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They're Not Just Poor, They're Kids
Life Skills: A Key to Women’s Empowerment

William J Clinton fellow Ryan Ballard shares some of his experiences with Magic Bus from his American India Foundation year in India.

This past month was a really big shift in my role at work with my NGO, Magic Bus. October was filled with a lot of introductory sessions, field visits and attending fundraising events. It was through these activities that I came to know the several stakeholders at hand with our programs. After, I finally took a more practical role with participation in a quantitative data collection with the Monitoring and Evaluation staff in three urban slum neighborhoods of Mumbai where we work. Probably the most rewarding experience yet happened in the last week of October after Diwali, when I headed outside of Mumbai to conduct a peer leadership training camp for some of our youth from various slum communities.

The camp was 5 days long and took place on an organic farm in Panchgani (one of the hometowns of Freddie Mercury, I later found out), a pristine rural hill station about five hours southeast from the busy mega-city of Mumbai. For most of the kids, it was the first they had ever left the city to go anywhere. We sat on the bus all together, blasting loud Hindi tunes and singing along as we ascended the hills and slowly escaped the noise, smells and concrete of Mumbai. For me, it was a good break from the office and from the urban sprawl of the seemingly never-ending cityscape that is Bombay. It was also a great platform to get to know our kids. For the kids though, it was an epic journey through a landscape of nature some of them had only seen in movies. It felt exciting to see their glowing faces and laughter as we were surrounded by green hills. They documented the ride on their mobile phone cameras and texted their families with updates.

After developing content for the camp and helping put together the itinerary, I really did not know what to expect. I thought it would be a lot of sitting around watching as they conducted sessions in Hindi. Instead, I actually ended having a facilitation role in the camp. The moment I got there, they threw me into sessions and had me leading leadership discussions, warm-up activities and icebreakers – things I learned a lot of with my time with teenagers in Oakland at College Track. The kids were fascinated to meet me and other 20-something facilitators to hear about our lives. The entire time, I kept thinking how great it was that they get to escape their lives for a week – no family pressures, no work, no studies, no congested and polluted streets. It was a week of creatively getting to know themselves and other teens from other slums to exchange ideas and just have fun; boys and girls breaking down barriers, teens talking about the world and their opinions, games to learn something practical from. I also felt part of a team as we sat late at night going over feedback from the day, and how to make the next day even better.

As much fun it was, it was also an emotionally taxing week. The whole idea was leadership through understand themselves, their community/world, and matching them up to understand their own roles in making change in their families, communities and society. One session, called “who am I?,” entailed us opening up on the biggest challenges in our lives. The stories of all of these adolescents reminded me that these same bright, outgoing, fun kids have some of the most challenging lives of any their age that I have met. Many expressed stories of abusive family members, almost being forced to be married before the age of 15, not being able to go to school, living on less than Rs. 10/a day (about $0.20), not having any clothes to wear, the death of close ones, and so on. A few of the stories opened a lot of emotional floodgates for some of the kids, and many of us sat in tears listening to each other. One boy that I became pretty close with told the story of who he is and could barely finish the story as he worked through pain. Although I did not understand most of the words he used in Hindi, the emotion he expressed was universal and I really felt his pain in his trembling voice. The space all of a sudden shifted in shape and feeling. It was not just a closed circle of people talking anymore, but an open and safe venue that was held together by a collective solidarity. Everyone supported each other with a strong sense of unity in struggle.

The entire week reinforced my issues with my own self-embodied privilege. It is a feeling that I carry very often in many contexts, but one that is often heightened here in India. With my job and in situations like this camp, I feel evermore aware of such privilege so much so that it almost disempowers my ability to relate to the kids. In the circle, for example, when it came time for me to share my story, I felt like it would not translate or be relevant for the kids given their stories. Until I realized that there was a common theme in all their stories that I did relate to. It was not the surface issues of child marriage and poverty, but rather it was a feeling of being lost, hopeless and unguided—feelings that have been all too familiar to myself and to many adolescents I have talked to. In many ways, talking to them reminded me of the troubled teenager I used to be–disappointment for the circumstances in my life, feeling lost and like I had no future; I remember I could not see past the immediate horizon of disasters, substances and hopelessness. So, I told them the truth about almost failing high school, not being able to apply to any colleges because of bad grades, little to no guidance, divorce and other family issues, my inferiority complex and most importantly, how I overcame those things and continue to fight new battles every day. I went from a random privileged foreigner to a peer that they could relate to, and most importantly, they actually reminded me something about life. I felt barriers break down. By the end, they admitted that they originally thought I was some fancy rich kid researcher sitting and not understanding their struggles at all.

Building these relationships will be the most important and most difficult part of this project this year. In order to get things done, gain the trust of my communities and work with these youth, I have to be very honest and transparent with them, another lesson I have previously learned from my marginalized teenagers from Oakland. Marginalization–be it through economic or gender disparity, or whether in ghettos of the US or in slums of Mumbai–is how our world functions and what we try hard to repair through this line of work. Being a practical part of such programs at Magic Bus, such as with this peer leader program, is what I hope for most to do the best I can to empower some young people to value their own power to make some change with the people around them. These experiences are ones that I value the most, and are the greatest ones I will walk away with from this fellowship. I also anticipate the reciprocal learning process from these communities. Coming to India, I tried to not take the typical spiritual journey of self-enlightenment that many foreigners take. After this camp however, I may have to reconsider that decision though, as I may have just found 40 new teenage gurus.

To read more details and photos on this experience, as well as a trip to Goa for THINKfest, check out my personal blog at Una Aventura Real.

The original article is available at AIF Clinton Fellowship Blog.