Bringing social change through youth leadership
Pravah focuses on building leadership in young people, helps them in understanding themselves and encourages them to engage with the world
With over 25 years of experience in the corporate and development sectors, Meenu Venkateswaran’s areas of expertise include organizational and team leadership, strategy development, coaching and mentoring. She currently supports the leadership transitioning in Pravah through one-on-one coaching, and governance of a few projects. In a candid conversation about Pravah, Meenu tells us how the story of Pravah unfolded in the last 20 years and how the organization works for building youth leadership for social change, develops their skills and supports other youth organizations.
How did you start out with Pravah?
The trigger was the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the rioting that followed. Three of us – all co-founders of Pravah – Ms Ashraf Patel, Mr Arjun Shekhar and myself came across people like us who had been to the best schools and colleges and they were not responding to this issue. A number of responses we got were from people who did not think that the rioting and the killing even mattered. There was a big section of people who were worried but had no idea on how to respond or who to reach out to. This gave us a lot to think about. If well-educated people working with good organizations are directionless in such a state, then maybe there is something wrong with our education, which is not preparing us to engage with the world. This was our time of reflection. We decided it was important to work with adolescents and young people who are likely to be decision makers in the future to build in them the sensitivity and empathy to deal with such issues. There are enough NGOs who deal with the issues once the problems have taken place, be it natural calamities, communal riots, gender equality or others. But we came from the space of prevention.
Who are you reaching out to and what is the focus?
We focus on the age group starting with 13 and going up till 35. We work with both school and college going students, young social entrepreneurs and also with established organizations. We work through the life-cycle of a young person up until the time they set up their own initiatives. We started out working with young people from privileged backgrounds but have now expanded across the board. Our focus is on building leadership in young people, help them in understanding themselves and encourage them to engage with the world. In the last 20 years, we have worked intensively with probably 50,000 young people and taken them through close learning; and extensively with about 150,000 people whom we have touched with our programs.
Reaching out to a 13 year old vs. a 30 year is a very different line of communication. So what is the process you use to reach out to these students?
For adolescents in schools, this is worked into their school curriculum like the Continuous Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE). We also provide exposure to urban kids to rural spaces for one week through a programme called My-St@ry Xpress Camp/Friendship Udankhatola Camp (FUN Camp). We also do a return camp with rural kids in the urban setting. We have developed various curricula and these are run by trained facilitators, trained teachers and even by our partner agencies. With out-of-school adolescents, we have a large program that we are doing with UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund and NYKS (Nehru Yuva Kendra Sangathan). We are working in 1800+ villages, in 10 districts, across five states with a curriculum called ‘PrayaSapna’ which helps young people dream and aspire and work towards achieving them. We work in a cascading model, training field staff at one level, who in turn train peer educators in every village, who then run the program. The ‘PrayaSapna’ program requires around 30 hours in the classroom along with a lot of time and activities outside. The focus is on experiential learning. The framework of the curriculum is to help a young person understand where they are today, where they would like to go, what it that is stopping them is and what capacities they need/efforts they need to make to achieve their dream. Programs for college students are voluntary. They include a curriculum, a week-long exposure trip and a month long internship. With social entrepreneurs, we offer seed funding, personal leadership andinstitution building and mentoring. In the last two years, we have also been experimenting to marry scale with soul with our partners and trying different initiatives to bring that about. PrayaSapna is one such effort.
How do you manage the funding for the organization?
Up until the last two years, we were majorly grant funded. We had long term grants from Sir Ratan Tata Trust and Ford Foundation. We also have some long standing funders like Oxfam, Misereor and others. UNFPA has released substantial funds and is currently funding a big project for us as well. We normally pick a multitude of projects which align with our focus and work towards them. Apart from institutional funding, we are also trying to tap corporates as part of their CSR activities.
What is the extent of your involvement with Pravah?
We are in the middle of a leadership transition at Pravah. I now work part time with Pravah - around 13-14 days a month. We do a six-monthly review for all our programs, and we have processes in place for bi-monthly reviews and team reviews and so on. All founders are championing different programs. As a champion, I do a big-picture review every two weeks and help in facilitating decisions and troubleshooting whereas the team leads do weekly review meetings. In the space that I am involved right now, I am involved with design and governance of projects, mentoring senior team members as well as fundraising.
How are you managing the leadership transition? How does succession planning work in such a set-up?
We started our leadership transition process a couple of years ago, and have nowinvited individual team members to take on various roles i.e. that of the ‘seed’, ‘soil’ and ‘air’ to nurture this change. Seeds are the people who will be at the forefront of this transition; the soil is the group of people who will be actively involved in helping this transition, and the air will be the people who will be on call when needed. Our current CEO, Neha Buch, has been with us since the beginning of her career and has been closely mentored by Arjun - one of the founders. She is also the one holding together the seed and soil initiative. Talking about succession planning, we as an organization have had very strong HR practices – set up by Ashraf the founder CEO, and Arjun,the President of the Governing Board – who are both HR professionals. We are very process oriented and that has not only helped us, but also all other ventures that we mentor. Within our team, we have created leadership journeys which we run with our teams at different levels. We also have a very strong mentoring program. So every senior leader mentors at least 2-3 people at all times.
What is the approach that Pravah uses when working with young people? What do you think you have built in the last few years that has enabled others to be impactful?
I think we bring a very unique approach to working with young people. Looking at India and also the world, young people are seen through three lenses. First is the economic lens, where young people are expected to learn and skill themselves and then work towards helping the economy grow. The second is the problem solver lens which can be physical or mental health related; a number of NGOs work in that space, dealing with HIV, substance abuse, stress and others. The third is the youth for development lens, where we need young people to bring in their passion to solve prevalent social issues and act as instruments of change. That is where we come in. We bring in a fourth lens – the youth development lens i.e in helping the youth understand themselves and enabling them to make a change. This is a pyscho-social approach. Being a learner for life does not come from classroom training. One of the terms we use is ‘Refl-action’, which is a combination of reflection and action and that is something we believe in. It is an ongoing process, happening every time one takes a decision or has a new experience or interaction. Here, the mentor can act as a mirror, help you ask the right questions and make sure you find the time to really learn from your experience.