Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Ratna's Reflections on Gyaan Ghar, Spring 2017

I was lucky to be able to visit our learning center this week, even if just for a few days. Though I wasn't there long, I wanted to share briefly my thoughts on where we came from, where we are, and where we're going. Click to read Ratna's Reflections on Gyaan Ghar, Spring 2017.

Sunday, April 2, 2017


You can hear it when you call them
The slight tone of surprise and expected expectation
They birthed those who birthed you

The best part, by far, of my trip to India these past two weeks was how much quality time I got to spend with my grandparents (or "the grandies" as I quite enjoy calling them). I've realized I have this subconscious fear that as I get older, I'm going to become too something -- too modern, too "American," too progressive, too aloof -- to be able to relate to my grandparents anymore. This trip was such beautiful proof that absolutely the opposite is true. Graduating college and living in the working world (albeit for very short a time) has filled me with nothing but admiration and respect for the inspiring careers and lives of strength and courage these incredible humans are living.

Let's start with my Nanaji. He won't approve, but the word that constantly comes to my mind for him and his career is "badass." (Since I know he will look this up and don't want him walking away with the wrong definition, I'm going to say I define that as "distinctively tough or powerful; so exceptional as to be intimidating" (Random House, Inc.)).

Nanaji decided to tinker with a college career in engineering, and ended up retiring as the Chief Engineer of the Punjab Irrigation Department, shortly after I was born. Then, he decided to benefit from the irrigation and drainage systems he himself had built throughout his career, and retired to his ancestral land in Abohar to run a citrus orchard.

He literally just does this for fun; so he has something to do. I asked him how he learned about farming and he said he had just been exposed to an agricultural lifestyle from a young age and that's how he picked up the vocabulary of the farm...and the technical stuff he learned on the internet. His fancy new sprinkler system for the fields arrived in Abohar the same day I arrived in India -- so I was honored and pleasantly surprised that between the two of us, he chose to receive me!

Nanaji and I got to chat on the long drives from Chandigarh to Ludhiana and between Amritsar and Chandigarh, and I had the privilege of getting to see a few of the sites at which he was stationed at various points in his career. I absolutely adore these drives, and deeply cherish the assorted advice Nanaji always gives me about personal finances, moderation, and trusting in the universe to do its thing.

My Nani is genuinely one of my closest friends. I can't think of anyone else, fluent in the same English-Hindi-Punjabi melange we speak, who so wholeheartedly accepts and appreciates my antics. Whether we are spontaneously breaking into bedroom Bhangra routines, rudely spitting out citrus seeds at the farm, or muttering genuinely irreverent Punjabi commentary about strangers who irk us, we never stop laughing together.

I keep thinking that one of these days I am going to be a good granddaughter and give this queen the pampering she so deserves -- but she never gives me a chance as every morning she wakes me up with my favorite Nescafe drink and a pile of my laundry from the day before that she has decided to wash by hand. Every day. Who even does laundry every day?!

After my adventures in Ludhiana and Amritsar, I returned to Chandigarh and just debriefed with Nani for two hours. I kept trying to flag topics in my head that maybe I couldn't discuss with her or feelings of mine that she wouldn't be able to relate to, but as I continued to run my mouth, I was disproven time and time again.

Despite a knee injury (can relate), Nani carted me around running my frivolous errands until the last hour of my trip, and when I was leaving she said, "I'll miss you so much...starting tomorrow I won't have anyone to do things for!"

My Dadi is a stunning exemplar of strength and independence. She never graduated high school but started from the age of 16 to support my Dadaji in his long and celebrated career as a college professor (whence my passion for education and literature come). Her dream was to one day be the Principal of a primary school. I didn't know of this aspiration until after I asked her to be the President of Gyaan Ghar in 2008, at which point we discovered that coincidentally, this dream had become a reality!

In addition to overseeing the daily operations of this learning center home to 65 students from low-income families, Dadi also serves as Vice President for the local Senior Citizen Welfare Association (advocating for the rights and dignity of the city's senior citizens) and runs the Park Club Society (through which she has been working on transforming junkyards in the region into green urban spaces for upwards of 15 years). So although she lives alone at the age of 77, she is never without something to do, and constantly frequented by adoring community members seeking her counsel.

I skirted around trying to explain what I do at Living Cities with most people on my trip, but with Dadi I decided to go ahead and try it -- within three sentences (clumsily uttered in Hindi, no less) she had grasped our model more quickly than probably anyone I've tried to explain the organization to, including in English. She asked brilliant questions and then started talking about how we need to do more to bridge the intergenerational wealth gap between blacks and whites in which point I was just too blown away to hear anything else she said.

I spent time at the dinner table last week asking Dadi to recite her story and Dadaji's, including all the places they have lived over their lives, which I audio recorded so I can go back and look each place up to document as much of the history and wisdom of my elders as I can.

One of my favorite quotes (by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar) begins: “Play with a small child as you played when you were a child. Talk with an elderly person remembering that one day, you will be like them.” In the case of my grandies, all I can do is hope that this is true.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

A Conversation with Suparna Gupta, Founder of Aangan India

Last January, I had the opportunity to moderate a panel at the annual Harvard US-India Initiative conference about the Indian juvenile justice system and the Juvenile Justice Act of 2009. The panel featured some human rights rockstars, including Harvard Law School Professor Jacqueline Bhabha and the Founder and Director of Aangan India, Mrs. Suparna Gupta.

Our conversation last winter went by way too quickly, and I've since been eager to pick both of their brains further about this topic near and dear to my heart. Having just touched down in India last week, I was lucky enough to be able to meet with Suparna Gupta to learn more about Aangan and their systemic approach to child protection.

A number of themes stood out to me in our conversation, particularly as areas that we at Living Cities are trying to figure out in the context of job creation in U.S. cities. Connections across sectors and disciplines whirred through my mind as Suparna compared their work and ours, cutting across countries and cultures.

But the first thing that struck me was how empowering and encouraging Suparna was as a listener while we spoke. She is a giant in a field that I know admittedly little about, and yet she asked more questions than she gave answers, interrupting occasionally with the excited respect one affords an intellectual peer. I thought about it later and realized that this unequivocal respect is a cornerstone of Aangan's approach -- to listen to voices that come from all places and consider them of equal weight and validity. The communities we aim to serve in the social sector are too often excluded from the dialogue about how best to help them; thus consultation with children affected by issues like abuse and neglect is a key piece of Aangan's model.

Sharing Knowledge in Real Time

So of course Suparna opened by asking me, "What are you doing these days?" and when I mentioned that I work on writing to share real-time learnings across the cities we work with, she paused me to say, "Wait -- real-time learning -- what is that phrase? That's what we need."

Our philosophy toward learning at Living Cities is that if we wait to publish until research is "conclusive" in an academic sense, the window for when that knowledge could be useful to another city will likely have passed. Hence we encourage our cities not to be afraid to "fail fast" -- regardless of whether they achieve a success or a failure, to share lessons learned with the world in real-time so that other cities can replicate promising practices and avoid reinventing the wheel.

Aangan is a pioneer in collecting data at the grassroots level and then giving the data back to communities so they can implement change on the ground in a way that is culturally sensitive and appropriate. The team recently launched an app through which areas that are hotspots for child trafficking can self-report community data -- this data is then shared back to the community, and also reported to the state government. Thus change can take place at multiple levels: community members can use signs of high-risk situations to better equip them to protect children in the region based on trends that emerge for them, and the state can roll out policies and programs to protect children. (One such program has police officers spending a few hours a week with women and girls in the community to build trust, so that they be seen as advocates who can aid in prevention, rather than authorities dealing in punishment.)

Seeking Systemic Solutions & Cross-Sector Collaboration

Another piece that came alive for me in our conversation was Suparna's (indirect and conversational) description of what it truly means to look at a problem from the systems level. "I started off being really interested in education, and then realized I was more concerned about the students who weren't in the classroom. What was keeping these kids out of school?" This simple rhetorical question sent me reeling down a mental journey about why I always feel like there's something missing in the level of support we can provide at Gyaan Ghar, why I wish I could go home with each and every student and observe what their relationship with their parents looks like and whether they fight with their siblings or not, and on and on all the way to the root cause of why they are where they are. Suparna drew the connection between lack of familial financial security and risk of being trafficked for me simply and vividly, again hearteningly striking a connection between our focus on wealth creation for low-income people at Living Cities and Aangan's work on child protection and well-being. To consider and engage with an entire system on an issue like child protection is both comfortingly tangible and dizzyingly complex.

We bemoaned the fact that more students don't say they study "systems science" because "political science" brings to mind something easier to understand -- but we ranted about the need to reform entire systems surrounding elected officials to embed change that persists beyond each new administration eager to make its own uniquely innovative mark. I got to spend a bit of time here talking about how the cross-sector tables in each of our Integration Initiative cities originated, and also how we continue to iterate to make sure the right people are at the table to make sure that change is sustainable and sustained.

Personal Reflections

Influenced by my time working at Sasha Bruce Youthwork and proud of my certification in their "competency-based counseling" approach, I was quick to jump in and ask how counseling fits into Aangan's work with women and children. Suparna challenged my assumptions by asking "what exactly do you mean by 'counseling'?" (Her background is in psychology and communications, so the question was meant purely didactically, and caught me accordingly off-guard.) I stumbled to get out the words "clinical talk therapy" (as technical as it gets when you are as out of your depth as I was) and she pushed me to think about what counseling would mean for the communities that Aangan works in. "If you mean talking, everything we do with these kids is talking. In fact, it's the only tool we have. If you mean sitting in an office talking to a 'professional,' I encourage you to think about the vocabulary it takes to describe the risks these children are facing, even as an adult. Now picture a child trying to describe those experiences in a clinical setting." Once again, I was pushed out of my comfort zone to think about the inherent privilege and potential for alienation involved when we tout tools that are not culturally appropriate. Suparna then drew the link to artistic expression (trauma-informed informal "art therapy") as a tool that Aangan uses to work with children (when appropriate). Implicitly: art is a language we all have access to. My jaw dropped to the floor as another tool whose application I've grappled with emerged from our conversation, drawing connections across multiple fields I'm extremely passionate about.

I left our conversation with a deep sense of optimism. I was extremely heartened to find the field I currently work in so relevant and "easily" applicable to a different social issue in a country with an entirely different set of cultural norms and political forces. Suparna's words about overcoming systems as engrained as child marriage, or even the caste system -- through words, the only tool we have -- gave me so much hope, and re-instilled my commitment to continuing to push and grapple with these issues, one piece at a time.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016


I realize that I have owed you all an update for a while, as I've recently embarked into a phase of my life that even thinking about has made me very anxious for, for a very long time now. Since before college began, I was afraid of leaving it. There was something there about losing "the best four years of your life!" and there was something there about saying goodbye to youth.

The update I owe is that this new stage of life couldn't be better designed for what I genuinely love: work that deeply interests me and contributes to the value I want to add to the world, a balanced lifestyle with space for wellness and reflection, time with friends and loved ones, and white space to explore and create and wonder. Many a tortured moment could have been avoided had I known what awaited me in New York post graduation!

Life is silly and pretty these days. I have my own writing desk. And bed. And bedside lamp. And desk lamp. And futon. And armchair (the love of my life). The list goes on and on. And I have the time to admire them, and go to sleep every night feeling grateful for all that I can provide for myself and enjoy by myself. The simple satisfaction of curating and tending an environment that makes me feel calm, and makes me feel me, is one of the most underrated feelings in this world.

The philosophy and spirit of my workplace align perfectly with the philosophy and spirit I aim to embody as a person. Living Cities is a non-profit "think-and-do-tank" that does research on what it will take to achieve dramatically better results for-low income people at a faster pace than we're currently headed toward as a country. Our research is "applied research" -- conducted through projects where we work with city governments, financial institutions, foundations, etc. to help them collaborate to scale change for underprivileged people, particularly people of color.

We are a learning organization, so we believe that there's no such thing as a mistake -- because if something doesn't work in one city, we can speed up the rate of learning by spreading the word to other cities through our live-time reflections, so that the same mistakes aren't repeated in another place. And likewise, success in one place can accelerate the pace of change in another.

Another belief we hold is that if our work is to make life better for people, we need to be good and kind to ourselves. Vulnerability is not taboo in this office, and wellness and self-care are espoused as necessities everyone should strive for amidst work that can be extremely heavy. So many organizations, even organizations doing really good work for people, forget to be good to their own people. The spirit of Living Cities has allowed my transition into "real life" to be approached with honesty and received with compassion.

(Oh, we also believe that if we work together we can end poverty. Think about that. That's the kind of people who work here.)

My role is to reflect on and write about the lessons we learn through our projects and processes, internal and external, to share learnings within the organization and with the cities we serve. As you likely know if you are reading this post, the instinct to capture, codify, and look for lessons is a natural one for me, but one I constantly try to push myself further on.

What made me think to write today was two interactions I had today around the notion of "youth" -- that idealized time that I was ironically afraid to lose after college. The first came in an email from a friend whom I admire immensely and who completed his PhD as I finished my undergrad at Harvard, addressed to another Harvard undergrad and me:

"You two are my youngest non-family friends. If you don't know by now, let me tell you, I consider that a very important role in my life. It's on you guys to help us maintain our curiosity, our energy, our idealism."

The second was an observation that my boss made to me: "I care for you not just as the youngest person here but as a young professional. You're the purest form of what we have here. Your presence challenges me and reminds me that we have to link the values we have to the work we do, and that's a way you hold responsibility for our culture."

Apart from being wonderfully flattering and empowering, these snippets highlight the role that "youth" plays in keeping people's minds and hearts open and idealistic.

When I visited Brazil in 2011 with my father and a few of his coworkers from the World Bank, his dear colleague and friend Cyprian Fisiy said to me, "Here in Brazil we see poverty, corruption, and crime -- and yet you see beauty and are so inspired by this place. Where does that come from?" I gave some answer that would be laughed out of any economics classroom about the spirit of the kind people there and how that could be separated from the hatred and need so rampant in the country and I expected Cyprian Uncle to push back with cynicism and a correction and instead he said, "Keep that. We need that kind of idealism in our work and our world."

In retrospect, it was silly to think that youth has to do with being in college, or that youth is a prerequisite for optimism. I've been afraid of losing something, but it's not actually being old that I'm afraid of. I think that "youth" might be what people mistake "wonder" for. Just genuine, curious, excited wonderment at this world.

I just graduated college, and I get to be the youngest person in the room again. My goal, on this birthday and onward, is never to lose that -- continuing to believe in what is by all counts crazy and impossible -- because if we can keep that, youth is infinite.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

What's next?

Many of you may be wondering where I'm headed next, now that this happened:

Graduation was a blur, but a very beautiful one that filled me with a lot of gratitude. It was especially special to have my Nani and Nanaji here from India for the special day, and campus was appropriately celebratory and sentimental for the last few weeks we were there.

I spent a satisfying and relaxing chunk of time after graduation at home in Virginia, decompressing, going on lots of runs, and gearing up for my next phase! I was lucky to be able to see many people who have been instrumental in Priya's and my success and happiness while at home.

I'm now in New York, living in Union Square with my good friend Bianca and commuting to Bryant Park daily, for a summer internship with Living Cities, a non-profit that works on urban economic development here in the United States. I'm a part of the Collective Impact team, who promote solutions that harness the power of both the public and the private sectors to solve the country's most challenging urban poverty issues.

My mornings and afternoons are filled with learning, and my evenings are full of writing and exploring. More than ever, my gap year mindset of taking things one moment at a time is serving me well. 

For now, I'm just happy to be here.