Interview by Vani Viswanathan[box]Keerthi Kiran, Co-founder, Grassroutes, speaks to Vani Viswanathan about how Grassroutes began, how the journey has been and how the effort has evolved over the years, among other things. Catch the conversation here.[/box] [box type=”bio”] Keerthi Kiran, an Electronics & Instrumentation Engineer from BITS, Pilani is the Co-founder of Grassroutes, a Fellowship Program which enables outstanding and passionate youth to travel across rural India, discover and work with changemakers, do their bit to change the world and inspire more youth into social action. To know more about Grassroutes and the work they do, visit http://www.grassroutes.in[/box]
Let’s start with your beginnings. Mixing travel and social change – what was the inspiration? Could you talk about a trip or two that told you this was the way to go?
I guess the inspiration to mix travel and social change came from the lives of the founders of Grassroutes. We realised the impact of moving out of one’s comfort zone to a new place when we travelled around Pilani. Coming from cities and towns, the places we saw shaped the way we thought about social change and our roles therein.
Also, through different interactions with social entrepreneurs, we also realised the long lasting impact of personal experiences. These were the reasons for choosing experiential learning as a tool to sensitise and help young people discover the changemakers within them.
We frequently travelled to a small village near Pilani called Garinda, where one of the founders was leading an effort to resurrect a self-help group. Through the course of development of the self-help group, we all learned about the huge gap between the aspirations of the kids in the village and the opportunities available to them through the existing schools there. We also discovered how little we urban youth with elite education, knew about the ground realities of Indian villages.
I understand you kick-started the organisation barely months after you graduated. How confident were you of getting the necessary support in terms of funding, marketing, mentoring (and biggest of all, sustaining yourselves monetarily after a gruelling four-year program that usually pays graduates buckloads)?
We started in our third year of college and in a few months had to shut shop because of a few reasons. That dented our confidence a bit, but not our enthusiasm and energy. So to answer your question, we were very careful and calculated. We immediately launched a pilot to improve and develop the idea. All of us were employed when we started running the pilot edition, so we weren’t really crunched for money. We bootstrapped and self-funded the first few editions. Our biggest challenge was to coordinate between five people in three countries and five different cities. So Grassroutes took shape over Skype and Sabsebolo conference calls.
As the idea grew, things fell in place, and in a year’s time I quit my job to run Grassroutes full time.
How do you ensure the solutions that Grassroutes fellows work on are sustainable?
We only work on projects that are of value to organisations and that require a month’s effort. Examples of some of the projects would be an impact study of the new seeds that were planted last season by the non-profit, or designing a new nutritional diet plan for the local mid-day meal scheme, or putting together marketing collateral for the non-profit.
These are of great value to non-profits and are easily achieved by urban youth given their exposure and expertise. We take great care in mapping the skill of the fellows with the requirement of the organisations.
Having said that, we are cognizant of the fact that one month is a small time to create sustainable change at the organisations. So, we spend great time with our partners in designing one month projects that will deliver high impact for them.
It is impressive to see the number of NGOs and start-ups such as yours doing great work in the community and raising awareness among the younger generation. All the same, the reason these organisations had to step in is failure on part of the government to ensure some basic standards of living for its citizens . What are your thoughts on this?
I agree and disagree with the statement, as I believe that every system will have its gaps and citizens have to step in to fill those. This is not to undermine the role of the government but every citizen has a great responsibility in improving the state of our nation. The kind of inequity that we are seeing is unhealthy and very dangerous for all the privileged citizens. It is in our best interests to make sure that growth is equitable and all sections have an opportunity to realise their social, cultural and financial aspirations. In achieving this utopian state, individual citizens have a huge role to play, more so, the urban elite.
Also, democracy works on the premise of involved citizenship. We can’t expect great results by passing the buck to the government on all counts.
As a democracy, India does give a good few options for people at the grassroots to take charge and lead their communities to a better way of life (although we need to agree they may be tedious). Are any of your projects to do with furthering political consciousness among the community members? Whether yes or no, could you discuss your views?
No, we do not take up projects dealing with political consciousness. While it is a worthy cause, it requires a more engaged relationship with the community to create positive change on that front.
On a side note, I believe rural areas have greater participation in political discourse in our country; the bigger problem is with the urban areas and urban elite. Mumbai Votes and similar organisations are doing a good job towards driving political consciousness in urban areas.
How has the Grassroutes program evolved since its inception? What plans do you have for the upcoming editions?
Since inception, Grassroutes has worked with 64 youngsters on 34 projects at 20 different non-profit organisations. Every year we have seen an increase in the number of applications. While we are very happy with the way Grassroutes has grown, we are nowhere near solving the problem of driving social consciousness in urban youth.
To take a shot at the bigger problem, we are moving towards a model where we will open the resources to student groups, college associations, individuals and youth groups to organise a Grassroutes for their own target population.
We look at Grassroutes fellowship as a proof of concept and hope that many other youth groups will be inspired to run similar programs. We are hoping to make this move over the coming year.
Grassroutes website : http://www.grassroutes.in
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