Udyami – Empowering Children To Explore Their Leadership Potential
SWOT analysis. Design thinking. Team building. These terms might conjure up images of a discussion in a corporate conference room or at a business school, but thanks to Udyami – an initiative started by a pair of Teach For India Fellows in Delhi – they’re right at home in the vocabulary of school students. In 2015, Chandni Chopra and Aarshiya Chaudhry were inspired by their students’ potential and set out to equip them with the skills they need to drive change within their own ecosystem.
Post the Maya Musical – a Teach For India original broadway styled show that saw its students illustrate the power of potential in 2012 – Fellows took it upon themselves to extend the spirit of the production and routinely question what an excellent education really looks like. For Chandni and Arshiya, Udyami was a space to do just that. “Delhi has got an entrepreneurial spirit – jugaad as many call it,” Chandni laughs, “Even among the Fellows here, there’s a lot of creativity in projects and an emphasis on policy and advocacy, given that we’re in the nation’s capital. The two streams we wanted to focus on were raising your voice about current issues and finding solutions for your community. We wanted to cultivate sustainable student leadership.”
She remembers observing a disconnect between classroom discussions and real action in past efforts. “We had tried to focus on communities, but didn’t feel like the kids were actually doing anything. We wanted to develop an entrepreneurial mindset in the children. We wanted them to create – to bring about real change!” Chandni shares.
Today, Udyami works with 30 kids from five schools spread across Sangam Vihar, Mehrauli and Tughlakabad. It flips the traditional selection process for an ‘extracurricular activity’ on it’s head – the Udyami team selects the Fellow mentors, not students, on the criterion that their personal vision should be closely aligned to the core of empowering students and encouraging expression. The five mentors then bring students from their own classrooms, but are given no guidelines or restrictions like academic achievement or artistic ability. Instead, they choose kids who would benefit. “We ended up with a real bell curve – the final set of students was representative of any classroom. Some of them were struggling to find their voice, others were on their way to making their vision a reality and there were those who weren’t yet sure what they’re passionate about. What really mattered in the process was the investment of the Fellow mentors,” says Chandni.
One key objective that Udyami focuses on is to enable the children to express themselves. After all, in order to gather people, communicate ideas, build momentum and collaborate on large-scale projects – they’ll need to elevate their voice, in whatever way they deem most effective. The Udyami kids, mostly in seventh and eighth standard, meet twice a week for three hours. One session focuses on mindsets and skill-development, where students do a SWOT analysis on a particular issue or practice design thinking by creating a problem statement, a research plan and analyzing data. The other session involves reflection and using life maps to transform personally and work towards the personal development goals each student has set for themselves. Students might be talking about the Cold War and it’s impact on social life, about Tesla Motors or Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index! The kids have even set up debates about the independence movement in Kashmir and talk about students leaders from other countries and the impact they’ve had!
But most importantly, the kids are out in their own communities – practising what they learn. Where initially they had almost theoretical responses to why a particular issue needs to be addressed, now they’re connecting the same to their personal ‘why’s’. “When we used to ask them what about something that motivates them specifically, their responses weren’t strong. Now, everything’s coming from a personal place and in their own voice. There’s authenticity,” says Chandni.
Aarthi for example, who had experienced eve-teasing, set out to change the disrespectful behavior of others by increasing awareness around the issue. She started speaking to people directly and counting each conversation as a small win. Now, when she hears an untoward comment, she doesn’t stay quiet – she screams and draws attention from helpful bystanders. Another group of girls decided that parents who don’t want to send their girls to school but will happily send boys, need to change. The girls claimed they were judged for taking care of their education instead of doing ‘what girls should do’. They spent their summer break teaching and empowering girls in their own communities and have performed street plays with this theme as well.
When reflecting on student growth, every single child seems to have a story. One such kid is Anjali. She was in 6th standard when she joined Udyami and had only been in a Teach For India classroom for a year. Shy and quiet, she spoke only when called upon. The Udyami team soon learned how she takes such good care of her mother.
“Anjali’s home life is a struggle, characterized by violence. I had never known her as so powerful. She then took me upstairs to a shared terrace and showed me the garden she’s grown. She’s so happy to see things bloom and it’s what she’s passionate about. Now, a year later, she’s facilitating group sessions! She writes her own slam poetry and has clear goals – she wants to be a naturalist. Anjali is exploring herself. Not that she is trying to be confident or outspoken. She’s just not guarding it anymore,” shares Chandni.
In one year, the scope for Udyami has grown and it’s all thanks to the children. Now, the team is looking at what personal mastery would look like and how students could reach the next level in their chosen field. Initially, the group began as an experiment – “what if we thought about the kind of people we want our kids to become?” – but today, the kids have shown they are even more capable of owning their development and have led the way.
Udyami is a space for motivation, innovation and creativity – things that shouldn’t be restricted to classrooms or students. Here’s hoping more children are given such an opportunity to harness their potential and bring about the kind of change our world desperately needs!