Tag Archives: Sangeeta Agarwal

If You Think Education Is Expensive, Try Ignorance

When Covid closed down Jaipur’s teeming streets, Harmendra Singh, like many other daily wage laborers, panicked. How would he feed his family of six? For Harmendra, a blacksmith who makes INR 300.00 per day and lives in Jaipur’s Dhoongri slum, the shutdown in India was particularly brutal–he needed his income for his family’s basic daily survival. The government took its time stepping in to fill the gap created by a cratering of daily wage incomes, and it was left to local charities to help desperate people like Harmender and his family. 

The charity that came to his rescue was Edu-GIRLS, whose school his daughter, Riya Kaur, and her younger sister were enrolled in. Like other charities across India, the suddenness of the    Corvid lockdown transformed Edu-GIRLS higher mission goals of educating and mentoring girls living in some of India’s poorest slums into more immediate, lifesaving ones.

We adapted fast,” says Anand Seth, who founded the non-profit in Washington DC, in 2012.  (Since then, it has expanded out of Jaipur and taken its successful model of educating slum children to three other locations–Bengaluru in India, Saraswati in Nepal and Kohat in Pakistan).

“From the first day of the lockdown we gathered basic rations and made packets of essentials which included atta, dal, rice, oil, salt, sugar, chai, etc. and distributed them. The girls were put in charge of identifying families in need, and they went around the slum delivering supplies. If there could be a silver lining to something as awful as Covid, it was the way the girls began to be viewed. They were the source of the family’s survival because of their enrollment in our school, and they’ve become a prime asset for their community. 

 As of May 2020, Edu-GIRLS has provided 600,000 meals to 1000 families.

Vimkuti Teachers conduct on-line learning on borrowed phones for 400 girls, 3 hours a day

“We haven’t slowed down,” says Shubhra Garg, the Secretary/Treasurer at Edu-GIRLS, and a hands-on volunteer who communicates regularly with Edu-GIRLS partner school, Vimukti, in Jaipur. “We’ve innovated.”

“In the beginning of the Pandemic we got the girls to make and distribute masks. They made over 4000, with donated cloth. After basic needs like food were provided for, our next emphasis was how to make sure educational time wasn’t lost. The girls had no access to laptops or computers at home and the staff had to innovate to provide virtual learning to them. A teach- by phone- program was initiated during the shutdown––students had to borrow their parents’ smartphones for three hours every day and teachers posted lessons and activities and homework which they were accountable for. This has been quite successful.”

Another consequence of the lockdown has been the urgency to push the digital learning program into high gear.  Edu-GIRLS had already partnered with Khan Academy and the digital education provider BYGU to bring online learning to its upper grades. It now aims to push for a faster evolution to digital teaching for its lower school as well and has begun a Facebook campaign to raise funds towards that goal.

Chatting with the team of Edu-GIRLS board members and volunteers in Washington DC, I see that they haven’t lost any of their pre-pandemic enthusiasm for continuing fundraising and expanding programs, even if they can’t make the supportive visits to the schools in India which used to be a regular feature before COVID. They have gone into high gear with virtual and paper mail alternatives for communicating with the Edu-GIRLS family, and are innovating new formats for fundraising drives.

We were not sure what to expect from our donors when faced with a highly unusual catastrophe like Covid. In fact, we’ve had a surge of interest from our donors—many new ones have stepped forward after seeing the havoc Covid is wrecking on the poor in India. I think the fact that we kept donors extremely well informed throughout of how we were continuing to serve the slum community and on how we had innovated during the Pandemic, contributed to their support.  We raised almost 30,000.00 immediately for Covid relief from 100 supporters,” says Anand. 

Edu-GIRLS goals for 2023 include educating 1450 girls with a 100% pass rate and placing at least 110 in jobs which will double their family’s income.

“We feel vested in these girls,” adds Sangeeta Agarwal, who contributes her skills as a filmmaker towards designing the organization’s media offerings 

We support them from primary school to higher education and, eventually, financial independence. What’s the point of all that education if the girl can’t become financially self-sufficient? So, it’s a particularly satisfying connection from a volunteer point of view because we follow the same children for their whole educational life and beyond.  We look at all the factors that might limit their access to education—transportation, family attitudes, even basic hygiene, etc.”

“Yes, even basic hygiene can be an obstacle to a girl’s education,” Sangeeta says in response to my surprised expression.

 “Many girls drop out of school when their periods start because they can’t afford sanitary pads and they’re ashamed.”

Edu-GIRLS has adopted a Ten-Mantra program that addresses all the invisible obstacles to a girl’s education like the monthly menstruation cycle and safe transportation to school.  There are 10 things they focus on as goals—these include a free, quality, English curriculum, with short school days and a long school year, safe transportation to and from school for the girls, nutrition health and hygiene training, community outreach, exposure to science and math, vocational and college scholarships and performance incentives.

Priti Jain, who organizes outdoor walkathons for fundraising, is currently working on the next one. “I was attracted to the charity by their focus on girls’ education,” says Priti, whose Facebook tagline says, ‘If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.’

 “At least walking is one fundraiser which will involve time away from a screen.  Since we must emphasize safety, we are looking into holding a virtual walk-a-thon. Participants walk on their own at an assigned time and post their miles and contributions online.”

The team is all really pleased with how the girls have risen to the crisis in their communities and have made masks and distributed food while mentoring and teaching the younger children, whether it’s proper COVID hygiene or other lessons.  

“They are the true heroes of their community,” Shubhra concludes. 

Jyoti Minocha is a DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents

Image credit: EDU-GIRLS
Riya Kaur  (10) lives in the Jhalana Doongri slums, Jaipur. and is a class IV student.


Storytellers: DC Desi Film Festival Kicks Off!

 A new bride, fresh off the boat, suddenly feels she’s being stalked by a stranger in her new country, but her husband dismisses her fears as exaggerated.

A  devoted acolyte of video games wakes up one morning with a black eye and has no idea what happened.

Ugly secrets in a woman’s past rise up to haunt her while she agonizes about making the right choices in life.

These are some of the tantalizing, tales spun onto the silver screen by Storytellers, a community film club in Washington D.C., which is showcasing five short films in an online festival that is free for all audiences from June 12 to June 20th.

Storytellers was born in 2010 out of a shared passion for cinema and the art of telling a good story. One of its founding members, Mansoor Ahmed, recounts how his love for cinema was probably ignited by the fact that his family home in Pakistan was right across from a movie theatre. When he moved to Washington DC  his desire to remain connected to the Arts led him to join Natya Bharati, a local theatre group that stages plays in the D.C area., where he connected with other connoisseurs of good stories.

 “We really enjoyed the process of creating and staging plays, but some of us wanted a more permanent record of our stories on stage, and that was the seed of the idea for a film club. 

“From there, a core group of us launched Storytellers,” says Mansoor.

Mansoor’s day job during this period of creative ferment was as an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Center. His wife, Hema Ahmad, would joke that she was a film widow for all those years when weekends went into brainstorming or working on a project. Hema has recently become active in Storytellers and written the screenplay for The Dig, one of the films in the showcase.  

The core group of founders also included Vandana Narang, another avid film buff. She recalls how, in Junior High, she would skip lunch and spend her lunch money on movies. 

“I always wanted to be a journalist, recording life, but life had other plans for me. When Moonie (as Mansoor is affectionately known to his family and friends) got involved with a Pakistani feature film called Bhool which was being shot by a friend of his, I helped with that project. The film got shelved and by a stroke of luck, we inherited all the professional equipment used to shoot it. So, now we had all the paraphernalia needed to make our own movies. Also, digital technology had made it much more affordable for amateurs to produce short films.”

“With the launch of Storytellers,” Vandana recalls, “I plunged into this creative outlet where I found myself getting fascinated with the technical aspects of filmmaking, and with understanding how the writing and directing and filming are all meshed together to produce a final product.  It was a fantastic learning process and a great adventure.”

Vandana wrote the screenplay for Storyteller’s first project which was a short film called Relativity. Friends and family were cast in various roles and the audience was primarily friends and family. Since then, the group has exponentially expanded its membership and its audience, and open casting calls are held for their films. 

Sangeeta Agarwal joined Storytellers in her capacity as an accomplished actor, with a role in the short film, Stalking Shadows, but soon got drawn into the film making process. 

“The best part of Storytellers is its democratic inclusiveness,” says Sangeeta. We treat this as a completely collaborative exercise for all our members. Everyone is welcome to find the area of filmmaking that interests them or what they want to learn about, and then we form teams for each phase of the process. We regularly brainstorm ideas as a group—our motto is that there is no good or bad idea out there—there are just ideas that need to be woven into a good film.”

Storytellers has produced 17 short films over the course of 10 years and picked up accolades and audiences along the way. They’ve participated in numerous film festivals including DC South Asian Film Festival, Berlin Film Festival, Istanbul Film Awards, World Music and Independent Film Festival, and International film festivals all over the US. They’ve also won awards for Best Short Film, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Cult Film, among others.

The journey for this film club has been extremely exhilarating, sometimes frustrating, but always a rewarding one.

“We learned so much and had such interesting experiences over the years,” says Mansoor.  He recalls an amusing incident where they wanted to shoot a scene from a film in a police station. They approached the station with trepidation, wondering if they would get permission for the shoot, but once inside they found a beehive of activity and no one paid any attention to them. They proceeded to shoot their scene in the midst of all the hubbub without anyone remarking on what was going on. (These were the glorious pre- mass shooting days, pre- COVID days).  

 The group has a mixture of the old, experienced hands and the new, novice hands. Everyone, however inexperienced, are encouraged to participate and contribute ideas.                      

“I think we have the most fun in pre-production, brainstorming sessions,” says Mansoor. “And our club is like a crucible in which ideas ferment. I had the germ of an idea for the film, The Dig, a few years ago, and we got down to brainstorming with the group last year. The group came up with very innovative input, and before we knew it we had a solid storyline and screenplay for the film. It eventually looked quite different from what I had imagined, and I credit our entire team for that.”

In response to my question about an overarching theme for Storyteller Productions, Mansoor quips— “Our goal is to make movies with no redeeming features whatsoever,” and both Sangeeta and Vandana protest with laughter.

“We want to make good films, to tell a story in the best way possible. We don’t have any commercial or political goals; we just want to make movies that will stay with the audience after they leave the theatre.”

The Storytellers Film Showcase – a FREE online event will run June 12 to June 20 and feature five award-winning short films: Stalking Shadows, Habaneros, Tele-phone, A Night At The Bar and The Dig.

Jyoti Minocha is a DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Edited by Contributing Editor Meera Kymal