It’s true – it really did happen – I’m home.
I tell you, falling in love with people and places is one thing, but there is nothing like sitting in my own kitchen, the kitchen I grew up sitting in, sipping on tea and juice. My parents still bicker, and I think they’re getting better at it. The squirrels still try to eat the bird feed, and it’s still super cold on spring mornings. Part of me is still in India, though, as evidenced by the SMALL ANIMAL in my stomach (amoebae? parasite? only Cipro knows), and henna on my two hands. I was in an article recently on the fellowship that I thought I’d share with you below.
Issue Date: May 16-31, 2009, Posted On: 5/15/2009
Sandbox Fellowship Grants Opportunities in India
By KARA BECKER
In July, eight education professionals and post-graduate researchers will get the chance to visit India’s northwestern state of Karnataka for a year-long fellowship focusing on development and social entrepreneurship.
The fellowships are funded by the Deshpande Foundation, a Stoneham-based nonprofit with offices in India. The foundation is dedicated to assisting projects in both the United States and India that foster innovation and entrepreneurship that drive social change. The Sandbox Fellowship program is now in its second year, and already the program has forged close relationships with several non-governmental organizations in India that work with the fellows to make their experiences overseas rich and meaningful.
The Sandbox is an area area in India located in the northwest corner of the state of Karnataka. Though the Sandbox centers around the twin cities of Hubli and Dharwad, it is comprised of five districts. The area is diverse, with both urban and agricultural settings. Desh and Jaishree Deshpande are both originally from the Hubli-Dharwad area. As a result, the foundation centers its efforts on their hometown as a development lab for social innovation.
Meenakshi Verma Agrawal, the foundation’s program officer of global exchange programs, said that the selection process for the fellows is rigorous. Applicants must go through three rounds of interviews both in Boston and in India.
“We’re looking for people with experience working abroad who are flexible, adaptable and who can really jump in and approach a program that already exists and that needs help taking it up to the next level,” she said.
Agrawal said the fellowship seeks applicants with “soft” skills, such as strong communications, as much as “hard” skills such as math or science training. Past fellows have worked with Indian NGOs in areas such as agriculture, health and education.
One of the first fellows chosen by the Deshpande Foundation is still in India finishing up her work. Rebecca Kline, 29, who started her fellowship last year after receiving a master’s degree from Columbia University in Public Administration and Environmental Science and Policy. Kline works for the BAIF Institute for Rural Development, a small NGO that works to provide better livelihoods for inhabitants of rural communities, and to make rural living more equitable in general. Kline said the work she’s been able to do because of her fellowship experience would have been impossible without the support of the Deshpande Foundation.
“I’ve gotten the chance to work on several different rural farming initiatives as part of my fellowship experience,” Kline said. “The initiatives are all about rural development and rural empowerment, which I love. I was originally brought here to improve the training center for the local farmers.”
Kline said that the small staff of approximately 10 people sees up to 100 farmers a week that come in for training in their facilities.
“After I started working more and more on the ground with actual farmers I realized they didn’t really have an actual evaluation system to follow through with their training. So I created a monitoring and evaluation system to get feedback. Once we did that, we started working on the training program.” Kline said.
Kline even devised a model training workshop with the staff to see if pieces of it could be replicated in training with the farmers. The workshop turned out to be a huge hit and became institutionalized – Kline now holds the training once a month with the staff, and is currently in the process of training a handful of other staff to take over her position when she leaves.
“I really appreciate that the foundation made it financially possible for me as an American to come in here and work with an NGO that could never afford to hire an American at the price they pay me,” she said. All fellows are paid an undisclosed stipend and have benefits, subsidized housing and language instruction.
“And with an NGO that was small enough and hands-on and grassroots enough where I could make a big difference, that’s not just volunteering. Even if you worked for the U.N. or some [larger group], you still probably wouldn’t work with people directly on the ground – it would most likely be delegated to places like us.”
Giselle Aris and Cameron Campbell have already been selected to be among the second group of Sandbox fellows starting this summer. Aris, 23, is finishing up her master’s degree in International Development at the University of Oxford in England. She is currently working on her dissertation on the role of producer organizations like farms and co-ops in alleviating rural poverty. With previous field work in the Philippines, Aris said she has always been interested in agriculture and development.
“This fellowship in particular really excited me because of, frankly, the way they address the problems in India in an innovative manner,” said Aris, who will be working with the microfinance NGO Nazach Etana. She said she has wanted to work in microfinance for the last two years because it is generally a for-profit form of development rather than a nonprofit, and she feels that the forms of development that ultimately are truly sustainable are for-profit models. Her plan going into the fellowship is to help with Nazach Etana’s marketing campaign to better publicize the NGO and to chronicle the individual experiences and success stories of borrowers. She’ll also help with general administrative tasks like making their productivity and general strategy more efficient overall.
Campbell, 25, is also planning to start his fellowship in July. He already has experience working for an NGO in India, having previously done a range of things for the development group BASIX, another microfinance institution dedicated to alleviating poverty and promoting livelihoods, with a focus on farmers and women. Though he is back now in the United States doing construction work, Campbell said the main appeal of the Deshpande Fellowship was that it will provide him an opportunity to be involved in grassroots development in India.
“The Deshpande Foundation had the elements that I believe make a good development institution,” he said. “It is wide in scope and its mission is focused on a collaborative approach bringing together the private, government and nonprofit sectors in order to try to alleviate inequity. The Sandbox Fellowship in particular interested me because … I like the idea of a developmental sandbox in which people can experiment with various ways of building and implementing programs and policies that help inspire change and innovation in a socially and environmentally conscious way. It’s very important for people to experience the reality of rural life in India in a direct and visceral way. The Deshpande Sandbox Fellowship requires a certain sacrifice of personal culture, because it requires that the fellow stay in an environment that does not have all the convenience and infrastructural reliability as the United States or Europe.”
Campbell is planning to work internally with the Deshpande Foundation in the Deshpande Center for Social Entrepreneurship, helping to organize their fellowship and other programs and opening dialogues that bring local people into the arena of social entrepreneurship to connect them with institutions that already exist. And after having grown up in New Delhi and worked for BASIX, Campbell is itching to go back to India.
“The connections I make while organizing dialogues and trainings will give me other work opportunities for the future,” he said. “Someday I hope to start my own non-governmental organization in India, after I spend some time in various organizations, similar to Deshpande. This experience with Deshpande will provide me with the strategic, administrative and organizational skills that are central to running and working in an institution.”
Students selected as Sandbox Fellows so far this year are Giselle Aris, Cameron Campbell, Sarah Sukumaran, Xanthine Basnet, Suzanne Rizzo, Lena Thompson and Mari Hickmann.
To read about what Sandbox Fellows are doing in India, visit http://globalexchangeprogram.wordpress.com.