“The winds dance in their own path,
Clouds give rain wherever they want
We will also choose our own path
We will take steps forward all together
We have been born on earth
And we are not less than anyone
We agree we have a disability
But we are still a part of this society
Everyone only sees our disability
They have to understand our likes and dislikes
Make plans for us
Only when you understand what we have on our mind
To stay alive we need food, clothes and a house
To really live we need Rights, Trust and Dignity
We need your help to increase our strength
We want the friendship of friends to take our journey forward.”
Badhte Kadam Theme Song as translated from the Hindi by NT Chairperson Poonam Natarajan
As I sat in my apartment on November 14, 2009 listening to the beautiful theme song of Badhte Kadam, my eyes filled with tears and I sobbed as I felt throughout my entire body all of the work and effort that had gone into the process of coordinating/facilitating this major awareness raising campaign throughout India.
The four teams of six volunteers, two drivers and two cars, loaded with so many pounds of awareness materials that they made the 12 seat Tempo Travelers tilt backwards, had just left hours earlier from the Youth Hostel in Delhi. I spent the evening of November 13 at the Youth Hostel with our volunteers waiting for the morning when all of our months of planning would come to fruition and the teams would leave on their journeys to each visit 15 National Trust partners for a total of 60 throughout the states of Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, UP, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Punjab. Given the fact that there were two cars on each route this would translate into well over 20,000 km covered throughout India.
But let’s back up to how this all started. It has been very interesting for me to read articles in the VSO India newsletter, to reflect and to know what other volunteers are going through, as my story is somewhat similar.
As I arrived in mid-April at my job with the National Trust (NT), I was eager to help out in any way that I could. I felt that due to the fact that NT had previously not had any international volunteers, that it was important to make a great impression. I would be willing to take on a number of tasks to show how volunteers could truly make an impact as well as a difference.
In discussing possible assignments with my bosses, Poonam Natarajan and Atul Prasad, Badhte Kadam was brought to my attention. With my usual enthusiasm (and some naïveté) I said, “of course I’ll work on this”. Never mind the fact that this project had been thought of over a year ago, but had stalled due to numerous reasons and the fact that I didn’t speak Hindi, I was going to do it. I thought, collaboration no matter where one does it, is possible because people do want to work together towards common goals and be part of something that would have such a large reach.
I met with a couple of people to find out about the background of Badhte Kadam and from this we developed a committee consisting of other volunteers, professionals working in the disability area, and some staff to implement the project. I knew going in that we had a very short planning timeframe as the programme was to be implemented in mid-November in time for completion by World Disability Day on December 3. This gave us less than six months to plan an event that involved coordinating with 60 partners throughout India, some with e-mail, and some that didn’t open their e-mails, some that didn’t speak English and some that didn’t answer their phones, finding 24 volunteers through a national search, having a project budget adopted by the NT board, designing and ordering a myriad of materials, reaching consensus on the part of a number of people, all of whom were extremely busy and doing a project outside of the proverbial “box”.
My initial reaction was to “start small”, do two routes and have some success that we could build on. But, we needed to head north, south, east and west and so four routes were planned. “No problem.” These are words that I’ve become used to and probably even dreamt about on occasion. Of course, no problem, as nothing was considered to be too large or unreachable.
As the coordinator/facilitator I was given the responsibility of bringing people together and chairing meetings. I thought how funny, the guy who says “Mei thodi Hindi bolta hoo, lekin mei sikraha hoo, (I speak a little Hindi, but I’m learning) is chairing meetings. Indians who speak English don’t even understand what I’m saying because of my California accent, which I thought never existed, and when I said Badhte Kadam, people would say what, and then say oh, Badhte Kadam. I would of course reply with isn’t that what I said and they would just smile. Unofficially I started calling this event BK, which everyone understood, and seemed to catch on with those connected with this project.
I would do my usual thing, build relationships, send out lots of e-mails and constantly communicate, hold regularly scheduled, well-timed meetings, be persistent and this would all come together. At times during meetings, I was able to get people to turn off their cell phones, which is not an easy task, and had only one person talking at a time, as I banged my fists on the table with the approval of my bosses, who would laughingly smile.
We got off to a great start-set our mission: To raise awareness of the disability sector and National Trust and established goals: (1) provide information on the UNCRPD-Human Rights Model, (2) provide understanding of NT focused disabilities, and (3) celebrating diversity. We established committees: press, budget, NGO, volunteer recruitment, materials and programme.
Things were moving forward and I felt, “yes, we don’t have a lot of time, but we’ll do it”. But, I’d set a meeting at a certain start time, and less people started coming and when they did arrive, they were typically late. I countered with I’m going to start on time, but would at times find myself in the conference room by myself, saying ok 10 more minutes and then I’m leaving. I had to constantly cajole the staff to come to meetings and even they wouldn’t necessarily arrive on time. Additionally, only a few committees were meeting on a regular basis.
OK, ok so we still had this huge task and it was going to happen. A super professional, a volunteer named Chitra Vasudevan, really stepped up her efforts and things were moving. Atul directed staff to make things happen and again we were moving. We were able to choose the 24 volunteers from about 100 applicants, we did a bit of training for some of our partners at our Annual General Meeting (AGM) in August and things looked better.
But again fewer people were attending meetings and the staff were busy doing their regular jobs. Chitra came in with Gantt Charts and Mind Maps laying out specifically what each committee needed to do and somehow we kept things flowing and Poonam focused on the mobile exhibition, which was her brainchild. This exhibit, featured 25 posters, including some pictures that I had taken at some of our partner NGOs, told about the UNCRPD and how we needed to change the way in which we viewed the “disabled” population.
We worked with Epistle Solutions, a group of three men focused on media and design. We had previously worked with them in designing our “corporate branding” which was voted on by staff and which is now featured on all NT publications. This small group is very talented and creative and they designed the BK logo, bags and mobile exhibition posters. They worked, what seemed to me like, 24 hours a day for eternity on our project. I would call Aditya, the Epistle owner, at many different times and while I waited to talk to him, what sounded to me like a country song would play. I thought, who is this guy listening to. As it turned out it was Elvis Presley as Aditya is a huge Elvis fan.
I continued to send out e-mails in hopes that people would attend our meetings. Shekhar Borker, one of our board members, was someone who came to our rescue with numerous ideas, always in attendance, always on time, always with a smile.
Of course, there was also Chitra working day and night. Chitra, a very bright woman with a corporate background, full of so much talent, really kept things on track. I was at a disadvantage as I tried to cajole our NGOs and volunteers to respond to my e-mails, some did, but many didn’t understand what I was trying to say. As an example I used ASAP in one of my e-mails to our volunteers. Chitra told me that people had no idea what I was talking about. Assumptions, hmmm.. Chitra would make so many calls from her cell getting the NGOs and volunteers to commit. We had some help from Alok and Rohit, who screened the potential volunteers by phone.
But even this was difficult as people would commit to being volunteers and then drop out. We went through so many permutations of volunteers with Chitra and I now talking daily on Skype in the evenings. At the very last minute, the day before the orientation training was to start; we came up with our 24th volunteer, a young man from Delhi named Vikram, who had never been out of the City. One of the staff also joined as a volunteer and we were up to 25.
The NGOs were all supposed to provide me with a “mela” or programme plan by October 1. We used the carrot of providing 10000 rupees once we heard from the NGOs. October 1 came and went with only a few of the NGOs telling me what they were going to do. It seemed that everyday I was trying to obtain these plans, but planning is not something that is well integrated into citizen’s organisation (NGO) culture, with last minute doing being the modus operandi. This is not always negative, but being a type A Californian who wants to know in advance, it did make me a bit pagl or crazy.
Chitra and I, in our lower moments, would prop each other up. Fortunately, neither of us hit a low moment at the same time. Some of the organisations came and went as well and we had to find substitutes. It was always though, “no problem”, a very positive attitude.
I was able to get an intern, who I had met, at the South Asian Fundraising Group annual conference in Jaipur, in August, to help me. But after helping a bit, she disappeared. Some of the staff helped, but again the draw of their paperwork kept them from helping out full-time. But there was Chitra, always dependable, typically with a smile and I knew that it could be done.
Once Atul, told staff they had to do certain things they responded and it was happening, but many things were still so last minute. We had so many materials to order, booklets, which Chitra had put together, the mobile exhibition posters, key chains, toffees, bags, t-shirts, hats, jackets and supplies. We didn’t leave ourselves enough time to really see samples and so the t-shirts didn’t come out exactly the way that they should have to match the caps, but we were all hustling. Ruby, who takes care of the materials ordering seemed to be somewhat in her glory, but was also very stressed out by it all. The mobile exhibition posters came in, 100 sets of 25 but there were no numbers on them and then we started numbering them incorrectly. On the evening before our flag off and volunteer orientation, November 12, the conference room was filled with posters as we started putting the sets together. People were singing and I was wondering what was happening.
The night before our flag out ceremony featuring the Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment Shri Wasnik, we still didn’t have all of the materials. We had to pack the vehicles so that we could do a mock flag off and I thought how are we going to do this.
The volunteers had all arrived in Delhi on November 12 and on November 13 we conducted an orientation where the volunteers chose their teams and team leaders. I was able to facilitate this part and the teams were chosen and the leaders picked. There was so much positive energy in the room and as the volunteers practiced singing the BK theme song I was filled with so much pride, as it was all so contagious.
As we finished the volunteer orientation and the crowds started filling the speaker’s hall at the Constitution Club it all felt as if we had succeeded. We held a great press conference, the lamp was lit, the volunteers were so enthusiastic and once again sang the theme song. The Going Solo NGO, which works with street kids and is led by Manisha, did a play about debunking disability myths. The volunteers jumped into the now fully loaded vehicles, as the Minister flagged them off and they went to spend the evening at the International Youth Hostel.
The morning of November 14 everyone was up bright and early. I wanted the teams to leave by 8 AM, but we needed to do a pooja or prayer service and by the time pictures were taken and Alok finished with the service, the teams were ready to leave closer to 9 AM. Poonam, Atul, Shekhar, Chitra and I were there to wish the teams a good journey and after went out to breakfast at the Indian International Centre.
The teams called Chitra and me everyday to update us on their progress, and pictures and reports started flowing in. There were many newspaper articles written in the local press creating the awareness that we so desired. The melas sounded wonderful, full of dancing, singing, and the usual fun associated with Indian celebrations. Yes, there were issues that came up as well, the one NGO that had made reservations at a very expensive hotel and then didn’t want to pay for it, squabbles among some of the team members, but all in all things remained on the positive side.
The volunteers made their way back to Delhi on November 30, with a flag in with the State Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment, Shri Napoleon, a south Indian film star with a wonderful singing voice. (I was later told that in his day he was a basketball player, as he is quite tall). At the flag in, besides celebrating the accomplishments of our volunteers, we also saluted a number of special Olympians, the first time that this had occurred by an Indian governmental body. We sang our theme song and enjoyed the camaraderie that had been formed since November 13.
On December 1, we held a debriefing with our volunteers to find out what they thought and to share lunch between them and our staff. We gained a lot of valuable information which will be used in planning for the 2010 Bk.
On December 3, we displayed many of the items from BK-posters, mobile exhibition, the pieces of cloth with messages written from the melas-at the World Disability Day (WDD) rally at India Gate. This was something that I had really wanted to do as a kind of wrap up to the campaign and it was amazing to be at India Gate at 7:45 AM with some of the BK volunteers, putting up this exhibition. This was the first time that NT had a display like this at the WDD rally. (We spent a good deal of time trying to decide the best way to display the items and met with Javit who is a well known disability advocate in India- there was recently a story about him in Business Outlook in an article about social entrepreneurs and also a chapter about him in the book, “How to Change the World” as he is the organizer of the WDD rally. On December 2 we went to the office of Pringle Art, down some alleys and looked at these pots being painted that would be filled with sand with a bamboo pole in the middle for hanging our materials. The pots were still being painted at 8 PM, only a few were done and again I thought, how is this all going to happen. Of course the pots were at India Gate when I arrived at 7:45 AM, which meant that I was on the metro at 6 AM)
That evening I attended the National Disability awards and besides again seeing the two Ministers I also was able to see the Indian President. When I greeted Shri Wasnik wearing my BK t-shirt and hat he recognized me from the flag out. This was such a wonderful feeling to know that this Minister, same as a cabinet position in the US, was recognizing the awareness work that we were doing.
I have been given accolades from others in helping to make BK a reality, where the words, “no problem” have taken on a new meaning. But I also know that none of this was possible without VSO enabling me to come to India, without the strong leadership of both Poonam and Atul, without super Chitra and the always smiling and full of ideas Shekhar, without Deepika, Ruby, Subhash, Rajnish and the many other staff, who even at the last minute pitched in and helped with loading the vehicles, with the Flag Out and Flag In, getting money out to the NGOs to conduct their melas, having fun and listening to my rantings, without the NGO partners and the BK volunteers and the people who attended the melas, without the Epistle Solutions team or Pringle Art, without the group of volunteers that initially started helping us.
Yes, a few of us did an inordinate amount of work on this project, but it does take a team, no matter how this is defined to make an event like this happen. It takes every one of us, no matter how much or how little planning is done, to join hands and continue the fight, no matter what that fight is. This is the only way and it truly is “no problem”.