Siddharth Bansal: Volunteer Ahmedabad
Sept 15, 2008 – Mar 15, 2009
Siddharth Bansal, August 2008 Fellow
Project Description & History
Pilot a citywide volunteer mobilization effort: motivate high school students, housewives, families, corporate employees, and senior citizen groups to take personal responsibility and drive change in their city.
Before I set down anything, I would first like to thank you for this opportunity. Among the 1001 learnings I will take from this year and from this country, is the value of money not only as a means of exchange but as a way to frame a worldview. I have come to see how much Rs 1000 can mean to not just one person, but the sustenance of an entire family, and I therefore thank you, because yours is no small contribution. What you read here, my personal journey through India, without your support, would have been merely material for dreams and tall stories.
To give the briefest of overviews of my life before the fellowship, I graduated from Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio, in May of 2008, with a Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature. In fact, a fact which repeatedly comes to me is that I first conceived of doing the fellowship and after deciding, completed the application, in my last semester of college. This coming May will mark the one year anniversary of my graduation and I am astounded, every time the thought strikes me, how far I have traveled, both in physical distance and in growth as a person, from the time I crossed the stage, packed my bags and went home for the summer, one year ago.
During the summer after my sophomore year, I spent one month with my grandmother in Pune and that brief period always elicits warm feelings and memories. I had then first started maturing into an adult, appreciating all the stories my grandmother had to offer about her life, and of course, my mother’s, and the history of our family as far back as my grandmother’s memory would allow. The one previous time, the first time I had visited the country, was when I took two months leave from fifth grade to travel with my mother and little brother. I mention this here because it helps to answer the question why I came to India, this time. The first time I came, I was too young to really process all that this country bombards a visitor beyond the most salient sensory details, and the second time, no doubt invaluable and irreplaceable, my first time in the country as a budding adult, I spent my time exclusively with my grandmother, enjoying all the luxuries and perks of a grandson who lives on the other side of the world. One realization which struck me ever since my last visit to India was that if I was to really experience this country, come to terms with it as my heritage and the birthplace of my forefathers, father and mother, then I would have to do so on my own, outside the reach and obligation of family. In the same process in the United States, and increasingly so in the West, of leaving the home as a young adult for college to find oneself, so I decided I must to do so, am doing so as I write this, here in India. I had to leave everything I’ve ever known, behind.
A myriad of possibilities opens up for a person when he thinks of travel alone in a foreign country, especially one as unique and as varied as India. Some are fantasy, some are wild adventures (I have a friend who is right now biking alone through South Asia) and of the less selfish and picaresque options, I decided to contribute, at first in whatever way possible, and then later more formally in grassroots work, during my time here. Social work, in its various forms, has always been intertwined with my life, and coming to India for that very work was not too much of a radical departure; in fact, working as a volunteer for these last 8 months has added to my understanding of that work and that role and what it means to really, through and through, give oneself to the cause of serving others. I would not do justice by simply saying it is rewarding and it is not easy.
As you read above, the mandate that was given to me, to encourage Amdavadis to take personal responsibility and drive change in their city was both loose and broad, but if you are reading it on your computer, in the comfort of your home in the United States, with a tin of Pringles and a tall glass of cold soda on the side, as I did, then it strikes you as nothing less than the easiest possible endeavor in the world: to encourage people to volunteer. Working exclusively on the project now for 4+ months has shown, in some ways with a bit of comedy, that this is in no way easy; but before I delve into the formalities of the project, I have to rewind a bit to the very beginning of the fellowship, when my mother dropped me off in Ahmedabad for the start of orientation, and headed back home.
Indicorps tells you beforehand that during orientation, fellows will: receive basic training in the language spoken at his/her project site, come to understand the philosophy which drives Indicorps and what the program entails, and work intimately with the other people who are a part of the program (both staff and fellow fellows alike). No amount of description however, could prepare an individual for the regimen and workload he/she will face in the first 30 days of the program. Indicorps, true to its word, addressed each of the promises above (and more), and left me at the end with a feeling that high expectations were upon us – in terms of work contributed and development as individuals – and this year would be long and trying.
At the end of orientation, each fellow went hurling by train toward his/her respective project sites. Julie Mehta and Iwent to Rajgurunagar to work with Sudha Kothari and Kalpana Pant of Chaitanya, outside of Pune, MH. Our arrangement with Chaitanya was different from what other fellows have shared with the organization: as we were with them for a short period (2 months) and the primary purpose of our stay was exposure, we were given a free hand to explore local communities and see in what ways we could contribute. As Julie and I expected to work with youth in Ahmedabad when we started our fellowship project, we decided to do the same with Chaitanya, and carry with us our learnings and experiences with that group, to Ahmedabad. When one uses the terms learnings, experiences, findings, community outreach and relationship-building when speaking or writing about India (and I am guilty of this as well), it somehow misses the mark, it somehow comes across as a clinical diagnosis. One doesn’t speak of relationship-building when talking of family, and that is exactly what the residents of Rajgurunagar, particularly its youth, became to us: family. In brief, we tried to revive Chaitanya’s youth program, Tarunoday, by creating a diversified afterschool program with arts and drama, personality development and education as our focuses. We capped what work we did in those two months with a 9-day rural youth camp in a village with which Chaitanya shares a long-standing relationship. At the close of the camp, we packed our bags again to head north, to begin the process of encouraging Amdavadis to volunteer in their city.
To say it has been a pilot (as the project description above begins) is not entirely true. Indicorps, in 2004, in an effort to instill aspects of its unique philosophy toward social work, in the city in which it is head-quartered, started Volunteer Ahmedabad, and has continued on and off with the venture for the last four years. It has seen fellows, such as myself, staff, and volunteers, experiment with different ways to engage local youth and other demographics, which consequently created one of Volunteer Ahmedabad’s (conveniently dubbed VA) biggest problems: sustainability. When I arrived, though we intended to work with other groups beside youth, it quickly became clear that they would be the focus of my fellowship year, and also the biggest challenge as well: youth have the enthusiasm and spirit to commit themselves to social and civic issues, the time to do so as well, but yet lack the qualities of a professional, everyday commitment and determination, to see projects through. Despite heavy investment from VA in several youth in the city, both whim and the general obligations which tie down an individual as he/she grows older, has seen a dropoff in volunteers.
Our first objective in coming to Ahmedabad was to reconnect with those volunteers with whom VA has worked and find out ways, if at all, they can once again get involved in the program. This is one sentence, but it is loaded. As I look back over the last four months, only now have we managed to successfully reacquaint volunteers with VA; it has been, in the very least, a slow painstaking process. In the interim, we tested out several ideas as possible projects for Volunteer Ahmedabad, among these: a weekly film screening on social issues followed by discussion, a weekly action item to provide a regular two-hour timeslot for people otherwise engaged to get involved in the city, an education program, an English course grounded in getting to know our city and country, and a rural workshop to expose urban youth to rural India. Besides the English course, though we are not currently doing any of these projects, I cannot say these experiments failed, but have shown, in both large and small ways, reasons why it is difficult to engage youth despite the overwhelming interest they express. I could not begin to enumerate the myriad reasons for though I am aware, I am still not clear on them.
One of the projects which has had moderate success in the past is something famously called the Service & Leadership Course. Prior to my arrival, the course had been conducted twice and aimed to impart the philosophy which guides our approach to social service, for not just two to three days, or in a single discussion, but over 6 weeks. More so, from our side, it showed participants that we were immensely interested and invested in them. I write to you now at the very beginning of our third such course, which we have renamed Youth Leadership Course. With an expanded team, we have had the opportunity to experiment with the course in ways which we previously have been unable to; one such way is by taking on not just 15-20 participants but more like 50. Though there is precedent in previous courses, I have approached the design and creation of this one as if it is the first one, keeping to the principles of our group yet making a stamp that is distinctly my own. At this moment, I am terribly excited.
I have left my goals to the end because, on a daily basis, I have seen a complete overhaul of my vision for the year, from morning to evening. One of the luxuries this year has afforded me, which is a positive byproduct of living simply, is the freedom of time and space to think on things. Essentially stripped of all those distractions which cluttered my life prior to the fellowship, I have grappled with, at times more than I can handle, and come to terms, with instances of my past, my relationship with my family, and am more and more finding out who it is that I am and who is the person I want to be day-after-day. These are no small things. They are, I think, the realizations which I will take away from this year; thoughts which will remain with me long after July 31st. It is for this reason I have trouble speaking about my goals, for my goals now in no way reflect the ones I had at the beginning of the year and at different points in the year in between. In fact, they are so different, I can hardly describe to you what they were.
My goals now, with the few remaining months, are to see the successful run of the leadership course, to continue to build upon the English classes we have developed, and to cultivate this desire to better understand people and dedicate the time and breadth to do so. In the end, that’s really what this is all about: changing the way we behave with others, the way we conduct ourselves. I almost see, now after writing this report and thinking holistically about this fellowship, that this is the keystone of the whole experience: to become better people. I said this to another fellow the other day, half in jest and half soberly: “It’s scary, but I think I am.”