Conclusion? She is a victim in need of saving.
But what if I tell you a story about the same girl - a girl named Suhani - but in a different way. Actually, as I was writing this, it was 6:45 pm on a Sunday, and I was interrupted by the sound of Suhani’s infectious laugh as she was training local women how to sew in the room next door.
I want to take a second to describe Suhani to you -- so close your eyes…[pause]...and imagine an 18 year old girl with a big, toothy, white smile and permanent laugh lines on her face. Not only has Suhani worked on her own vision to change the status of women in society by teaching and training them, but also has invited other local girls to join in and do the same. In spite of local cultural norms, she’s graduated from high school and plans to pursue a college degree as well. And most importantly - from my perspective - she never lets me leave her house without a lot of laughter and a belly full of chai.
Open your eyes - this is Suhani. Suhani is a catalyst. Suhani is a changemaker. Suhani is a Village Visionary. [With emphasis].
The stories we tell have profound effects on what we expect from people, and therefore, how we interact with them. If we only tell the first story, then we assume Suhani is deficient and in need of help; we will probably give her handouts without seeking to involve her in the process.
However, if we tell the second story and we view Suhani as a changemaker or a social entrepreneur, then we will further support her to create more change in the village. We may pair her with a business person, who can help her figure out where to sell the products made by the women she trains. Or we might help her get funding for an idea she has for improving education in her village. The possibilities are endless.
These effects are not merely limited to stories, but are also backed by science. Psychologist Robert Rosenthal arbitrarily labeled some rats as “bright” and some as “dull,” and then asked experimenters to run them through a maze. The rats labeled as “bright” solved the maze much quicker than the rats labeled as “dull.”
Why? Because these labels changed how experimenters touched and treated the rats, which, in turn, affected their ability to complete the task.
As you may imagine, there is similar research for humans that our expectations of people have subtle effects on how we interact with them as well – for example, we might stand closer or make better eye contact with people we expect more of and vice versa.
Think about how that would feel – people expect little of you, so they stand farther away from you and don't look you in the eye. More importantly, they talk to you in a way that denies you an ability to belong to the group and participate–an impersonal and generic “hey, you” is substituted for your name, and when speaking to you, people may stop half way and give up on you - “oh, never mind – you wouldn't get it anyway.”
Imagine how that would affect you.
That's essentially what the narrative we tell about rural India has done to its villages by only telling the first story of Suhani – one of lack of money, lack of education, lack of health….a story of lack.
This has created a collective consciousness, in which the worst side of us assumes that villagers are that way because they're lazy and the best side of us assumes that they’re too poor to do anything for themselves, so what do we do? We seek to give handouts - a response to lack.
Well, in reality, both assumptions are wrong; yes, there is room for improvement in our villages, but improvement needs to come from within. And the only way that that will happen is by telling the second story of Suhani – find what's working in communities and continue to build on it. You can’t build on lack or problems, only on strengths and assets.
The work I do in rural India with my organization, Project Potential, is completely based on this subtle, but incredibly important, premise – if we focus on what's right with people, rather than on what's wrong with them, then the possibilities are endless.
We identify, train, and support local Village Visionaries – young people, like you – who have a bold vision for their communities. We give them the permission to dream and dream big; you're allowed to work for a better tomorrow and we're here with you; and it's okay to fail along the way.
The thing about Suhani is that she was there all along, like a diamond in the rough, waiting to be discovered, cut, and polished. But no one thought to look for her in rural Bihar, so her greatness lay undiscovered, her potential untapped - both by herself and by others.
So a key part of our identification process is asking people what they think – What's your vision for your village and why? How do you plan to do it? What support do you need from us?
These candidates are never asked these questions – so whether they are selected or not, the process of discovery starts when we treat them like experts and ask for their opinions.
From the beginning, Suhani’s vision was to inspire and train women to become independent. The support she needed from us? A community, where she could come and share her ideas and get feedback.
But true visionaries don’t just write and talk about their vision; they are also able to realize it through learning, growing, and working in the field.
After getting a bit of training on the importance of mobilizing local people and resources to create change, Suhani went out and did just that; in her first week, she found and trained two local girls, who then started a learning center for out of school children in the village. Meanwhile, Suhani identified families who had sewing machines, and convinced them to lend it to her so that she could train local women how to sew.
But like a diamond in the rough, it’s not enough to just discover it - you also have to cut and polish it, which is why we focus so much on training and supporting our visionaries as well.
More than an organization, Project Potential is a mindset. What kind of default questions do you ask people when you meet them - do you ask about their weaknesses, which diminish them, or do you ask about their strengths, which can be built on? Do you search for all the problems in the community, or do you find success stories and bright spots that can be leveraged for change? Do you limit expertise to the Ivy league degree holder, or do you realize that knowledge comes in many forms - that there’s a difference between literacy and education?
In many ways, our training is as much about unlearning as it is about learning. Yes, challenges exist. But so do solutions. How can we find and scale up solutions rather than getting bogged down with problems?
Finally, in terms of support - think about how you live and who you spend time with. We are the average of the five people we spend the most time with, so it’s critical that we surround our Village Visionaries with five people, who will help them reach their full potential.
So in that vein, we have our Village Visionaries live together in a group of six with a mentor, so that their environment is not one of complaining, blame, and problems; but rather, one of potential, possibility, and solutions.
So back to Suhani - how has this cutting and polishing affected her? Recently, someone asked Suhani what her vision was and what she wanted her legacy to be. She said, “I want to serve so many people that they start to put 'THE' before my name, like THE Suhani.” When we asked her how she plans to do that, she said, “You know Malala? Like her – only bigger.”
It sounds funny – but why not? Suhani has the same 24 hours per day that Malala does. Why can't she be just as courageous and create just as much change?
But if we had viewed Suhani as a victim in the first place, then she never would have found the audacity to want to become a nobel Peace Prize winner - or even a Village Visionary. She would have stayed at home, without an outlet for her potential or a platform to teach, inspire, or support her community.
See the difference?
When we assume that only people with certain qualifications and degrees are capable, then we end up handicapping our society and world. It's time for us to begin identifying, celebrating, and building on the strengths that people already have, rather than just talking about what they don’t have. We need to focus on potential in place of problems; create shared objectives, instead of obstacles; and empower dreams instead of furthering dependency.
And why not?
THE Suhani - armed with laughter, a big vision, and an even bigger smile - is proving one community at a time, that all the potential we need to radically transform rural India is already there. We just need to, like a diamond in the rough, discover, cut, and polish it.
[Image of a close-up of an elephant's tail]
In an ancient Buddhist parable, a group of blind men were asked to describe an elephant to the Buddha. The first blind monk felt the elephant’s head, rough and round, and exclaimed “an elephant is like a pot!”. The next felt its tail, bristled and thick and shouted, “an elephant is like a brush!”. And the last felt its foot, robust and circular and determined, “an elephant is like a pillar!”
Much of community development work – by NGOs and government – is very much like the blind men describing the elephant; each party focuses on a specific part, without seeing the whole. The goals, priorities, and resources of each party are misaligned, and therefore, the system performs below its full capacity. We see things in isolation, in silos - and forget that systemic change ultimately depends on the sustained coordination and interaction of multiple parties across multiple sectors.
In my last year of college, I fell prey to the same way of thinking. I had taken a semester off to work in rural India and during this time, I met a ten-year-old girl named Chandani. Chandani would come to the village every morning to collect the trash, just as the sun peeked over the horizon - fresh-faced and full of mischief.
[Show a picture of Chandani smiling]
Initially I couldn’t get her to talk to me. She would just smile and stay silent. But over time, as we met everyday, she began feeling more comfortable and shared her story with me.
She had dropped out of school a few weeks after starting because her teachers would beat and abuse her; they told her that “people like her” would never learn, and would hit her for any small infraction. So, discouraged, she dropped out of school and now collected and sold trash for a few rupees everyday to support her family.
Every morning, I would wake up, intent to see Chandani. Her shy disclosures gave me life. One day, I had an idea. I gently asked if I could teach her how to write her name. Her eyes filled with fear, she jumped up and ran off; I had suddenly transformed into a teacher - and the only type of teacher she knew was violent and punishing.
The next day she came back sheepish, and the day after as well. But as we got closer and closer, she finally told me that she wanted to try. So, I taught her and after just two days, she began writing her name from memory. On the third day, I gave her a notebook and pen in the morning, and one hour later, a coworker called and told me that she was filling up every line of her notebook with her name while the rest of her friends played.
[Show the logo of Seekho]
This experience inspired me to start an educational organization called SEEKHO, as I realized that we needed to build an environment, where children like Chandani would feel more comfortable learning. To get started, we identified and trained local high school graduates to become teachers, who then taught students like Chandani both in and out of school.
In the beginning, Chandani came to study everyday and was learning really quickly, but over time her attendance became more erratic until she finally stopped coming. Every few weeks, I would call out to her when I saw her picking up trash, but she would just run away. The silence had returned and this time it was heavier, tinged with something more unrelenting. I visited her house and tried talking to her mother, asking where she was, imploring her to send Chandani to school and she simply would reply, “we're poor – what do you expect?”
Thinking about Chandani and this experience makes me uncomfortable and upset; it was my relationship with her that was the catalyst for starting the organization, and yet, the organization had failed her.
I had to ask myself why? Upon further reflection, it became apparent. Maybe, we were looking at things wrong; imagine if the blind men had each tried to sculpt an elephant on their own – one sculptor would have made a pot, another a brush, and another a pillar – none of which resemble an elephant.
So that's what we were – blind sculptors. We didn't understand the complex system that Chandani was living in. Just providing educational programs wasn't enough – we needed to understand the range of factors that were affecting Chandani's education, like her family's economic status, health, and overall community support.
As I realized this, a local teammate, was one step ahead of me. Ganesh, coincidentally named after the Hindu elephant god who is known for removing obstacles, was unknowingly already employing the solution. He was teaching community members basic sanitation and helping people earn money by get job cards so that they could work on government infrastructure projects. He recognized that we needed a cross-sector, holistic approach, and was working hard to make it happen.
Seeing the interaction of these two different approaches, I realized a funny paradox was at work. On the one hand, our explicit model was not leading to systemic change, because it was too prescriptive and did not allow us to adapt to what we were learning. But on the other hand, watching Ganesh and our other local teammates, I realized that we had unintentionally built an army of systems leaders - local people like Ganesh, who understood the complex interaction of social, political, and economic factors, and were able to come up with nuanced solutions to the challenges facing the village. This was our main strength as a group.
So, with our strengths in mind, we decided to shift our focus and start a new organization called Project Potential. An organization that saw the elephant - in its majestic entirety.
[Show the Project Potential logo]
Project Potential builds model villages. We create community-driven systems, whereby different stakeholders can engage, collaborate, and affect change to march towards greater health and happiness.
[A slide that has search, small successes, show, and sustain.]
The way that we do it? We start by identifying, training, and supporting local leaders like Ganesh, who we call Village Visionaries, who then mobilize local people and resources to help the community achieve its goals.
The Village Visionary is then ready to embark on a journey to turn the village into a model village There are three stages on this quest to create a model village that we call the 3 S’s: small successes, show, and sustain.
We call the first phase small success, because it is all about finding meaningful, but easy-to-complete projects that the visionary can mobilize the community to successfully do - the low-hanging fruits so to speak. These early wins help build the visionary and the community’s trust and belief that a better possibility can be achieved.
As an example, Ganesh had been running a learning center in the community, but again, saw that there was low attendance there. When he talked to the local mothers about this challenge, he realized that their main concern right now wasn’t education; it was the fact that the government had built a water pump in the open, next to the road, which meant they had to bathe in public. Until this problem was solved, they weren’t interested in talking about education. And yet, just like Chandani's mom said that the problem was something unfixable and endemic, the women here also said that they didn't believe anything could be done.
Ganesh realized that, sure, any one individual was too poor to help get the shower built, but that collectively, every family could give 50 or 100 rupees, from which the materials could be purchased. For those who couldn't even give that much, they could provide bamboo or labor to help the facility get built.
So then one Sunday, the entire community came out to get it done; some arranged the materials, while others cut bamboo. And, everyone, including the children in the village, cleaned the surrounding space. By the end of the day, the women in the village didn’t have just a shower - they had dignity. And what had been just a group of individuals before had become a community, united by shared experience and shared dreams for the future. Now that the mothers’ minds were free from the shower challenge, student attendance at the learning center as well.
The reason why this project was important is that Ganesh had a system insight – he recognized that the most important part of the elephant is its heart, so from the beginning, he listened and built on the ideas of the people, and found a way for each member to contribute.
These small wins then form the basis of step two – show - which is all about demonstrating our impact to encourage other communities to begin transforming their own villages. We do this in two ways. The first is by holding ceremonies to celebrate the transformation of the village into a model village. And the second is to send representatives from the model village to help other villages begin this process themselves.
Before this project was completed, there was no system within the village or surrounding villages for setting a common goal and then working together to achieve it. But now that this model has been established, Ganesh's work has become much easier. The community, empowered by the thought that their action can translate to reality, doesn’t see things like filing government applications or even pooling their own resources as obstacles, rather steps to achieving a larger goal. The momentum builds. Meanwhile, neighboring villages observe the fruits of their labor blossoming, and are curious and compelled to reach out and start their own movement.
The final step is sustain. Ganesh won't stay in this village his entire life, so we need to think about how these projects will become intrinsic to the community mindset and mentality. The system we use to do so is to create village Sapna Samitis, or dream teams, which consist of men and women with a track record of catalyzing development in the village. Ganesh's work then just becomes to connect the different dream teams and allow them to learn from each other and work together.
Now, when I think back to Chandani, I realize maybe an educational center isn't the only thing she needed. Perhaps, she needed more support at home. Perhaps, her elders needed more information on the benefits of knowledge. Perhaps, she needed a mentor or a big sister to continue encouraging her, day in and day out. Perhaps it was a combination of all these things, intersecting, intertwined, difficult to disentangle or silo into a singular, neat problem+solution.
I needed to look beyond the four walls of the classroom. And see the elephant in its entirety - not just as a head, tail, and foot, but rather, as a vast, wise, and ever-evolving creature. Once you see the elephant as a whole, it becomes Ganesh, and once it becomes Ganesh, it becomes easy for you to remove the obstacles.