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Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Notes from an NGO start-up

Mentor Me India (MMI) is a Bombay-based NGO working in the space of mentoring. We match, support and measure progress of structured mentoring partnerships where the mentees are 9 to 15-year-old children in low income communities and the mentors are professionals looking for meaningful volunteer work. Our work is driven by our mission: to empower children in low income communities to grow to their full potential through enduring one-to-one partnerships with strong role models. We currently support over 400 mentor-mentee pairs across 12 locations in Mumbai, and are building plans to become a national organization in the next five years. To find out more about our work, please visit the website or write to us at

It is exactly four months since I joined the MMI team, and now is a good time to summarize my impressions from this time. It had seemed like an unconventional move, the transition from an organization with a long history of public health work to an innovative NGO start-up. But time has shown that following my instincts may have been a good idea. It has been a roller-coaster – four months of exhilarating successes and heart-stopping worries - but every day has been satisfying, intellectually as well as emotionally. I've spent a lot of time struggling with the jargon (so what is the difference between a “group mentoring session” and a “mentor-training session” and an “induction session” again?) and figuring out priorities. But there are events that stand out, and the four month anniversary is a good time to record some of them:

“These children have changed in ways that I never expected”
17 April 2016: I met Ashlesha Chitnavis, the CEO of Udaan, an NGO where MMI has been supporting a mentoring program since January 2016. We remind mentors that 6 months is too early to notice visible change in their mentees, and that it is important to be patient, but Ashlesha’s enthusiastic approval made my day: “If you had told me, six months ago, that I would see Vivek coming to class, not throwing things, and actually asking the teacher a question, I would not have believed you. I don’t know what Vinesh (Vivek’s mentor, who works with L&T) did, but the boy has been transformed. And he’s not the only one”. When a school partner is keen on enrolling more children as mentees, we know we’re doing something right.

My first mentor orientation session
4 June 2016: Around the time I was interviewing for the ED’s role, I was also interviewed to be a mentor (my mentee is an 11-year-old girl who lives in a slum in the western suburbs). All mentors who clear the interview and background checks go through a half-day “orientation session” before meeting their mentees. This was a fascinating experience, not in the least because of the people I met. There aren’t many places in the city where you have people from such varied contexts - marketing professionals, architects, physicians, actors - connecting and openly sharing anxieties. We learned that the drivers of success in mentoring relationships (trust, mutual respect, dependability) are the same as drivers of success in any relationship; we learned that the one-to-one mentoring we had signed up for would include multiple supporters– the mentees’ parents and the MMI team, among others.

“I ran in the pinkathon – it was the best day”
9 July 2016: the day I was introduced to my mentee. Mentors and mentees are matched through a simple algorithm and meet each other in group settings the first few times. MMI does this in style – as mentors came in, they got name tags with cryptic drawings (I had a tree and Prashanth had a pencil next to his name). The kids seemed more confident than the mentors, who were a little overwhelmed by everything they learned at orientation. It took Priyanka (not her real name) less than a minute to find me: “You have a tree next on your nametag, and so do I. That means you’re my didi.” Our small talk was effortless. We learned that we both like running (she ran the pinkathon last year!) more than dancing. When I asked her why she signed up for the program, she said: “You will be my didi, you will teach me to speak English, and you will make me more confident”. I hope to do all that and more.

“My mentee has given me more than I will ever give her”
10 July 2016: “Graduation” for the mentor-mentee pairs who were matched in Summer 2015, was as heart-warming as one would expect. What repeatedly came up was that mentors were convinced that their lives had improved after they became role models to children who, in spite of all their difficulties, approach life with nothing less than perfect joy. The mutual trust, respect and affection was palpable – and we hope will lead to lifelong friendships which will change the life trajectories of these children.

“I want all 70 of my children to be healthy and successful”
16 July 2016: The induction session (the day when mentors and mentees are introduced to each other) at the Navi Mumbai center was a strange mix of hilarity and sombreness. Our NGO partner here is an orphanage run by pastor Manoj and his wife Priya whose story is so interesting that it will make a book one day. About a decade ago, this middle class couple decided that they had had enough of feeling sorry for children they saw begging in the street, went ahead and adopted four orphans. They barely had enough to make rent, but they optimistically decided that things would work out. And as often happens, they did. Their home grew into an orphanage which is now a registered entity with a staff of 12, and currently supports nearly 70 abandoned children and orphans. Of these, 28 are 9 to 15 years old, and all of them need mentors. We’ve so far found only half that number, and the pastor has had to take the tough decision to choose the 15 that that most need mentoring. The induction was one of the most energetic that our team has seen, and our only discomfort was that the 13 kids who don’t have mentors yet kept wistfully peeping into the room where the mentor-mentee pairs were writing songs together.

“Positive Closure”
28 July 2016: I was able to speak to the lovely Alejandra Avina who is a match specialist at Boston’s Big Sister organization, which has been matching and supporting bigs (“mentors”) and littles (“mentees”) in Boston for over 60 years. Alejandra generously gave me nearly two hours of her time, and was amazingly helpful. The biggest takeaway from that conversation was the idea of “positive closure” – about how important it is to end all mentoring partnerships on high, positive notes, and not around themes of guilt or abandonment (again, true for all relationships).

Things continue to be challenging. Even before we have finished patting each other on the back for recruiting and matching another fantastic batch of mentors this summer, we realize that the deadline to find a new office space is less than month away. The impact assessment for last year’s mentoring program, the exit interviews for the mentors who have had to leave us, the closure conversations for children whose mentors have discontinued the program, the website, plans for the year ahead, fundraising – there is so much that needs to be done. A friend recently said, “I just have one question for you. Which one of your problems will you chase first?”. It’s a good question; the prioritization of the issues is issue in itself, and one that keeps changing. The good news is that we have managed to build ourselves a team of extremely talented people, and we’re well on our way. 

Friday, February 19, 2016

The new normal

From the Buddha doodles
I'm thinking about the JNU crackdown almost constantly these days, and everything in my daily existence feels like a background narrative to what is happening in Delhi and to Kanhaiya Kumar. It seems to me that we're in a very important phase in the history of our times - perhaps these weeks will be talked about every time future humans think back to a time when India used to put people in jail for saying something like "patriotism is a dumb concept and I don't give a shit about the ugly flag". In the present time, this last sentence might offend a lot of people; it might even make me eligible for prison, but think about it, saying all of the following was prison-worthy at some point in recent history:

"Women have the right to vote"
"Blacks and whites can go to the same universities"
"India should be a free country"
"I want to work on Sunday and not go to church"

Given that the world is changing before our eyes, it is rational to assume that at some point in the future, someone will stand on top of a table in a park and shout that India should be 25 different self-governed countries, and people will either yell back in agreement or disagreement, or laugh in derision. Some people will yawn and say, meh, that's his opinion, and I don't care either way. There will be a couple of guys who will want to punch the nose of the speaker, but THAT will be seen as illegal and it will be the punchers who will be taken to the police station for a chat, not the speaker.

I was thinking these thoughts as I was jogging yesterday so the podcast that came up on stitcher (it's an app I use for streaming podcasts), "The New Normal", almost seemed like a direct answer. Radiolab, brillant as usual. The premise of the podcast is the question - can people/cultures/belief systems change? - and it explores the question over three amazing stories. The one that blew my mind was story #3 which links behavior change to genetics and Darwinism, through the idea of domestication. We know that wolves, who are creatures of the wild, branched out and evolved into dogs over hundreds of years of evolution, from ferocious snarly creatures, to adorable cuddly pets. The podcast talks about a biologist in Siberia in the 1960s who wanted to understand this process of evolution/domestication and worked with wild foxes; turns out it took him only ten years of selective breeding to change wild fox into domesticated fox. This leads to the inevitable question: can such a process happen with humans? And guess what the answer is - it is already happening. The universe is playing selective breeder with us. As compared to our ancestors, we're shorter, our bones are more fragile, we're less aggressive (hard to believe when you see pictures of RSS karyakartas, but it's true). How did this happen? As societies moved towards community based activities like agriculture, aggressive people were less useful than collaborative ones, and so the latter were more likely to be more popular, have better luck in finding mates and having kids, and hence had a better chance of propagating their genes! This is the podcast, I cannot recommend it too highly. It will cheer you up and give you hope.

It's only logical to hope that the process will continue: The RSS karyarta-types will find fewer mates, and the folks like the cute JNU students will have a more active sex life (they're carrying roses in their protest marches for god's sake!), and therefore, spread more of their genes around. So in a few hundred years, we will be a world of sensible, respectful, 'domesticated' people, who will argue and disagree but will not kill each other for arguing and disagreeing.

I only wish the process were faster.

Sometime in 2216....

Kanhaiya Lee: Dude, I've been doing a lot of reading and thinking about patriotism and love for the motherland. I think Hitler was one of the smartest people ever, he was just very misunderstood.  
Albert Singh: Well, he was a murderer, can't get away from that, you know
Lee: But he had the greater good of his country at the core of all his actions. I really admire him. He was so right - the welfare of the people who belong to a country takes precedence over anything else.
Singh: Nothing justfies killing 3 million people. Nothing. At. All.

....goes on for a couple of hours.....

Singh: I think you're an *****.
Lee: I think you're stick-in-the mud baffoon, incapable of any intellectual growth. I'm hungry, do you want to go get a Soylent drink? 
Singh: That place with the cute waiter? Yes, I heard he broke up with his boyfriend. Let's go! And after that, will you help me with some research on my paper?
Lee: I'll think about it. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Big MMI Day

My favorite on the wish tree-"I wish my mentor always stay the way he is now"
In a sea of Sundays, yesterday stands out. The Mentor Me India (MMI) team very graciously invited me to participate in the second edition of the Big MMI Day, which is a day long picnic for their mentors and mentees. I had seen pictures from and heard stories about the first edition of this picnic, so I was looking forward to it not more than a little bit, and I wasn't disappointed. There was a wishing tree, a birthday party and a photo booth. There were groups playing Uno, tables with jigsaw puzzles, craft corners for creating stories and painting with fingers. And there were some bravehearts who clearly were immune to the sun and were playing kho-kho and football. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I'm soon going to join the MMI core team, so my opinions and impressions are likely to be biased in their favour, but since I'm not officially a part of the team until April, I can still call this the perspective of an unaffected observer and get away with it.

To briefly introduce MMI: this is a non-profit organization built around the idea of mentorship to "help children in low-income communities grow to their full potential by supporting enduring one-to-one relationships with strong role models" - an idea very similar to the US-based Big Brothers Big Sisters, which is a 100-year old success story, and continues to make enduring impact. MMI is just under 3 years old and already showing amazing effects on the 250 mentor-mentee pairs that have been part of the program since it started in Bombay in 2013.

Almost everyone I know mentors someone in their community - helping the domestic help's children with their homework, providing career counselling to the neighborhood teenagers, reviewing resumes at the alma mater - and while all of this is extremely useful, there are a few things that make the MMI model different from everything we've been doing:

The photo booth was very popular
It is structured and formalized: To become an MMI mentor, you need to sign up with them and fill out a detailed form which makes you search your soul and explain why you would make a good mentor. I filled up that form last month and the rigor of the process reminded me of my ISB essays. MMI uses a unique algorithm to match your information with what they learn from interviews with potential mentees to connect you with a child who would most benefit from a partnership with you. It is perhaps this scientific matching process that forms the basis of the strong mentor-mentee relationships; the process is not based on superficial what-you-might-expect elements like interests, gender, ambitions (a doctor matched up to a child who dreams of studying medicine) although that is a definite part of it. And after you get selected into the program, and your mentee gets assigned to you, you spend one weekend training with the MMI team, followed by an 'induction session' where you meet your mentee and his/her family. After that, you're expected to set up your own meetings two to three times a month with your mentee, with regular check ins with the MMI team, and you stick with it for at least one year. It is the one-on-one nature of the engagement that allows it to be such a rich experience: each child gets exactly what he needs to grow and develop. Your mentee might not need help with her math homework, but she might need someone to talk her through her attempts to get over her terror of public speaking. You figure out what they need and you give them exactly that.

It's bigger (and deeper) than you expect. What surprised me the most, and perhaps it really shouldn't have, was that nearly all the mentor-mentee pairs seemed friends. There was an ease, a comfort in the interactions that only comes from long association and shared experiences with people who like and respect each other. "This one can sing reasonably well, but only if she's in the right mood" - a 14-year old mentee said this to me, about her mentor, and then guffawed loudly. I think this might be my favourite part of the MMI effect: the mentors are no patronizing, the mentees are not bent in gratitude. This is a friendship among equals, with both learning from each other. I secretly think that the matching algorithm is behind this as well - it is easy to be friends with someone who looks and talks just like your younger/grown-up version. A significant proportion of the pairs have continued the relationship beyond the mandatory one year.
Birthday parties on the Big MMI day

It has very visible impact. The MMI team has been doing a rigorous evaluation of their program, and they have a detailed impact report that shows how the program has enabled children better their school scores and become more confident. But I want to talk about some of the visible results which make my head spin. I'm very worried that I will sound stereotypical when I say this, but when you meet a 12 year old who you have been told lives on the street, you don't expect them to come up to you in a confident, friendly manner, introduce themselves in well-articulated, if broken English, and ask you who you are, what you do, and why you are at their picnic. And yet this happened with me yesterday, over and over again. I sat to watch a group playing Uno, and was so amused to watch the kids making up new rules and teaching their mentors. There was one 13 year old mentee who borrowed the MMI camera and took pictures that were so good that they will be used on the website. Just as you would expect at any large gathering, there were all kinds of children - self conscious and shy ones, ones who clearly loved being under arc-lights, but everyone of them had this strong sense of their place, not just at the MMI day, but in the world.

And perhaps not surprisingly, there is a very visible impact on the mentors as well. They look happy of course, but they talk about things like how the program has changed them, and has allowed them to know themselves and the universe a little better.

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