Interview with Grassroutes: Road Trips for Social Change in India

Written by on July 7, 2009 in Asia, Entrepreneurship, Featured - 6 Comments

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We recently had the exciting opportunity to learn more about a really cool organization, one that is changing the lives of poor rural Indians by empowering young, educated Indians to make a difference.

Grassroutes, an initiative of Youth Factor, was born out of the noble hearts of, at the time, four college students who witnessed and experienced the lives of their lesser fortunate neighbors as they traveled together on road trips. During those trips, they saw hope in the eyes of poverty stricken villagers. They were compelled to act and Grassroutes was born.

In their words:

“Over four years, we often went on road-trips to nearby towns and villages, camping overnight in fields, spending time with villagers, meeting grassroots innovators and entrepreneurs; all of which shaped our perspective on social development. Beyond numbers which showed a country struggling to pull itself out of a poverty trap, we saw hope in the eyes of the rural folks brought about by a growing number of social entrepreneurs and organizations.

When we took up jobs in the corporate world, we met a slew of urban youth with plum education who were ignorant / impassive to the thousands of stories of social change happening across the country. We realized that they needed to be sensitized to social issues, developmental challenges and the opportunity to create change through enterprise. Breaking the traditional mold of non-profit internships and immersion experiences, we decided to create a program that positioned road-trips as a catalyst to one’s involvement in social change. Ergo, Grassroutes.”

grassroutes

Perhaps the most inspirational and noteworthy trait of Grassroutes is that is empowers young, educated citizens of India to make a difference in India; instead of seeking foreign aid or solutions, Grassroutes empowers the fortunate to reach out and lend a hand to the lesser fortunate. “Grassroutes is a 10 week Fellowship Program for urban Indian youth to go on road-trips across India to rural spaces, discover and work with change-makers while understanding the problems and issues first-hand.”

If that story isn’t inspiring itself, then surely the numbers will help. Though only 9 months old, the program already boasts 24 Fellows who have successfully completed their grass routes journey. The 10 week trips include three stages: The Run-up, The Road Trip and The Campaign. During the Run-up phase, each team of fellows is first diligently selected from a rigorous application process and then engages in a month long orientation session where the embark on a steep learning curve about various facets of the social sector and partners with a NGO working in rural India. During the Road Trip phase, each team undertakes a road-trip to an assigned location and spends a period of 10 days interacting with the people from the community and gathering their stories. Finally, post road trip, during the Campaign phase, the fellows design and run campaigns to benefit the NGO that hosted them and utilize social media to bring to fore the stories and experiences from their trip. All in all, social change is literally created at the grass routes level by those with a genuine interest in the betterment of their communities.

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A poster for recruiting Fellows

Here are a few Q & A’s from our interview:

1. Describe the social entrepreneurship environment in India
India is witnessing a steep infuse of human capital in social initiatives, non-profits and startups in the development space. What is particularly interesting is that more than 80% of this growth can be attributed to youth (age 18-30) involvement, and more than 30% of this population possesses professional/management experience from the for-profit sector. This fact, I think, holds a lot of promise for the social entrepreneurship scene in India.

In this boom, the various gaps in the support infrastructure for social entrepreneurs are themselves turning out to be fantastic opportunities. Among the needs of the hour is a robust ecosystem for social startups/initiatives to thrive by opening new options for funding, incubation and mentoring. Low penetration of internet and social media knowledge among non-profits is an amazing opportunity for social entrepreneurs to address, which potentially can bridge the gap between donors, investors, potential workforce and non-profits.

All-in-all, times have never been so exciting before in the developmental sector in India, since our independence; and for the first time, India is waking up to the potential of social change through enterprise at a grassroots-level.

2. What is the most significant challenge you have faced as an organization?
The biggest problem we have faced, continue to face, and so far managed to successfully workaround, is the fact that no two co-founders of this project stay(ed) in the same city. Bangalore, Mumbai, Hyderabad (all in India), Dhahran (Saudi Arabia), Hassi Messaoud (Algeria), Abu Dhabi (UAE) – working from 6 different cities, 4 different timezones, we have managed to defy most of our own apprehensions in creating a top-notch youth development program.

Online collaborative tools, teleconferences, frequent meetups in Bangalore, strong processes for managing a growing organization, and a pool of experienced mentors have helped us face this challenge efficiently.

3. What is your vision for Grassroutes?
Our vision for Grassroutes is to grow it organically into a top-notch Fellowship program which will create a strong-knit community of youth change-agents interested in driving social change through enterprise at the grassroots.

With a 200+ strong alumni group in a year or two and a robust support infrastructure, we see Grassroutes as a stepping board for smart, young and enthusiastic change agents to involve themselves in social entrepreneurial ventures.

4. What innovative future plans do you have for your organization and how are you implementing them?

We are focusing on 3 major features that differentiate Grassroutes from the scores of immersion experience programs already present:

a. Travelogue documentaries: The video footage that Fellows bring back from their road-trips will be edited to create road-trip travelogue videos (on the lines of Road Trip Nation videos) that will be screened in colleges and universities to inspire more youth to go on a road-trip for social change.
b. Social media for social change: With extensive input from various social media consultants, a wiki is being set up as a toolbox to use social media for social change in India. Being curated by Fellows themselves, this extensive wiki will take new Fellows on a crash course to create strong social media campaigns for their causes.
c. Social entrepreneurship/journalism orientation: All Fellows are taken through an intensive 1-month long, online, modular course that will sensitize Fellows to the developmental sector in India, the challenges, existing solutions, opportunities and available tools to aid in the process. In the near future, we are looking at collaborating with top Indian B-Schools to refine the curriculum.

Below are a few photos of their journey:

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Rachit captures footage with the camcorder

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Unhappy weavers discuss their dislike for the government

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Grassroutes organizes a meal for locals

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A local boy is captivated by the camera

Grassroutes

grassroutes

  • 10 week Fellowship Program for urban Indian youth to go on road-trips across India to rural spaces
  • Organization Type: Non-Profit
  • Website: www.grassroutes.in
  • Founded: 2008
  • Founder(s):Keerthi Kiran, Sriram Varadarajan, Abhilash Ravishankar, Goutam Ullas Mahaptra
  • Location: India
  • See complete company list here

Youth Factor

  • Develop projects that explore novel ways to engage youth in contributing towards social change
  • Organization Type: Non-Profit
  • Website: yofa.org
  • Founded: 2008
  • Founder(s):Keerthi Kiran, Sriram Varadarajan, Abhilash Ravishankar, Goutam Ullas Mahaptra, Shravya Reddy
  • Location: India
  • See complete company list here

Photo Credits: flickr.com/photos/grassroutes/

Naiomi

Naiomi is passionate about business for good and social entrepreneurship. As co-founder of SocialEarth, she hopes to help create an information platform enabling those doing good to share their stories with those those seeking to help and are interested in moving our world forward.

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