This summer, Rohan, Risha and I decided to spend 2 weeks in Mumbai with my friends Mari, Lobo, Maya and PJ, volunteering with an organization called SNEHA and spending time with the girls of Sharanam. Sneha Foundation is focused on helping and educating women and children on health and nutrition and empowering them to make informed decisions.
Even though I grew up in India (Chennai), I had never been to Mumbai or visited a place like Dharavi. It was a very humbling and enlightening experience. My expectation of this trip was to see a different part of India and expose/educate my children to the realities of how a large part of the world live their lives. Little did I know that I would walk away having learnt a number of lessons from the people and kids in Dharavi as well as our children.
The Sneha team has a very extensive network of community organizers and volunteers who work tirelessly to organize and educate the adults (mostly mothers) and their children (adolescents) on basic health and nutrition and how to respect their bodies and remove stigma and myths about sex and gender. During our two weeks with Sneha, we got to see a number of aspects of their work. We went with the community organizers on their site visits when they went to their designated areas notified parents and kids about the activities/events of the day. This allowed us to experience their daily life for a few short hours and put ourselves in the shoes of the organizers as well as the people living in the Dharavi slums. I expected it to be a dark and depressing exercise. Instead, we walked through a bustling neighborhood, full of vibrant colors noises and people and animals. Sure, it was dirty and crowded and chaotic, but it was also alive and the people were so friendly and welcoming and open to us and hearing from the SNEHA organizers.
We participated in one of SNEHA’s train the trainer sessions where they walked through the differences between sex and gender and how they should approach the topic with parents and kids. In India, where people don’t talk about the biases between men and women and how gender stereotypes play out, it was really neat to see these organizers really involved and enthusiastic about learning and then executing these activities to highlight the difference between the physical difference and the societal differences imposed on men and women. It was innovative, yet simple way to communicate and teach the children this important difference. I came away from the exercise more aware of some of the unconscious bias I practice in my daily life and committed to change it in the future.
The other highlight for me was meeting the adolescents from the area, both the little kids and the teenagers. Some of them were shy and quiet but most of them were curious, open, friendly and shared their daily lives and interests and concerns and asked our kids questions about their lives. We learnt that kids everywhere love to hang out with friends, listen to music, read and spend time on facebook and instagram (Mumbai to California). They shared their favorite foods like biryani, puri, and taught us some bollywood dances and songs. Our kids in turn, sang the cup song and taught them square dancing. It was really cute and fun to watch the kids interact with each other across the language barriers and make friends. The civic activity with Rama, where she educated and walked the teenagers through the civic action process and how to identify and use their voice to bring change in their community was awe-inspiring and filled me with hope for the future of India’s youth. The process was not easy. There were no easy forms/hotline to call and file a complaint. In order to file a request for improvements in their region (city lighting or garbage pickup), the process required a visit to the city hall, finding the right engineer, processing a form and following up multiple times to implement it. The kids were undeterred and enthusiastic to put their plans into motion and bring about basic changes in their community through direct action. After the session, chatting with Rama, I was skeptical about the Government actually executing on the request. She convinced me that the Government does act and had various examples where this was true. She stressed that the key was to make people aware of their rights and how to step up and request their basic needs. I look forward to hearing from Rama and the kids if their request was accepted and implemented, whether it is getting additional street lights near their homes or getting garbage picked up on a daily basis.
Last but not the least, I was so inspired by Maya, PJ, Rohan and Risha. Even though, this was a far different experience from their daily lives, they jumped into the visits and activities eagerly and energetically and enjoyed meeting and exchanging ideas and views with kids their own age. They didn’t let small things like language barriers or puddles or rats and motorcycles zooming by stop them from absorbing and living the experience thoroughly.
Throughout the 2 weeks, walking through Dharavi and interacting with the people of SNEHA and Dharavi, I was struck by how enthusiastic and empowered the people are to bring change in their lives and improve the lives of their youth and in turn move their community forward. One question I had was how scalable is the process. Given the sheer scale of the region (one million people in Dharavi) the youths currently engaged via Sneha (~14K?). I would love to explore how technology can help scale this process and provide the right tools for these teenagers who are eager to make a change in their world.