On the Ground in India: Perspectives from American India Foundation’s Clinton Fellows
The most profound piece of advice I was offered recently came from a 15 year old who was not too long ago rescued from child labor.
After kicking off the AIF Fellowship orientation in Delhi, the Class of 2015-16 were given an opportunity to bond and learn outside the conference room setting. And nestled at the foothills of the Aravalli range in Rajasthan, Bal Ashram, a transitory rehabilitation and training center for victims of child labor established by 2014 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mr. Kailash Satyarthi, provided the backdrop for this learning experience.
At 8 am on that Sunday morning, the children congregated orderly in the mess hall (dining hall) for breakfast. Bread and tea was on menu. As I sat down with two kids, another kid who was few years older than the two I was sitting with joined us. He looked at the two younger kids, they looked at him, and they exchanged few glances and silences. Then without saying a word, the older kid shared most of his portion of bread with the two younger kids.
As a reflex to what it had witnessed, my adult mind got curious about the magnanimity of the kid’s action and couldn’t resist to inquire about the common sense rationale underlying his gesture:
“Don’t you think you are being very generous with this food redistribution program of yours?? You might end up hungry later in the day!”
With a wide smile the kid replied:
“भाईचारा बढ़ना हैं । वे सब मेरे भाई हैं । “
Loosely translated.. “We have to spread the sense of brotherhood. We are all brothers”
Lost for words, humbled by the selfless reply, I smiled and remained speechless for the rest of the breakfast session with the 3 amigos. I have played this conversation few different times in my head over the past few weeks and I have repeatedly asked myself:
- what is the brotherhood/fraternity/community/society I am aspiring to be a part of
- who are my brothers and sisters
- and what is it that I am generously sharing with them.
After 8 years of living in the U.S., I am excited to be back home in India. And home is indeed the most familiar place. When I walk on the streets, the sights are familiar, the sounds are familiar, the smells are familiar. Without much thought, at some level, I can understand most hand gestures, head nods, broad smiles, and loud cries. I understand the context, the harsh realities, and the uncomfortable truths.
But I also believe, home is a place where if you are even remotely cognizant of your surroundings, you can understand the unspoken words, feel the unexpressed emotions, and hear the unheard cries of a brother, of a sister.
In the capacity of an AIF William J. Clinton Fellow, I will be supporting the data driven impact assessment initiatives at Wadhwani Foundation. But in the capacity of an individual armed with a sense of familiarity and purpose, I will continue to revisit my conversation with the 3 amigos and attempt to find and inculcate in me the भाईचारा that I witnessed during breakfast at Bal Ashram.
Benson’s diverse professional background includes product development, project management, and strategy consulting. Highlights include working with New Jersey Department of Education’s data driven policy change initiatives, which resulted in New Jersey’s first High School Graduation report. As a firm believer in the idea of quality education as a pathway to social mobility, Benson actively volunteers his time teaching and mentoring students with groups incuding Boston Partners in Education and Citizen Schools. While his professional conversations revolved around product new features, data quality, and strategy solutions, his personal conversations centered around his desire to understand the continual presence of social hierarchies in modern India, need for inclusive growth, digital divide between India’s urban and rural populations, and rise of internet economies and how their benefits could be extended to the larger society. Benson has a Masters degree from Duke University and a Bachelors degree in Engineering degree from Anna University.
AIF’s William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India builds the next generation of leaders committed to lasting change for underprivileged communities across India, while strengthening the civil sector landscape to be more efficient and effective.