If you want to change the world, get over yourself

Fellowship stories
Lindsay Levin

Lindsay Levin

08 May 2018

Leaders' Quest Founding Partner, Lindsay Levin, recently spent three days in Maharashtra , India, with Fellows from the Quest Fellowship Programme we launched in 2008 with our NGO partner CORO. Ten years on, it has developed 1,136 grassroots leaders driving social change across the state of Maharashtra, and in New Delhi and Rajasthan.  She shares insights from the field.

As the sun comes up on a chilly January morning in the town of Latur, I’m met on the dusty train platform by Amarapali and Ashalata.

Amarapali quit school at 12, married her mother’s brother at 15, and was widowed two years later when he suffered a heart attack brought on by alcoholism.  Overnight, Amarapali and her 6-month-old son became destitute. Her home reverted to her husband’s family, and she lost whatever fragile sense of self she had. 

As a widow she had to forgo jewelry, colourful clothing and the customary bindi on the forehead of a married woman. She was expected to stay indoors, hidden from view – not just for the mourning period, but for the rest of her life.

Amarapali’s friend, Ashalata, came from a higher caste family. She studied up to the age of 15 and married a year later. As her two children became teenagers, their violent, alcoholic father left home, never to return. Ashalata chose not to report his disappearance to the police, and soon she and Amarapali were living similar lives: single women, without status, confined to the home in case they lured away someone else’s husband.

Amarapali and Ashalata are just two of the thousands of women, in Latur district alone, who live in the shadows. Their families serve as bonded labor in a region riven with drought. Alcoholism is epidemic amongst the men here, killing many of them young, and their wives are left behind to fend for the children. In many cases, these unmarried mothers face impossible debts.

But on this January day, a few years after vanishing into the shadows, Amarapali and Ashalata have come to greet me, my husband David, and my colleagues Rahul and Shishir from CORO, as we climb off the night train from Mumbai.

We’re here to find out how the Quest Fellowship Programme has helped them turn their lives around. And to hear more about their work as part of Maharashtra’s cohort of women showing the way for a new generation.

Nowadays, Amarapali combines her role as a community leader with work as a farm labourer, to support herself and her son. “Before I could work with others, I had to make a lot of changes in myself,” she says. For the first time in her life, she is wearing a Panjabi suit – in defiance of convention and in honour of our visit.

Ashalata is a leader in her Panchayat (village council), and her daughter has become the first girl ever to leave the community to pursue her education.

“After my husband left, his family insisted I stay inside the house,” she explains. “They would bring whatever I needed – food and water for myself and my three children. Everything except my freedom.

“I heard about the Fellowship Programme and eventually I found the courage to come out from my home and take part. I discovered that other women had sorrows too. I learned to see myself differently. I came to know that I have thoughts of my own.

“When our group was deciding where to concentrate our efforts, we chose to tackle problems that affect the whole community – men and boys as well as women and girls. In that way, we have changed everyone’s idea of who we are, and what we can achieve.”

Amarapali and Ashalata took us to meet 30 of the female fellows who are busy leading campaigns across 215 villages. We were joined by Ram, who became a fellow in 2009 and chose to return to his hometown to build the fellowship for the whole region.

I was keen to find out how the program starts to unravel the deep insecurities instilled in these women. 

It begins with a vital first step: each of the women learn the importance of seeing themselves as a whole person. They discover that they have likes and dislikes. Perhaps even something that many of us take for granted - a favorite color (although they never thought they were entitled to one).

The first training module starts by simply getting the women to try on new clothes. They play with personas: police uniforms, doctor’s coats, flower-print saris, hats, scarves, jeans and T-shirts. It’s a remarkably liberating exercise in expression and laughter.

As they gain in confidence, the fellows learn to collect data, calling on hundreds of households to understand their neighbors’ needs and wants. They build an intricate chronicle of life on the ground in some of India’s most marginalized communities.

Only then, weighing the facts, do fellows decide what to prioritise and how to focus their collective resources. Over the 18-month programme, they learn to build participation, understand their rights, organise and take action.

Amarapali and Ashalata are part of a movement that’s harnessing the power of existing village infrastructure (panchayats or local governments) to lead change, scaling up a culture of inclusion and bottom-up democracy. 

Sujata Khandekar, the visionary behind CORO, describes it as “grassroots wisdom.” Creating the space for people to discover – and use – their own power, and do so with a noticeable lack of ego.

It is this selflessness that sets CORO’s work apart and makes it so effective. Seeing how these communities build consensus and share the workload - and how they change laws and inspire a new wave of change agents – it is clear something extraordinary is afoot.

At the end of our visit, we sit together on the rough floor of a community centre. I ask the women to tell me what makes them most proud. Their answers come without skipping a beat:

“Educating ourselves and our children. “Claiming our property rights.”

“Earning our own livelihoods.” “Breaking social barriers.”

“Joining village councils.” “Choosing whether to remarry.”

“Making change happen.” “Helping widows face the world outside.”

“I have one more thing to add,” says a young woman in a green and yellow sari, eyes shining. “In the past year, 49 fellows across Latur stood for office in local and regional elections. Four of us won. It’s only the beginning. We will all run again. We’ve changed the way we see ourselves and we’re helping others do the same”.

This is the magic ingredient we need to understand and emulate.

At Leaders’ Quest we’re consistently struck by the way in which the principles embodied by our fellows – sense of purpose, deep listening, playing a part in something bigger than ourselves – apply equally in the business world.

The fellowship programe shows us what we gain when we get out of our own way. Ego – the need to dominate or win – may be the biggest single barrier to effective collective leadership.

The Leaders’ Quest mission is to build collective (and individual) leadership within corporations, and to encourage cross-sector collaboration on complex problems.

It might feel counter-intuitive, but, over 17 years of working with business clients, we’ve learned that NGOs and people at the grassroots have a lot to teach us.

For more information about the Quest Fellowship Programme, please contact lisa.smith@leadersquest.org.