It’s been an exciting first few weeks of the New Year as we welcomed the January 2016 batch of IDEX Fellows. It’s always invigorating to see a group of new faces equally passionate about social impact, but the cherry on top has been the amazing diversity reflected within this cohort-with fellows representing Vietnam, Botswana, Egypt, Australia, Malawi, United Kingdom, USA, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria.
The run up to orientation is always a daunting task as there is an onslaught of moving parts- who arrives when, which fellows flight was delayed, does the staff at the conference hall know when to serve the food, are the bus’s set for our field visits- the list goes on an on. And since all of you know India, you can imagine that there’s always a few extra wrenches thrown into the mix. One can only meticulously plan, re-confirm everything, say a prayer and hope for the best. However, amidst all the chaos, we found that as we introduced the fellows to one another, our work only got easier. This group, hailing from different countries, cultures and religions, were pieces of a puzzle that immediately fit together. Their openness and excitement for this new adventure became a tangible feeling and we were simply happy to be a part of it.
Keeping up with the tradition of the IDEX Field orientation, the fellows jumped right in to solving the Hackathon challenge, presented by Ashoka India. Over several cups of coffee and masala chai, the fellows brainstormed how Ashoka’s youth venture initiative could scale, reaching out to youth groups in the remotest parts of India and at the same time remain relevant to the theme of Ashoka and its prestigious Fellows. The grading rubric for the Hackathon looked into various aspects of content, stakeholder identification, structure, presentation style and impact.
While the Ashoka team was evaluating the Hack, I was penning down some observations (and dare I say it, revelations?) of my own. Time and time again, I’m amazed how a group of people who were perfect strangers just a few days back, can work on a challenge together for a country that they’ve yet to discover or perhaps fully understand. It is both motivating and inspiring to see how people from different parts of the world bring the wisdom of their unique experiences to present potential solutions to a problem. Some of the suggestions made by the fellows included developing a mobile app for youth from different parts of the country to search and connect on community projects they feel passionate about, parent packs –keeping in mind that parents are key influencers in a young persons life, and creating an online hub for sharing resources. The solutions kept in mind the timelines for execution, the roadblocks to implementing them and the foreseeable impact they were likely to create.
Secondly, I realized that the Hack works as a great way to overcome many of the preconceived notions we have about the country and its socio-economic context. The discussions, deliberations, research and questions that emerge in the process help the fellows understand the community and its various societal needs (and it’s contradictions) better. One popular contradiction revolves around the statistic that it is very common for low-income communities in India to own and operate cellular phones even though they may have never had any formal education or even seen a computer for that matter. At times, it can be hard for people to grasp that India is so heavily influenced by technology and western sensibilities, while at the same time, adhering to a conservative culture and age old traditions. As a native Indian, I find the fellows questions and observations make me look at the issues that concern my country in a different light. It is at times beneficial that the fellows can’t always see things from my context, because it doesn’t inhibit them from throwing out new, innovative ideas or out-of-the-box suggestions.
Finally, my last observation came as an unsurprising one. Mealtimes are an age-old pastime where people can swap stories and share interests- our lunches were no different. It was enjoyable to see those who were seasoned Indian food veterans, clearly knowing that the batturah went with the chole and the “Gobi Manchurian” was, in fact, fried cauliflower. Even more enjoyable was watching some of the other fellows experiment with the new cuisine- taking daring amounts of spicy chutney and subsequently drinking copious amounts of water. Amidst all the intensity of the orientation, this was our respite to shoot the breeze- talk about our family’s back home, our travel experiences and the projections of what the next 6 months would bring.
In the midst of fellows burning the midnight oil to solve the Hack, listening and engaging with external speakers and meeting their mentors-in-residence, we also prepared a field visit to get them out of the conference room and into the community. Amba for Life is an organization found by an Ashoka fellow, which helps the intellectually disabled learn hard skills in the information technology sector. The amazing people who are the life force of Amba have very diverse backgrounds, but what they all have in common is a perseverance to break stigmas and the hope that with the right training and confidence, the intellectually disabled can take ownership of their own careers and subsequently ownership of their place in society. The fellows were invited to observe one of Amba’s training sessions where trainees identify letters (which they would ultimately find on a keyboard) with visual images. This field visit was not only inspiring, but a true example of what successful social enterprise models can bring to a community.
After this jam packed week and some serious bonding, it was a little sad to see everyone go to their respective housing. That being said, these fellows have easily found their footing in Bangalore and I’m more than a little impressed when I stumble upon them in local haunts such as Yogisthaan and The Humming Tree.
There’s always a worry when the fellows go off to their placements and respective housing that there will be a few pitfalls in their journey. Power may go out, water may not run, the traffic will most definitely be insane, but what has been the most impressive quality about this particular group is their instinctive nature to take care of one another. Whether it’s a trip to Nandi Hills or a night out bowling, these guys make sure everyone is accounted for and gets home safe. When there is this level of care, consideration and respect among a group, only amazing things can come from it and we look forward to see what’s next.
With that said, we’d like to introduce you to this fantastic bunch. Welcome to the IDEX Alumni group guys!