“Why do you want to be a social entrepreneur?” I asked – completely shocked by what I just heard.
“There are so many challenges I see in Bangalore, such as poverty, hunger, smoking, trees being cut down. I want to change that.”
Safeera was a shy girl who sat in the back of the class. In fact, this was the first time I heard her talk during the entire lesson. In that moment, I felt the motivation, passion, and potential to create change in the room around me. As a 17 year old getting ready to make crucial career decisions, witnessing these students work hard and with passion was one of the most inspiring moments in my life.
I felt a cocktail of emotions as I walked through the community for the first time. A feeling of excitement and hope coursed through my veins as I entered the school and was met with sounds of children screaming and laughing. On the first day of my project, I walked into the school thinking that I was going to be the facilitator for the next few weeks. However, I walked out of the school on the last day realizing that, in fact, I was the student.
How great would it be if there was a magic solution to all of the world’s problems? With the flip of a switch we could end world hunger and by pressing a button we could stop war. Many of the students in these low-income communities have first-hand experience with global issues like poverty, hunger, and many others. However, as an outsider to many of these global issues, I cannot solve the issues people face but rather teach them tools to handle and solve it themselves. Though I can familiarize myself with certain aspects of the challenge, I lack the complete knowledge and perspective of the situation which can only be gained by living through it. I believe the only way we can make any impact against global and national issues, especially in the midst of such diversity, is through Grassroots Activism. Therefore, my role is not to solve the issues but to empower people to tackle their own challenges. However, by working with students in similar schools through Mantra4change and several programs for the past two years, I realized that many of the students face severe anxiety when asked to present or even ask questions in class. How do we empower people to tackle challenges in their lives when they are too afraid to speak in front of a group of people? This realization ultimately drove me to envision a Leadership and Entrepreneurship program with emphasis on confidence-building techniques and public speaking for high school students in low-income schools.
Naina Mishra, Vaishnavi Suresh and I ran this program with several ninth grade students in a low-income school in Bangalore. Our goal is to empower students to tackle the challenges they face in their lives, so we designed this program to be a problem solving curriculum for students, emphasizing on leadership skills and confidence. Students learned problem identification, assessing the feasibility of solutions, developing action plans, identifying and segmenting enablers, communication techniques, and public speaking. We structured the lesson into a theory period and a practical period.
The theory period is intended to help the students familiarize themselves with the framework. This was done through activity-based lessons on specific concepts as well as a small group project. Students got into groups of 3-4 and chose an issue to research attempt to solve. We used this as a way to teach the processes of effective problem identification and solutions through practical learning and mentorship. Students presented these projects to the whole school at the end of the program.
The practical period involved tackling a real-life problem of absences and tardies the students face in their school. This involved socratic seminars and class discussions on the topic as well as a lot of individual planning . Students applied the framework for this challenge to identify root causes, root cause-level intervention options, and a clear action plan. Students are working on presenting this to their school management.
Each session included a public speaking warm-up. On the first session, students were given a card with a sentence starter and were given 4 minutes to prepare after which they had to come to the front of the class and give a 1 minute speech. As I explained the instructions of the activity, I saw fear enter the students’ eyes and petrified glances being exchanged. When we asked for volunteers not a single hand was raised. Getting the students to stand up and speak confidently was a perilous task. Many would look down and hope they weren’t seen when we were choosing people to speak, and when they did present, their speeches consisted of stuttering, breathing heavily, staring intently at their brainstorm in an attempt to avoid eye contact, talking too fast, and a lack of content and cohesion. One student, Samreen, even refused to go up to the front of the class and give a speech.
As we progressed through the program, the students began to volunteer more until eventually they began to just stand up and start speaking. Their new confidence was evident through their eye contact, hand gestures, and tone in their presentations. On one of the last sessions when we began our activity, Samreen volunteered to go first and gave a beautiful speech about her favorite subject in school. After students presented to the school, I asked Samreen how she felt about it. She told me she is no longer scared of presentations and will be happy to give more. Watching her grow from being too scared to present to 10 people to being able to present in front of the whole school was moving.
Watching the entrepreneurial spirit of these students shine was so inspiring. Their passion for creating social change and ability to tackle challenges showed me the value of giving students an outlet for their ventures. When asked to draw a problem tree for the issue of absences and tardies, students were able to identify traffic as one of the root causes and suggest the idea of a school bus to target that challenge. It got to the point where we would say the word “problem tree” and they would immediately begin drawing and labeling one.
In conventional schooling, we are taught lessons on math and science, but are rarely taught skills like problem solving. How can we expect the global issues to be solved if our progeny are not being taught how to solve them? Like they say, “You give a poor man a fish and you feed him for a day. You teach him to fish and you give him an occupation that will feed him for a lifetime.”