CHANGE leaders do great things, and often that is all we know about them. Here we want to get a different glimpse of the personalities that constitute the development space. Every month we get one leader to answer four questions, not necessarily about their work, but about themselves. This week we catch up with Dhirendra Pratap Singh, founder of Milaan Foundation

Dhirendra was just 19 when he first started an educational centre for rural kids in Sitapur, a small Dalit village in Uttar Pradesh, in 2007.  By the following year, with 48 kids going to the centre, the community proposed they start a school. It was the first secondary school near the village – and that’s how Milaan Foundation was born.

Dhirendra jokes: “My dad wouldn’t trust me with a 1,000 rupees, but the village community was ready to donate an acre of land and put their trust in a 19-year-old to build a school.”

Milaan Foundation focuses on empowering youth, especially girls, from rural communities, ensuring equal access to opportunities freeing them from violence and discrimination.

“When we were building the first school, it gave us an insight into the community and we understood that the problem we see is not as simple as we think, it was more deep-rooted. We realised that girls were the most vulnerable. And the inequality we saw cut across castes, religion and background.

“So, we needed to move from education to an empowerment plan and started looking into the multifaceted issue. And that brought us into the domain of gender equality.”

Small Change: Describe the moment of epiphany that led you to start this journey.

Dhirendra: As part of a fellowship programme, I was living and working in a village called Baligaon in Uttarakhand. It was a very interesting experience for two reasons. One, it was the first time the idea of privilege struck me. It’s basically when you realise that you have won the lottery to be born into a family that has the resources and unconditional love to support you. And you can shape your future however you want to. But I also realised that it’s up to us to choose to say that our privilege comes with responsibility or not.

Secondly, for the first time, I saw the glaring gaps. It was 2007-08, when I was in university I read and discussed ‘India Shining’ and how we are moving forward but when I was working at the village I saw the poverty there, the people there faced a daily crisis as to what to eat at the end of the day. And the larger questions… that the country might be preparing to go to the moon but what’s going to happen to the children who grow up in such circumstances?

I think the disparity between privilege and poverty that I witnessed was something that hit me. Before I went I had it all planned. I was pretty clear that I would do my MBA and get a corporate job but after coming back I started questioning whether I wanted to do something good using my privilege or just work for money.

That was kind of a moment for me. Maybe not just one moment, it was a series of moments.

SC: One of your core aims is to empower girls in rural communities to speak up against discrimination – but that means you also have to address the traditional social norms. How do you tackle this? What has been the biggest hurdle?

D: Be it in communities, in donors and partners, there is shortsightedness to the solution. When we go to talk to the communities, they say, “Hum padha rahe hai. (We are educating them.)”. They are not looking into all the other things. The girl probably gets up at 4 in the morning, does all the housework, goes to school, comes back and again does all the housework. Between all of this, how can she focus on her studies and keep up with school?

Even the donors, look at empowerment from a one-year perspective. They want to see what will happen by the end of the year. That’s where I see a major issue. These changes can’t happen in a year. We will probably move from point A to point B but B is not the destination.

Most of these girls don’t even know who they are and what they want to be. It’s not just about raising about their voice, it’s about helping them be in charge of their own narrative. It’s important for them to understand themselves, their value systems and what they see in the future for themselves.

That’s why we struggle with funding. Because the work we are trying to do is a long-term process, there are no quick solutions. We need to challenge social norms, start a movement, build narratives and change narratives. I think that’s the core of what needs to be done.

S: If you could have a superpower, what would that be?

D: I would like to fly. Just so that I could meet people all the time and also, be at the schools more often and faster. Now I have to plan two weeks ahead if I have to go to the schools but if I could fly, I could do that easily and faster.

S: If you could invite three famous people, living or dead, to dinner, who would they be and why?

D: I think the first person would be Barack Obama. I am a big fan and I like the way how subtly he brings about change and has given the world hope. He is very positive. I listen to him every time I feel down and he makes you feel that maybe the world is not as bad as you think it is. Also, I like that even after the presidency is over, he is continuing to do the work towards the changes he wants to make in a much more independent manner. He is definitely an inspiration for me.

I would like also to meet Dr B.R. Ambedkar. I have read about him, I have heard about him and I know he was the chief architect of our Constitution which is the basis of our values as a country. I would really like to understand his vision of India when he wrote the Constitution. And ask him if he is happy with where we, as a nation, have reached.

Finally, the third person would be Safeena Husain. I love the work she does! I have had a couple of phone calls with her but I would like to sit down with her and talk about how we can do better. I am really inspired by her. The clarity and the scale at which she is working is amazing. The social sector in India has a long way to go and to build something like Educate Girls in that environment with so much innovation is commendable.

To donate to Milaan Foundation, click here.

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