person I encounter from this point onwards. By understanding the individual for who they are and why they act the way they act, really changed how I approached the issue that comes forth.  Very few instances do I find myself frustrated with the situation in hand, instead, I find myself immediately analyzing the situation for what it truly is for and then looking into ways to address it.  By having a well rounded perspective of my surroundings the quality and outlook of my life has also vastly improved.

My India

Being raised with an Indian background in America I tended to separate the two cultures depending on my surroundings.  The level of understanding of my Indian background only reached a superficial level of cultural programs composed of traditional practices, dances and prayers.  Beyond that there was the story of my parent’s upbringings and their parents struggle for independence.  There was also Agra, Jaipur, Delhi, Goa, Bangalore, and a little city called Navsari in Gujarat where a few of my remaining extended family members reside.  As fascinating as these facts were I had no direct connection with India, although I am and I say I am Indian.  I needed more from India. I wanted total emersion.  Total emersion enables individuals to truly experience something that a textbook cannot show you.  I wanted something raw and tangible.  Finally, I found it.

So here I am in a remote region in rural Gujarat, spending my efforts towards creating opportunities for youth who are unemployed, unskilled, and who come from poverty stricken families. It has already been seven months and I can say it has been the greatest seven months of my life.  I have learned so much about my village and India during these months and simultaneously, learned so much about myself, something that no educational institute or company could ever teach me.

I am immersing. I am learning.  I am serving.  I am connecting.

I will leave this year no longer having to say that India is where my grandparents or my parents come from but India is a place that I am a part of, a place where I too come from.

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