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, Ms. 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 continents and cultures.

Learning from All Levels

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.