Mentor Mondays with Ashish VR
In this instalment of Mentor Mondays we catch up with Ashish VR to find out how this Engineering graduate wound up mentoring young public problem solvers with Reap Benefit.
An early habit of taking on responsibility
Ashish is always volunteering to help out with new projects at Reap Benefit, a habit that can be traced back to when he was just six years old.
“I joined a residential school in the third standard, and being in hostel taught me a lot about how to work for and with others. The wardens used to give me responsibilities — big and small — from looking after attendance, to managing laundry schedules to collecting the sign-off slips for school excursions.”
“So from a young age, I learned the importance of coordinating between different stakeholders and as I grew older, how to manage conflict between them. It wasn’t uncommon for people to approach me whenever they needed support or help.”
At Reap Benefit, Ashish has gone beyond his role as a mentor to work with team members and plan and steer new initiatives like our Solve Ninja Leadership Accelerator (SNLA) and Solve Ninja Policy Committee.
Changing views of power and leadership
While studying Engineering, Ashish got involved in local volunteering projects with organisations like Parivartan. Attending rallies, citizen meetings and protests and listening to what people were saying gave him a ringside view to citizen movements, grassroots work and leadership.
But it was during his PGDM at the Indian Institute of Development Management, that Ashish says his perspective on leadership, development and what impact looked like all changed.
“Meeting diverse people from across the country working at the grass root level in development was very inspiring and eye opening. I realised that it was important not to have power residing with one person or institution, but that decentralisation of power benefits everyone.”
But it was on a field work trip to Rajasthan that Ashish got the chance to interact with gram panchayat leaders. “A lack of funding and citizen engagement was holding Gram Panchayat’s back from becoming vibrant places for rural change and improvement.”
All these experiences informed Ashish’s resolve to work with an organisation that was doing grass root level work around environmental and civic issues with local government bodies.
Which is how he joined Reap Benefit as a mentor in May 2019.
Turning challenges into opportunities
Ashish started out mentoring Government and Private schools in Bangalore when he first joined.
“The first 6 months was challenging. You’re visiting schools across the city every day, taking sessions with adolescents and you don’t really see the impact right away. It takes time. And that was hard at first.”
Ashish recalls the exhaustion of travelling across Bangalore by public transport to mentor students. “But it was also an opportunity to really look at the city and see what kind of civic and infrastructural issues were plaguing it and the behavioural issues that made them worse.” he shares.
For someone who had never conducted a session in a classroom before, suddenly having to engage, mentor and guide 180 teenagers every week was a huge leap.
“Engaging young people is hard and classroom management is a real skill. Both were things I had never done before. While I had some experience in reporting issues, I had to really work at being hands on with projects, which I learned on the job while working in Government schools. Even though sanitation and water were not my area of expertise, I had to look into them deeply to be able to support my students.”
So how did Ashish learn to do these things?
“By just doing it! Also, weekly meetings and regular feedback loops with mentors like Vinod, and buddying up with Subhani and Nisha helped tremendously.”
Adjusting to the new normal
The pandemic forced Reap Benefit mentors to shift online, a move that Ashish says was seamless thanks to extensive training, demo sessions and more. “But it was frustrating to not have a direct connection with students and trying to maintain their interest levels online was also hard.”
“The pandemic has really shown how unequal society is. If we want more equity then we need to ensure more young people from marginalised communities have their voices heard.”
Ashish believes that Reap Benefit’s SNLA that mentors veteran Solve Ninjas from Government and Affordable Private Schools to further strengthen their civic muscle is a step in this direction.
“We need leaders from all sections of society, otherwise our work will always be superficial.”
Trust, energy and intent
What does Ashish want to share with young people aspiring to join the social sector?
“Think of the world as you wish for it to be, and find an organisation aligned with that vision. Remember, no organisation is perfect. So it’s important once you join to observe, learn and put in the work before you volunteer ideas on how to improve things. Reap Benefit is very open to supportng new ideas and suggestions, but then they also expect you to take ownership of these ideas and put them into action. It’s important to build trust with people within the organisation and show that you’re willing and able to put in the work.”
If Ashish’s journey inspired you and you’d like to work with mentors like him on strengthening your civic muscle, then type ‘Hi!’ on the Solve Ninja WhatsApp Chat Bot today.