Vipul Shaha, Urban Ashram, Pune
Saturday, July 16, 2011
Shaheen Mistri, founder of Akanksha and Teach for India shares her inspiring life story in a first ever SpiriTED Talk at The Uraban Ashram, Pune, India
It turned out to be an evening full of spirit, energy and inspiration as Shaheen walked in at the Urban Ashram to interact with a group of 30 people who had gathered to hear her life journey and understand what it really means to serve and make a difference. While words fail to capture the experience, here is an attempt to summarize those precious 60 minutes of a heart-to-heart conversation with Shaheen.
“The Power of an Instinct”:
Shaheen lived in many parts of the world and had extremely privileged and sheltered childhood. Poverty and Inequity were not part of her world. She was, however, always very captivated by children. As early as from the age of 12 she regularly volunteered to work with children. It was always children who were in some special need—visually or hearing impaired children, autistic children or orphan children. Her happiest memories from her childhood come from those times she spent while working with children.
Shaheen studied all across the world in different schools—American, British and even a French school but never in an Indian school. During summer breaks, she would visit her grandparents, who lived in Mumbai. A week or two in Mumbai every year, and she would be happy to return back to her own comfortable life abroad. It was one such short holiday trip to Mumbai, when she was 18 that would change the course of her life forever.
A chance encounter with some street children at a traffic light in Mumbai and a strong inner instinct to stay back in India led Shaheen to call up her father in America and convey her decision. Completely taken aback, he challenged her to get admitted into one of the top 3 colleges in Mumbai. It was September then—three months after all the admissions were closed. Determined to seek an admission, Shaheen sneaked into principal’s office at St. Xavier’s College and literally said these very words: “Father, my life is in your hands.” And it worked!
“I am an Indian. I have never known what it really means to be an Indian, to live in India, to do something in India. I want to stay. It was a very flitting but a very deep instinct that I had. Luckily, most the instincts we have, they happen and they go and we move on with our life. But that particular one, I acted on.”
One of the first things Shaheen did after getting into St. Xavier’s was to try and understand the city in a different way. She followed a news reporter for a few months wherever he went. It offered her a glimpse into the life on the ‘other side’—jails, police stations, courts. It also took her to one of the large urban slums in Mumbai. She was struck by the potential, the resourcefulness, the courage, the spirit of life and happiness despite all the odds.
“I didn’t understand how people could have so little and yet be so happy.”
There, she met a girl her own age called Sandhya. She sat with her just out of curiosity trying to understand her life. While Shaheen knew no Indian language, no one in the slum community knew any English. As she sat there, some kids surrounded her. She tried to teach them a few words of English. Notwithstanding the fact that she had no clue of what it meant to be a teacher, Shaheen enjoyed herself with those kids. She decided to regularly visit those children and teach them new things. Thus began her first classroom in the slum community. It eventually led her to consider getting those kids to a school and provide them with a wider exposure and a happy, safe learning space—where kids can just be kids, be naughty and enjoy themselves and maybe learn something along the way.
She approached nineteen different schools asking them to provide her with a space for teaching less privileged children—only to be turned down for no good reason. That was an important early lesson in her journey—“The most difficult thing in the world is to change mindsets” she admits. It was an appeal from the heart and once again her famous line—“Father, my life is in your hands” which came to her rescue. The 20th school she approached finally agreed to her request. That was the birth of first ever Akanksha Center in Mumbai. One centre after another, Akanksha has grown over the past two decades in Mumbai and Pune serving to over 4000 children in slum communities. In 2009, Shaheen took the next big step in her journey by launching a nationwide movement called The Teach for India (TFI). Only three years into the program, today over 400 teachers are serving in municipal and under-resourced classrooms across Delhi, Mumbai and Pune touching over 16,000 children’s lives. The TFI model aims at recruiting the best and the brightest young minds to solve the ‘puzzle’ of education inequity. Shaheen and her team of dedicated ‘crazy’ youth—as she likes to call them--have been working relentlessly to keep the wheels of the movement turning faster and in the right direction.
Reflecting on her journey of working with children from less privileged backgrounds, Shaheen draws some important life lessons:
“It really is the opportunity that sets us apart. There is no difference between me and that child in the slum except the difference of opportunity.”
“It teaches you the greatest humility. It taught me that there really is very little that you can change. But it also taught me at the same time that what I really can change is myself and there is a lot of power in doing that. And there is a ripple effect.”
“Everything is about human connection, if you know your kids (students), if you understand your kids, then other things can happen.”
“If we think of how really big problems have got solved historically, there have been leaders who have been committed, who have been bright, who have been passionate, who have worked relentlessly to solve those problems.”
The power of Giving: Shaheen shared the story of one of her favorite Akanksha kids—Latif and how he sacrificed his own life for the wellbeing of his grandfather.
The power of Belief: “Just say yes no matter what! If someone throws a hundred problems at you, you can find a hundred and one solutions. When everyone else has given up on a child including the child itself, the power that a teacher can have with his unconditional love and belief in that child can be extremely transformative. It is often easy to get someone to do something much more difficult than something incrementally more difficult.”
The power of the Little Things: “I don’t believe anymore that there are big miracle solutions. I think that there are enough of the little things that are going to cause the big miracle solution. In a world that is so difficult to live in, where each one of us has so many challenges just being nice makes such a difference. Do I notice the things that are special in the people that are closest to me, the people around me?”
The Power of Doing things Yourself and talking less about them: The analogy of the Mirror and the Glass. “If you have a problem, you always have a choice: you can pick up the mirror and reflect and believe that the solution is within you. If you pick up the magnifying glass, you believe that the problem is something external and it becomes bigger.”
Every word she spoke came from a deep inner conviction and a life-time of dedicated service. Shaheen closed the session by urging the gathering for help and support in whichever way they can. As an immediate expression of our sincere prayer, we closed the gathering by holding hands in a circle and chanting three times: “Loka Samasthaa Sukhino Bhavantu”—“May all beings be happy.” The gathering was truly blessed by Shaheen’s presence, who made the time to come down to the Ashram and share her incredible life story--despite having just flown in from the US and not having slept for the previous two days. We wish Shaheen and the movement a great success!