What has my experience as an Ashoka Lead Changemaker taught me?

In September 2012, I was selected as one of Ashoka's Lead ChangeMakers from Bangalore. Personally, I have come a long way from being a speaker at Ashoka Green Plan IT in 2011 to being recognised as a Changemaker. This time the mandate was very simple; to create more changemakers who are young in schools and colleges. The idea was that Reap Benefit would not merely be a platform, but create a strong experience for students, who in turn will help create a paradigm shift in thinking. They would assimilate this theoretical knowledge and develop solutions for issues they feel strongly about. This also gives them a sense of belief, confidence and reassurance that age is no barrier to bring about change, and help them make the shift from mere tokenism to being on the forefront of change.  

The experience proved a brilliant learning curve with the entire Reap Benefit team being involved in the process. After a series of discussions we decided to work with Sarakki Government School in JP Nagar, which enrolls students from low-income backgrounds. We identified four areas; bio-diversity, water, energy and waste. Sanitation was not mentioned explicitly then by the staff, but highlighted as the main point by the students. The school had a dismal sanitation system because of water scarcity. For young students who were  studying in a small concrete set up that lacked adequate infrastructure, this was not conducive to develop their minds. The challenges were new to us. So far, we had approached institutions (schools, colleges, and corporates) that had the funds to drive change. This was a set up where we had to optimize resources (water, energy), we had to engage students who had other issues to worry about rather than environmental damage, and who were ‘apparently’ violent, destructive and aggressive.  The challenge was also to get them to take ownership, enable independent thinking and encourage individuals who took charge and were justifying their actions with necessary evaluations. We as a team were very clear that everything has to be action based, so we decided to help develop habits with which students can optimize resources.

We spoke to an urban designer, who then brought in the aspect of communicating the message to the students using design as an intervention. It was challenging working as a team as we had to take into consideration the needs of both the students and teachers while incorporating forward thinking and ideas of the designer while playing with the limitations and existing resources.

A common pattern we saw during the implementation was that there was a huge initial interest as the activity was new. The seeds of leadership became visible here, with a few people starting to take charge as the enthusiasm dropped. They used their own methods to hold groups together while ensuring that their vision for the initiative got implemented. Once their confidence and ownership grew, they asked questions and made suitable changes independently. New teams have been forged, each with their own vision and selection process. These students saw the transformation that we saw in over a year  in less than 4 months. I realize now that change is natural, an integral part of our lives. Once it starts, it can’t be stopped. Leadership and teamwork can be taught using the environment as a very strong medium.

The other activities we carried out and designed was a program called ‘Step Out’ where we urged students from Sri Kumaran’s Children Home to  step out of their classrooms to visit SAP Labs and ACTS Institute and learn about real world issues from aromatic gardens, innovative water saving techniques, natural lighting measures, bio gas etc. It was a wonderful experience for students to see corporates embracing sustainability and ‘walking the talk’. The students went back and discussed the idea of a medicinal garden and aromatic garden with their principal before starting their work. Some of the students from this school volunteered to work with us thus leading to a participative approach of a different kind and breaking barriers.

Reap Benefit believes in creating solutions and making students believe that change is possible when action is taken. One such project which got clubbed as a part of Ashoka Lead Changemaker was a small research project by the students which developed an algorithm to make computers more energy efficient by working on the ambient lighting and brightness and contrast. The Changemakers from Shishugraha School not only won the National Science Fair but also presented this idea to the Infosys Green Team, which would lead to saving approximately 1KWZ per computer per day. The Green Team was thrilled with the simplicity of the idea and will adopt it which leads to tremendous energy and financial savings. Now through this collaboration our team member Gautam Prakash has been asked to be a co-inventor to apply for a patent with the students and the professor. This echoes Ashoka’s belief that ‘Everyone is Changemaker’.

The three examples highlight the diversity of the students but also reinforce our belief that actions speak louder than words. Personally and professionally, I grew, learnt, made mistakes but was energized to be a part of change on the whole.

By Kuldeep Dantewadia. 

Kuldeep Dantewadia is the co-Founder of Reap Benefit. He was chosen as a Lead Changemaker by Ashoka in 2012 to introduce youth to changemaking.