Pitaara — the story box
- with Aanchal Gupta.
Some…relatives have stopped talking to me because I am challenging their notions of gendered jobs.
Tell us a bit about yourself and about Pitaara.
That sounds like an interview question and I don’t do interviews (Ed — presumably job interviews).
Well, I come from a Rajasthani family and grew up in Ghaziabad in UP. I studied Economics Honors at Delhi University, worked for three years in the education space — as content lead and product designer in a startup, and two years as a Gandhi Fellow where we’d work on principal leadership and student learning outcome. After that, I pursued the Young India Fellowship program and now I’m working full-time on Pitaara. This journey, technically, started three years back.
These three years have been about trying a bunch of different things, learning, figuring out our own rhythm, and it has culminated into what we have now. The work we are currently doing took shape in December 2017.
What do you mean by “trying a bunch of different things”? How did you find your niche?
A year into the Gandhi Fellowship, I went for a meditation camp where I realized I have certain fears and I want to do something about it.
I’ll be happy that somewhere we have sown seeds and it will blossom at some point in the future.
One fear was of losing my parents. I wanted to record their stories and take it to schools to tell students about the previous generation and how they used to live. That way, we could weave these two generations together. This was the primary motivation but I soon realized that there were a lot of ideological problems in executing those ideas. For example, teachers didn’t want to expose children to biased viewpoints like Muslims saying vile things about Hindus and Hindus saying vile things about Muslims. And, we refused to neutralize our stories. Rather, we wanted to show both sides to the students and through a discussion help them understand that these differences are human-made and we can live in harmony, if we want to.As we navigated through these challenges, our own values took shape. There were things we were willing to negotiate and things we were not willing to compromise on. At this point, I had two other team members who wanted to experiment with different strategies and ideas. So, we designed more efficient ways to collect stories. We worked with women in villages, attended sociology classes, read a lot of literature, met Ashoka Youth Venturers who are entrepreneurs between 12 and 20 doing inspiring work in India.
[Kids] aren’t the future, they are the present of this country
All these experiences brought me here. Now I am working with kids who have the potential to become entrepreneurs but they also need to become sensitive about gender, caste, class, and all the differences we have created, so that they can design better and more inclusive solutions.
So, when I say we tried a bunch of different things, I mean, we connected a lot of dots to get here and hence, my story is not linear. In one line , we primarily work with children between the age group of 11 and 13 over a period of 1 month to 1 year to make them more gender-open and aware entrepreneurs.
Isn’t 11 to 13 really young?
Well, no. I know of kids like Akash Manoj who at 14 started designing a patch to detect silent heart attack before it happens. Then there is Dr. Md. Zabi from Hyderabad (he turned 20 this year) who is an animal right activist for the last 8 years. There’s a girl, Shanti Murmu, who at the age of 18 Started working on girl child education, prevention of early child marriage and use of liquor in tribal areas of Odisha.
Our USP is rewriting narratives. Through our sessions, we enable students to rewrite stories, songs, films they watch and from that we know how well they are processing what we are delivering to them.
I met all these young entrepreneurs through Ashoka Youth Venturer program which made me realize that the youth of this country need an enabling education rather than didactic approach. They are already ready to take on leadership roles. They aren’t the future, they are the present of this country. These interactions inspired me to turn my focus away from university students to school kids.
What does you team look like? What do each of you work on?
I have a team of three interns along with me. I’m the only one working full time on the product design, marketing, outreach,… everything. My interns, all three women from Kashmir, work on collecting material for our upcoming modules covering empathy and conflict areas. For example, how does a Delhiite understand what an average Kashmiri experiences? These modules will help them understand and empathize with the people who come from conflict areas They collect stories and raw-material for these modules.
Any extreme form of praise or opposition has to be avoided
All three of them come from the Young India Fellowship program which requires them to intern for 10 months. I am an alum of that program as well. They selected my project and I liked them so that’s how we got together. These are unpaid internships.
Creating empathy in people sounds very challenging…
I enjoy it. It allows me to be creative and have fun. And I get to hear a lot of stories. It’s easier to talk in terms of stories rather than facts. A story of a Kashmiri family hearing gunshots outside their window when they sit down for dinner on a regular day is more vivid than saying X number of people are dying each day from gunshot in a particular area. The trick is to narrate facts in a story form and create an experience for the listeners.
What is your typical day like?
There are some hats I like to wear and some roles I HATE doing. For example, I hate marketing. I don’t like putting things on social media. So, I have designed rules for myself. On Monday, I set aside an hour for marketing, two hours for business development, an hour for curriculum design and so on. That’s how I design my days and follow a routine.
…there are days when they see Jain uncle ki beti or Sharma aunty ki daughters and they ask me to move to a stable job, or get married.
How long is your day then?
Routine work is about 6–7 hours. Then, there are some hours of field work which I don’t count because it has to be done.
If you could quantify it, how much of an impact have you had?
In the first three test-models we reached out to 3000 students and about 100 villagers. The current form has touched around 800 change-makers through one-time workshops. Now, we aim to initiate more sustainable intervention in 6–10 schools starting May .
Sounds like you are working on two different products. One is the module aimed at young kids and another is creating empathy in adults. Can you resolve this for us?
That’s correct. We are engaging with kids at a young age to empower them to ask questions without fear. Simultaneously, we also want adults to understand and gain empathy for the world and not shut down kids when they ask uncomfortable questions. Both of these come under the Pitaara umbrella.
Engineering students … have very different ideas about gender and consent.
Where do you see Pitaara in ten years?
Right now our modules are all instructor led meaning I have to be there for each class. I want to gradually move it online and make these modules self-led where students will take control of their learning with minimal support from our end, teachers and parents. Digitizing our content is step 1. Then we will include content on class, caste, disability and other social topics in the coming years.
How do you test for outcomes?
There are two parameters for checking outcomes.
We have tools to measure a child’s social and emotional learning before and after undergoing our intervention. That’s one. This tests for empathy, self awareness, self management.
We are looking for people who have not yet been completely gender conditioned
The other parameter is to check social awareness in terms of gender. For this, there is a self-assessment, peer-assessment tool and an observatory grid for the instructor. Our USP is rewriting narratives. Through our sessions, we enable students to rewrite stories, songs, films they watch and from that we know how well they are processing what we are delivering to them.
Sociologists believe gender is fundamental to who we are. How does you program fit in with established norms of gender?
Kids become aware of gender stereotypes between the ages 5 and 10. Many a time, though, gender norms are forced on them even before they become aware of it . Our intervention is to make kids more gender open, to say that if you want to wear a skirt, may you be a man or a woman, you can do it without shame, guilt, or fear. Our constant message is that if you speak the language of love, the rest will take care of itself. That’s all we are telling them — to not shame others for who they are and to not allow others to shame you for who you want to be.
…we can deliver a session inside two weeks at the most.
We aren’t trying to force any new norm in the society. Just be who you want to be while being kind and accepting of others.
Are you facing resistance from society?
So far we are getting a lot of support. We also tell students that society at large is not learning the same things they are, so they mustn’t judge others for not being as open minded as they may become. We tell them not to be a rebel for this cause. They too were conditioned before they came to these sessions, so they need to speak the language of love.
In the future though, I expect some sort of resistance from parents, but I want to be optimistic about it right now.
Whats your gameplan if you start facing resistance?
Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. And design our curriculum better to reduce friction. Still, even if everything goes wrong, I will be happy that we spoke about these ideas to a bunch of kids. I’ll be happy knowing that somewhere we have sown seeds and it will blossom at some point in the future.
We also work with university students for this reason because they have more authority over what kind of classes they wish to take.
Did you have full family support? Or did you face any opposition?
Sometimes I feel I only receive support from people. You see, as entrepreneurs, we can’t afford to focus on resistance.
Though, if I must answer your question then, my parents try to be as supportive as they can, but there are days when they see Jain uncle ki beti or Sharma aunty ki daughters and they ask me to move to a stable job, or get married. Some of the relatives have stopped talking to me because I am challenging their notions of gendered jobs. On the other hand, few relatives call me up and say that they want their child to think like I do. Any extreme form of praise or opposition has to be avoided if I want to persevere. So, support or no support, my job is to keep moving forward.
Social Science students …study in a certain way and [we] can expose them to the stories around their theory.
How do you support yourself through Pitaara?
Our primary sources of revenue are private and government schools. Our secondary source is intervention in corporates and universities. We conduct about two workshops a month with adults.
What kind of people are you trying to attract to your workshops?
We are looking for people who have not yet been completely gender conditioned. That is, preferably people below the age of 35.
What attributes would benefit the most from your intervention?
- People working for people — designers, architects, policy makers, film makers. Those whose decisions are going to directly affect the masses.
- Engineering students — because engineering is still very male dominated and they have very different ideas about gender and consent.
- Social Science students — because they study in a certain way and our intervention can expose them to the stories around their theory.
- Change makers — people in the development space. They need to be aware of all these issues. Such people can obviously learn from their experiences on field but an exposure beforehand will lead to better observations, creating more impact.
Are you reaching out to colleges already?
Right now I am focused on schools but starting May, I will be working with the adult demographic.
How quickly can you put together a class if invited on campus?
We take about a week to contextualize our material, once that is done we can deliver a session inside two weeks at the most.