The Ajala Project presents Amrita Nair, founder of Apni Shala.
Based in Mumbai, Apni Shala (translates to My School) helps children from low income communities build their communication and social skills.
In July 2014, a group of seventh graders in a Mumbai government school took on a critical neighborhood concern. Eve-teasing or the harassment of girls is a reality in Deonar, in India and in the rest world. Instead of ignoring it like most girls are conditioned to, these seventh graders decided otherwise. They turned the issue into a class project and canvassed community signatures on a petition for police patrol during the peak hours of eve teasing determined via research. A month later, the girls received a call from the Deonar Police Station asking when to dispatch an officer.
Their project report was five pages of lined paper tied together by a string and hand written in Marathi – the state language of Maharashtra. The project supervisor was an Apni Shala facilitator.
Apni Shala is a Mumbai based non profit teaching five essential life skills – communication, confidence, team work, initiative and empathy – to low income students through experiential learning. Founded by three graduates of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Apni Shala works closely with government schools to design a curriculum based on community engagement and exercises in building emotional and social skills. A mandate to pilot a project in their first year led Amrita Nair, Swetha Ranganathan and Anukriti Goyal to start Apni Shala. Ranganathan and Goyal have now moved to advisory roles while Nair remains the CEO of the non profit.
Before TIIS, Nair was committed to a master’s in psychology. She dropped out of her program after discovering the impact of education through a volunteer teaching experience at Aasra, a shelter for Mumbai street children.. “Education was separate from the mental health or development of children,” she said. “There wasn’t any infrastructure in municipal schools at least to help integrate social and emotional learning [in the class].”
Nair stressed that Apni Shala was launched to support the current municipal school system, not undo it while attempting to transform education in low income communities. The general approach to working with local schools is to convince someone sitting higher up to onboard the program. That approach, she said, disregards the input of the schools involved and continues the cycle of detached change-making common to impact driven organizations. To avoid that, Apni Shala obtains permission from the principal of the partner school, conducts a teacher orientation and sets up a class timetable in collaboration with the staff before spending the first month getting to know the students. The organization receives funding through donations from individuals and companies or crowd funding platforms run by individuals supporting Apni Shala’s work.
“With no specific objective, we go around in the classroom with a handful of fun songs and icebreaking activities just to get to know each other,” Nair said, describing the introduction process. “The one thing we maintain is telling the kids that a lot of this is going to be fun, but it may require us to be sensitive to each other, listen to each other. We set a lot of expectations and norms in the beginning with the group… the kids and facilitators come up with [that] together.”
Having the principal be their first touchpoint also helps Apni Shala maneuver the dense bureaucracy of schools where the decision making powers are centralized. With the principal as a partner, it becomes easier to convince the designated education officer. But, the work is not done there. Once the school’s management signs the project papers, the team runs a community profile to better understand the kids where they look at family background as well as the provisions in the school. For instance, the team studies how space constraints in schools resulting in corridor classrooms or whether lack of attendance due to family responsibilities affects the child’s learning. This allows the facilitators to contextualize the curriculum accordingly.
While initiating the teacher, school management and child into Apni Shala’s process, Nair also puts her team through diversity and sensitization training. If a classroom lesson is on emotions and their impact, the facilitators discuss their own hesitation in expressing emotions and ways to overcome them. Building sensitivity and empathy is as much a professional goal as it is an overarching one for Nair.
“[Both] are underrated skills,” she said. “Given the pace at which we are growing as society and at the pace at which the technology is coming in, it’s becoming difficult to predict the kind of jobs or skill set people will require as they are growing up and entering professions. Collaboration and empathy – those are competencies that people will require more and more”.
Nair is a first time entrepreneur and chose TIIS to prepare her for the hurdles of setting up her own business. She also connected with organizations in the community, joining incubators like UnLtd Network and Atma, an accelerator program supporting education NGOs. Through all of it, the most important lesson she learned is to be “learning oriented”.
“In the first year [of Apni Shala], I didn’t get into budgeting or the finance side as much because I stuck to what I knew best which was the programs,” she said. “ My other cofounders would take on the stuff they knew better and I relied on my team to have some skills I did not have. Now, I’m just reading up on a lot of things that I otherwise did not know”. Sometimes learning new topics involves reaching out for help. To that Nair said “if you reach out to 10 people, there’s almost always someone who is willing to help you.”
Though consumed by the administrative responsibilities of running a non profit, Nair makes time for a weekly classroom visit. “Everytime I walk into a classroom or interact with teachers, there’s always a story that can inspire you,” she said of her decision. “There have been times I have had to think about whether I still have time to take class because my attention needs to be more on setting up processes and systems, recruiting people, raising funds, networking some more and taking the organization to more places. But going into a classroom once every week keeps me grounded and brings me back to why we are really doing this.”
Four years in, Apni Shala now includes a fellowship program for facilitators along with a full time staff of five. Volunteers or students looking for internships still come in to work with kids. There are also plans to engage alumni of the program. To expand their work, the team travels cross country to train teachers in building emotional and cognitive learning curriculum in their school.
“A lot of the impact the program has is diluted because we are focusing a lot of the energy on the children,” Nair explained. “The other two stakeholders who spend a lot of the time with the children are the guardians and the teacher in school.” By including teachers and parents, Nair hopes to build a sustainable and lasting foundation for the skills taught in the classroom.
Along with seventh graders fighting eve teasing, Apni Shala students have helped increase water access in their communities and planted trees in their neighborhoods. Having worked with more than 4700 kids, Nair said it is imperative to treat children as capable decision makers and give them their own agency of expression. In doing that, Apni Shala intends to create a generation of changemakers and emotionally intelligent contributors to society regardless of individual background.
About the author: Archana is an independent journalist, creative writing trainer and a forever wanderer. She is the creator of the Wandering Local, a project exploring the impact of home on individual identity. You can read her work at wanderinglocal.com and follow her on Instagram at @thewanderinglocal.