Hi! I'm Lipi Gupta.

I had an adventure this summer in Agra, India trying to make a difference in the lives of 35 young women of Nagla Kharga Village. I'd like to share my experience with you; I hope their stories move you as much as they have inspired me! Thank you for reading and feel free to contact me [by posting a comment/question] if I can be of assistance in any way, in a similar endeavor of yours!

Project SHAKTI was funded as one of 2009's 100 Projects for Peace.

Project SHAKTI Overview

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UPDATE: August 2010

Is Project SHAKTI's Impact Still Visible?

Yes! I returned 1 year after Project SHAKTI's two-month long program to Nagla Kharga and am delighted to see with my eyes how some girls have taken off since! Despite ongoing difficulties such as lack of family support, high fees, inability to take private tuitions, and below-standard teaching in government schools, 6 girls returned to school on my motivation and have been studying hard for over a year. These persevering young women are: Varsha, Neelum, Khushbu, Kusma, Praveen, and Pooja. Their stories are powerful shining examples of how each of us can achieve more with self-confidence and support from others.

Just before I left, Praveen, for instance, had re-entered High School but was still struggling to pass English. English was the subject that prevented her from graduating 5 years before. However, she has been determined to pass and now she has not only graduated from high school, she is studying in college while working her first job! And as a security personnel earning 3 thousand rupees a month, she is demonstrating great potential and building important skills.

In addition to the girls continuing school, I saw that Beenesh and Sumun utilized the opportunities I gave them to learn, grow, and teach. They remember my message that they can do anything they set their minds to. For example, Beenesh said, tearing, that because of my program she has been continuing to take initiative to learn important things like sewing. "I've now been able to do bigger things that make me happy... I made the suits for my aunt's marriage; she was very happy and gave me much in return!... I know more and [I see that there is more to know and do]."

I was dissapointed that Vinita and Krishna have not been continuing to grow intellectually and personally as much as I thought they would. I see intellectual potential in them, but also much complacence. But they are beautiful, bright girls and I was glad to see them happy and smiling. It is true that in the long run, my presence will have only changed a handful of girls to persevere toward their aspirations, however, I am grateful for that impact. I also have come to believe that it is always only a fraction of people that can be helped or gotten through to by any one measure. And, I am thrilled to have been able to truly help 6-8 girls out of 35!

Project SHAKTI in Continuation through Scholarships:

I am trying to support Neelum and Khushbu in particular with their private schooling fees. I left with them money for their upcoming fees and requested that they mail my aunt their grade reports. I did not promise more funds, but I hope that they understand that the more they do on their part to show me their progress, successes, and areas where they need help - the more I information I have to fully assist them.

Skills I Utilized

  • Running a treadmill to keep a project running successfully: Maintaining the energy to give my 110% to the girls everyday during class -- and then run around my exhausting schedule was physically hard work, but also exhilarating!
  • Getting an Idea and Running with it: Even undertaking this project was a leap for me; but on the ground, I had to be decisive and fast-acting due to the short time, and also to justify my role as project manager in the community
  • Balancing being Inclusive [the participatory process] and being Directive [taking command when necessary]: Before undertaking this project, I focused on making sure everyone felt heard and relied too much on collaboration rather than on calling decisions myself (when I was in the position to). Now I've found the effective medium!
  • Flexible Resourcefulness: What do you do when monsoon rains get into your taxi's engine when you have 35 girls and half the village elders waiting for you, when the certificate-printer is closed due to a power-outage, when you plan a lesson around a series of carefully-strung videos and youtube unearthed-gems and then plug in the battery/inverter to hear it sputter and fail thanks to the dishonest salesman, when you walk into class with hours-worth of preparation to conduct reading activities, only to find out that 80% of the girls are holding the newspapers upside-down and had grossly exaggerated their reading abilities, when the sociologist whom your entire project relied upon the on-site support of, has broken her ankle and is unable to even get to the site????? ...... Well, you take a deep breath (or 10), tell yourself that you can work with this opportunity to rise above a challenge, and get to it!
  • 'Counseling'/Listening/Being Actively Reflective but Not Interfering/Imposing

What Made Project SHAKTI Successful?

  • Using media from Dehi-based NGO Going to School in India and UNICEF that depicted other real women from villages tremendously helped me send a very strong and influential message to the girls: that they should believe in themselves, dream big, and then work hard and, if possible or necessary, go to school to realize their dreams. 7 Girls in my program have since enrolled in school. For some, Project SHAKTI was the first to encourage them to go to school and believe in themselves; and a few girls are picking themselves up after very difficult circumstances to go to school, such as the death, disability, resistance, and lack of funds of their parents.
  • I found that even when I wasn’t imparting these abstract ideas, teaching very mundane, simple things like color mixing, the Hindi alphabet, making Rakhis, and how to read a map or a newspaper were basic skills that helped the girls feel confident. Those who later went on to enroll in school then found it easier to transition after the long gap years as much of this was either assumed or taken up for review in the first weeks.
  • Another successful component of the project came from an idea that my mother and I had in response to the girls’ interest in sewing. We asked them to form groups in which a girl who had some knowledge would teach others. These groups not only more rightly replaced the study/self-help groups I intended to create, but gave them a fun, community building, empowering, and useful activity to work on together during the long afternoons that girls said they usually remained empty-handed and bored in.
  • The most important basis of success was, I think, being able to be patient and loving and having  "unconditional positive regard" for the girls, even when they girls were rude or ungratefully demanding. I learned that the primary reason the girls “tried so hard to listen” to what I told them and tried to implement it was because each girl knew that “Ms. Lipi really loves me,” as I heard from many girls. Similarly, if I had been quicker to give them things before first allowing them to go through the process of figuring out what they need and problem-solving to acquire it, then Project SHAKTI would not have been as empowering for the girls. For example, I told the sewing groups that I would be available for help, but I didn’t buy any supplies at first. Surprisingly, they never asked. Instead they got creative and borrowed from relatives, investing many people in their initiative to learn. So, I gifted many sewing supply packages only at the end, as a reward and encouragement. I think those supplies have much more value to them now that they truly earned them. 

Empowerment is a Process...not a destination.

...something I realized early on and remembered everyday while lesson-planning. This thought kept me going when frustrated with slow progress; and kept me down-to-earth and realistic when I saw success.

    UPDATE December 2009

    • Preeti, who, on the last day I was in India, worked up the courage in my presence to more forcefully request admission to school despite a small technical issue with her paperwork is now picking up from where she left off in the 4th grade. She is happy.
    • Renu, who learned a lot of sewing during my stay, is not sewing any longer. But, Beenesh, one of the girls who had limited knowledge but still taught others what she knew, has been learning more and more sewing. Her goal before I left was to learn to sew a frock; and in November she did just that. She was ecstatic about it on the phone. 
    • Some girls’ families’ are growing chili on their farm plots in this season.

    UPDATE October 2009

    • The girls who enrolled in school have reintegrated school as a part of their lives and have maintained their new tighter schedule. For example: Praveen, whom we had given money for books and English classes, has purchased her books and goes to college with her older brother.
    • Many girls are out of town staying with their extended relatives in celebration of Diwali.

    FAQ

    Is it difficult reaching the girls on the phone from America?
    • Yes. The cell phones belonging to the families of a few girls is my primary means of reaching them; and it is imperfect.  It means that I have to call numerous times to finally talk to them.
    How are you approaching speaking to the women involved?
      • To the younger girls, like a teacher    
      •  To the older girls, like a friend giving advice    
      •  But, it’s hard establishing the fact that I’m their equal. They insist on calling me Maame even though I’m younger than some of them. But, I think having a degree of respect or authority was helpful. And, I  was able to deal with power structures without any problem; so that was fine.
      What were the most moving moments?
      • When some girls would open up to me and tell me about all the obstacles they see blocking their hopes and dreams. During a conversation like this, Vinita and I cried together; and I felt bonded to her like a sister from thereafter.
      • A lot of little things: when a girl would confidently participate, when I saw a girl "grow up" in front of me, when they'd surprise me with maturity and understanding, when I would for the first time really engage a girl and find something she's interested in, and she would, for the first time in my presence, have a twinkle in her eye as she talked or listened.  
      • When Neelum told me how she convinced her family to allow her to return to school, by fasting and threatening that I would otherwise come over and report them to American police! (I did not give her that idea!) She did this after we talked about figuring out creative ways to work with one's obligations/responsibilities/obstacles with the help of a support system, to realize one's dreams. I never imagined she would come up with such a dramatic method!
      • Each time a girl joined school.
      • On my last day with them, when Beenesh told me that I've changed her life, that she thinks of me every night so she can sleep, when Kusma cried and hugged me lovingly, when Vanita looked at me with moist eyes as she opened her gifts (books and things that I hoped would bring school to her since she couldn't at that time go to school herself), when I asked girls to tell me what they learned and some remembered more than I expected....
      Was it dangerous? 
      • Actually, in a very un-dramatic way, yes, a little. Going alone or with another woman, as I did, into an interior village never felt safe.... I wouldn’t even say shopping around downtown or suburban Agra is safe (there were several purse snatchings near where I stayed during that time, including 2 of my aunts  I was with). All in all, the experience was just unsafe enough to become painfully more aware of the privilege I have of feeling safe everyday at home. 
        Can you really make an impact in a single 2-month program?
        • The potential for impact is dramatically less, of course. But, at the same time, every bit counts.
        How did you gather participants?  
          • I asked Mahipal Singh, my village contact, to make a list of 51 girls who say they’ll come to a “fun program in which they’ll learn interesting things.” So, I went around to meet these girls and get firm commitments. Of those 51, 24 seemed sincere.
              Then on the first day of the class, not a single person came on time. 2 men, whose curiosity was sparked by my sincerity I think, offered to  take my roster of 24 girls and call them all, one-by-one, door-by-door. They did & by 7:10, everyone was there. I could have hugged the two very helpful men! The next class everyone was on time—even more—I had to turn a few away.

            Selected Participant Biographies

            • Neelum was the 1st participant, out of all the 36 dropouts constituting Program SHAKTI to admit herself into school, saying that she wants to graduate from college and realize her dreams. This brave young woman fasted for 2 days to convince her parents how important school had become to her.
            • Varsha, a quiet, imaginative 10 year old admitted herself into school saying she really wants to be something after watching the Girl Stars. As she stood totally independently requesting admission from the headmaster, with her head barely above his desk, her quiet strength struck me.
            • Urmilla and Kusma also readmitted themselves into school and have high hopes to continue studying, at least upto high school.
            • Preeti and Krishna are about to do the same now that they have re-taught themselves Hindi.
            • Praveen joined High School in Tundla where her brother has been going. She has not been going to school for 5 years after her marriage. She dreams to lead and help other girls.
            • Khushbu, a vivacious 10 year old girl stopped going to school when her parents died. I persuaded her and her eldest brother that they should not delay in enrolling her, despite the fact that they are still reeling from their parents’ deaths. Going to school was her desire; and she is now happy to be studying.  
            • Vinita will enroll in high school despite family circumstances that she before thought were insurmountable.
            • Beenesh, who has never attended school has been steadily learning Hindi from another participant, Pinky.
            • Sonum started beautician and machine sewing training.  
            • Sumun, Beenesh, Babina, Guddi, and Praveen were most dedicated to teaching sewing; and Renu, Rachna, Pinky, Khushbu, Krishna, and Yogaish were most dedicated to learning sewing. Yogaish beams with pride when talking about her rapid growth. Before our program, she never even made one stitch, and now she sews garments for family members and teaches other girls how to sew. She had never made rakhis (traditional Indian bracelets sisters tie to their brothers in an endearing ceremony to maintain their and celebrate their bond), and now she sells them in the village! I think the motivational message and creativity-encouraging aspects of our program particularly helped her because she as well as her family members often spoke of her being “dull” in studies and idle in general. But, our program awakened Yogaish to her strengths and incited in her a keen interest in pursuing them.
            • Every girl now can speak in front of larger groups, adults, and her peers in a tremendously more self-confident manner. All girls are much more well-mannered and better versed in general personal care habits (i.e. washing hands, wearing slippers rather than going barefoot and exposing themselves to foot parasites) and positive values (such as the golden rule, not littering, etc).

              Reflections | What I've Learned About Myself & How Has the Experience Impacted Me?

              • One foundational assumption I made is that people want to learn and improve themselves. I’m happy to have found so many here for whom this is true. So, carrying out this project allayed my fear that I’m completely deluded or na├»ve. And, at the same time, it’s given me realistic insight into what impedes progress. In the course of 2 months, I’ve probably encountered and dealt with more manipulative and/or stupid people than I’ve cared to get to know in my lifetime before. And I was tougher than I’ve ever had to be with people, especially the girls -- to win their respect and to bolster their own self-respect and self-discipline. Yet, I’ve simultaneously been acting with a degree of empathy and love and forgiveness and compassion and self discipline that I didn’t even know I had in me. This was the greatest growth for me: seeing how much determination I can have, how much love I have for people, and how I am capable of bringing out love in some by sticking to the principles I claim to value and by believing in their capacity for goodness. Seeing the power of having faith in others and of faith in oneself (in the young women I worked with especially) was really inspiring.
              • Trust myself. Most of what I felt in my gut has come true -- like even that this project could really help some girls! I'm glad I went with that hunch. ;)  What was most moving, was seeing that, yes indeed, the girls are capable of so much more than is expected of them--and seeing them rise to the opportunities I presented them with - was beautiful.
              • I'll make mistakes. But, sometimes it's a bigger mistake not to. So, I need to let go of the fear.
              • My family is there for me more than I can ever repay them for or even imagine. I’m humbled by their support, time, energy, sacrifice, and finally, trust in letting me take my own risks and make my own mistakes. Also, I'm blessed with wonderful friends who can show me the way when I'm confused.
              • Conducting Project SHAKTI has been incredibly rewarding, eye-opening, life-changing in the relationships I’ve made with the girls, and humbling from better grasping what kind of strength and determination is sustained by those who make a positive difference in the world.

              My Process in Carrying Out Project SHAKTI

              March - June:
              • I prepared by reading and researching, talking to women in the field of women's studies and development in Agra and the US to finalize on "curriculum" specifics, coordinating with contacts in Agra, and purchasing materials I would need
               June - August: Executing the Program
              • My Game Plan for Building and Maintaining Trust (which was *key*)
                • Practiced Hindi (especially their dialect) and rehearsed lessons so that I can DELIVER and fullfill agreements
                • Talked Straight Only made promises I could keep (this was difficult and stressful because a lot, including transportation and what time I could arrive at the village was out of my hands).
                • Remained CONSISTENT -- in being myself, in maintaining my positivity, sense of humor, and energy levels, in practicing principles I preached (e.g. respect, optimism), in achieving discipline, and in talking straight when I could and sticking to my story when I couldn't (e.g. about available funds). As someone who hates to cut corners, it was incredibly challenging to do all this and decide what kinds of compromises to make, because there were times I was forced to.
                • Requested constructive criticism/feedback and strove to improve; Held myself and others accountable for following ground rules for mutual respect, etc. (It took time for me to learn to do this despite power structure barriers to honest and open communication.)
                • Listened to them: asked questions to give them opportunity to explain rather than assume anything, didn't interrupt or rush them even when they were slow to open up or talk.
                • Trusted the girls -- more and more as they earned it.
                • Finally, again, DID what I Promised and DELIVERED RESULTS (which to them was running a fun, interesting, educational, regular program with healthy snacks and activities that engaged them in positions of leadership, initiative, creativity, introspection, as well as being someone who would unconditionally believe in them, see their strengths, and love them.)
              September - Current: Working to Keep the Message Alive from Afar
              • I call them regularly and intend to mail them some more pictures of themselves participating, to remind them of all that they accomplished. 
              • I encourage them on the phone to keep up the good work, and to keep thinking positively about themselves.

                Lessons Learned | What Would I Do Differently if I Could Do it Again?


                • A mistake I made was in hesitating to make use of the contact network I could tap from family connections in Agra. I wanted to find people who would help me purely because they believed in my mission. However, my thinking was too idealistic for my limited time frame and it considerably slowed down my efforts to find doctors for the medical screening I wanted to hold. (Because of this mistake in addition to falling ill when time was running out, the medical screening did not happen even though I had done all the necessary paperwork by then.)
                • Despite my efforts, there were a few girls I couldn't get through to as much...girls who often had blank eyes and who communicated and actively participated very little even after improving. I struggled to find something that would inspire them. I am not sure if I did. After thinking very hard about this, I have decided that there may not have been anything I could have done differently to be more effective with them. This is primarily because I had limited time - and there was no way I could take time and attention from the other girls who were responding well to me.
                • It would have been more helpful to have practiced writing Hindi (perhaps rather than spending so much of my time before arriving in India preparing ice-breaker activities and lessons. I was trying to be proactive and prepared, however, I soon realized after trying the activities out, that the girls' learning style and idea of "fun" learning was different than I had anticipated.)

                Ethical Questions and Considerations

                How community-driven was it and how much do the participating young women really "own" the new perspectives that I guided them to see?
                • I was honestly at first frustrated and disheartened by the absence of a girl who wanted to lead, a sense of movement in the community that I could follow. So, I was more active and prodding than I intended, more "how about we do this?" than "ok, so, you want to do that, let's figure out how to get there and how I can help!" Yet, it was important to meet the girls where they were and, in a way, respect their disinterest in becoming change-makers. 
                • In the context of everyday classes, I was sensitive about my approach. Though I did not impose my perspective [the only exceptions being that they shouldn't litter and that they can achieve whatever they set their mind to], I definitely did guide them toward conclusions about the benefits of education and hygiene, for example. Did I ask leading questions? Sometimes.  not every girl was willing or capable to expend the energy it takes to think critically on every topic. Often, what worked better was asking leading questions to guide them toward a particular answer ( or simply gave them an idea, a potential answer) and asking them to sit on it and see if it feels "right" to them. However, my major purpose was to pose questions (about their health, wellness, hopes, and life's destinations) and encourage them to find their own, intuitive answers.
                • So, I often asked truly open-ended questions [e.g. what values are most important to you?] and, though I am sure that some girls got a sense of what my answers to those questions would be and therefore how I might internally judge them, I think the girls felt that the space was safe enough to share their honest answers. Throughout the project, I tried to help the girls feel more in tune with their own sense of direction by being accepting of all the girls even if I didn't agree with their opinions. It was difficult balancing power dynamics [whereby sometimes girls would say only what they thought I'd like to hear rather than what they really thought to get on my good side], my own honesty/genuineness [sometimes revealing my own opinions and running the risk of helping the girls to be artificial just to win my favor], unconditional positive regard [demonstrating understanding so that they felt they could be honest] at the same time.  But, I did my best, and I am proud of the outcome. 
                • Also, my 2-month time limit made directly involving the community much harder than ever anticipated! This was a huge lesson [and blow to my idealistic goals] for me.
                  Was I fair in distributing my time/energy/money/supplies/resources?
                  • I tried to be, but there is no right way to be fair; and some girls felt they unjustly did not receive as much others. I honestly was tearing my hair out trying to figure out how to best balance between rewarding girls who took initiative vs encouraging other girls to begin to take more initiative, spending enough on them to make a difference but not so much as to upset larger village dynamics, spending more energy on 'remedial'-type classes vs 'gifted'-type classes, and between spending more money on those who are relatively more disadvantaged vs not. Again, I don't know if struck that balance perfectly, but I sure did try to.
                   Was it unfair to focus only on girls, and only on those 35 in the community?
                  • Yes and No. In my narrow project, I think it was best to have a narrow focus group. Additionally, my cap of 35 not only ensured that I be able to attend to each one, but it also was reasonably inclusive. There were only a few girls I had to turn away. 
                  • However, I do strongly believe that larger development models must be gender-integrated and focus on whole communities, not just women. The emphasis on female empowerment seems like a fad to me, not one without its merits, but, every development situation stands alone and needs to follow a 'customized' plan, rather than one that takes the importance of women's empowerment for granted.