WHEN six like-minded alumni of Azim Premji University conducted a survey of children in migrant settlements along the Sarjapur Road of Bengaluru, they were shocked at the alarming number of young kids out of school. Together, they established Gubbachi (meaning sparrow) – a learning community that would act as a bridge between these marginalised children and schools.
Give speaks with one of Gubbachi’s founders, Rizwan Ahmed, to know more about the nonprofit that was founded in 2015, the impact the organisation has brought in the lives of marginalised children through formal schooling, and much more.
Give: You were part of the corporate world for 14 years. Then you decided to leave it behind for the social sector? Any moment of revelation?
Rizwan Ahmed: As I worked in a corporate setup, I realised gradually that I was more interested in working with people than machines and felt more connected to real issues around me rather than the cold figures and calculations that I was doing.
As a young entrant into the workforce around the Millenium boom, I could see the dramatic shift that India was making – while I was an educated person enjoying the fruits of that ‘progress,’ I saw that many around me seemed to be left behind. That bothered me a lot, and I slowly gravitated towards social issues. It was a slow and steady mind shift rather than one moment of revelation.
After about 12 years in an investment company, I felt it was time to fulfil my desire to work at the grassroots level and in 2011 I joined the Azim Premji University (APU), taking great personal risks, in a bid to understand the landscape first. The rest is history.
Give: How did Gubbachi happen? Tell us a bit about the rest of Gubbachi’s co-founders
RA: After graduating from APU I was working for a non-profit in the area of education. That gave me a lot of on-ground experience and also clarity on how things work on the ground. A year or two later, word got around in our APU alumni network that there was an opportunity to start a learning programme for migrant children in the Sarjapur Road area.
Five of us alumni got connected through that network and did a survey of the migrant settlements in the area. To our horror, we found that many children were out of school. We couldn’t turn away. We got two rooms in Kodathi Government School and started a bridge programme in October 2015 with some seed money put in by some of us and support from WIPRO on programme funding and a few fellowships.
We are proud to say that the collective experience of the founding team is rich, diverse, and yet bound strongly by a single commitment to support and empower the deeply marginalised child and family. For example, four of our founders taught in the classroom for the first few years (some still do) and developed the bridge curriculum.
One founder with her experience and understanding of organisational change is able to navigate us through the big picture issues. I myself am grounded in the community and able to connect with various stakeholders that need to be brought together. All in all, it’s a symphony of six that often goes off-key, but comes back in harmony!
Give: How did the organisation’s educational programmes function during the lockdown?
RA: All our education programmes had teachers visiting the communities and distributing worksheets to children, and following it up with phone calls. After a few months, we extended the community classes to half a day and we had full-day classes by January 2021. All the while our teachers took necessary safeguards.
We ultimately had to weigh the costs of no engagement for the child versus the risk of infection. The moment cases rose, we shut down operations and teachers reached out to children on phones to the extent possible. In short, we never gave up and ensured that the child is in touch with her teachers. We also supplemented nutrition for children with eggs, bananas, and millet bars.
Give: What word of advice would you like to give to someone who wants to join the social sector?
RA: I would simply say, be grounded in reality. Understand that the social sector works best when viewed bottoms up rather than the other way round. For example, if you are interested in education – volunteer in a school – understand how schools work, how children learn. Invest time in understanding the landscape of where you want to work – the issues that bother you enough to want to change.
Give: Any impactful or stories of hope that made you feel that Gubbachi is going in the right direction?
RA: After six years of hard work, three at-risk teenagers – Vikas, Rajesh, and Vikram – completed their schooling through National Open Schooling (NIOS) during the pandemic. And today, they are looking at careers in coding and other fields. We see how the needle has moved for the families.
Similarly, we helped a young 14-year-old boy who came to us at the peak of the pandemic with an unfinished 10th. His family had migrated from another part of Bengaluru and had no clue how to finish. Our team of teachers and community workers got him to finish class 10, and now he is looking at a career in electric vehicle maintenance after he graduates from an Industrial Training Institute (ITI).
Give: When was the last time you did something for the first time? What was it?
RA: Door-to-door vaccination! We undertook this out-of-box solution as part of the Bengaluru Health Response (BHR) project for the very first time. Apprehensive at first, we realised later that it was hugely effective in overcoming hesitancy and misinformation. We could address both information and access in one single step and that was powerful.
Give: If you could invite three famous people, living or dead, to dinner, who would they be and why?
RA: I would like to have a long chat with Mahatma Gandhi to look at secularism through his lens and what he makes of today’s unsettling times.
Malala Yousafzai to hear firsthand her courageous journey and what it took for her to brave all odds and reach where she has.
Lastly, a West Indies cricketer of the ’70s and the ’80s – say someone like Michael Holding who was the greatest pace bowler of all time. I will ask them about their experiences of overcoming racial discrimination and reaching the top of their game! I have always admired their sheer grit and talent and it would be nice to hear straight from my Dream Team!
Interviewed by Sruthy Natarajan
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