Dec 06, 2023

From the Ground: A Glimpse into Pratham’'s Transformative Impact

By Dhiren Shethia, Board Chair, Pratham USA

During my recent visit to India, I embarked on a journey spanning Lucknow and Delhi, immersing myself in the heart of Pratham’s programs. As a long-time supporter, my family and I have visited Pratham programs before – but this trip was special. This was my first visit since becoming the Chair of the Pratham USA board earlier this year. 

While my previous trips were from the perspective of a supporter and donor, this four-day journey had the additional dimension of gaining a deeper understanding of the operations, structure, people and culture of our organization on the ground in India. I got a first-hand look into the lives touched by Pratham’s initiatives, but also had the opportunity to spend time with dozens of Pratham leaders, team members and volunteers. 

My journey began in Lucknow, where my first stop was to attend an ongoing Hamara Gaon volunteer training with Saurabh Sharma. It was fascinating to see about 100 Community Instructors and Mentors (CIMs) being trained to teach children. In a way this group constitutes the heart of our childhood education programs – the ones in the front line in thousands of communities. There were men and women, some younger, a few middle aged. The common thread was that they wanted to be a productive part of their community’s progress. 

Lucknow also has one of our large multi-skilling and vocational training centers.

It is impressive, three storeys high with classrooms, work sheds, living space for students and several guest rooms which serve as a training ground for the hospitality team. I stayed at the center in one of these rooms. The journey of these young people is inspiring. They come from various walks of life with different levels of education and experiences. Most of them have never lived or traveled outside of their villages. Embedded in the skills training is life training. 

Every morning there is assembly. Everybody lines up with a podium in the front. Young men and women who were once diffident, with voices barely audible above a whisper, are now confidently addressing their peers during morning assemblies, their voices carrying the conviction of those who are discovering their inner strength. 

I visited the classroom and hands-on training garages with Annette Francis and Ajit Solanki (leaders in our Skilling programs) and others. There were no chairs in the hospitality training classroom – standing for eight hours or so is part of the job, so that’s how it’s set up. They learn about various types of cutlery, wines and beverages. The auto and two-wheeler training garages are full of tools, descriptions and various unassembled engine parts. The students come here with the hope of getting a job (we do have 85% placement rates) but leave as transformed people with a changed life trajectory. Their faces reflected pride, a spark ignited by the hope of a brighter future.

Clearly, the impact of these programs extends beyond the workshop walls. Trainees, once struggling to find employment, were securing jobs, earning incomes that enabled them to support their families. This comprehensive support system yielded remarkable results. A modest investment of just $300 generates a three-to-four-times return within the first year itself, a testament to the program’s cost-effectiveness and impact.

Next morning was a brisk start – we headed to a Second Chance program outside of Lucknow, near Sitapur.

We walked into a small room. It was no larger than 25 feet by 25 feet, but was bright with the smiles of about 20 young women ranging between 15 and 17 years of age. About half of the girls were wearing a hijab. There was Shivani, Puja and Saleema, and others. They were enrolled in this one-year program, which starts with foundational skills and then helps the girls prepare for the 10th grade certificate exam. 

We went around the room and the girls explained why they were doing this. They were all excited about learning and about a different future. Some wanted to be doctors, others policewomen and yet others teachers. For one reason or another they had all had to drop out of school, mostly between the 6th and 8th grades. They kept using the words “second chance”, as if to say that they knew life was giving them another look and that they were determined to use this opportunity.

By the end of our time there, which involved us treating them with some samosas and mithai, they were all happy and comfortable and sharing their work. They shared some of their classwork – meticulous writing in Hindi and English. My mind could not help but travel to the years gone by when my young daughters would share their school work with me. They are both in college now, charting the course of their lives – and I hope every one of the girls in that classroom can do the same.

My next stop was East Delhi with Samyukta Subramanian (leader in our early childhood program), where I visited an Anganwadi, a government-run early childhood education center. The room was abuzz with activities for young minds. The Anganwadi’s role extends beyond education, providing holistic support to children and families, encompassing healthcare, nutrition and women’s empowerment initiatives.

I met three remarkable women, Indu, Prameela and Anita, who were once housewives with limited opportunities. Today, they are Pratham employees who were trained as volunteer mothers. They now educate other mothers, who then advocate for early years learning. Anita runs a team of 300 women. Prameela and Indu now run about eight to ten Anganwadis each. They went from a salary of 500 INR / $6 per month to 10,000 INR / $120 per month.

Witnessing the mothers’ group in action was another highlight. Women from the community gathered, sharing experiences, learning from each other and advocating for their children’s well-being. This supportive network fostered a sense of togetherness, enabling them to make informed decisions about their children’s future. In the US we go to Pratham events and galas and hear slogans like “changing lives, transforming communities” – I was witnessing this first hand.

Reflecting on Pratham’s team, I found myself pondering on the elusive ‘secret sauce’ that binds the organization together. It has a certain ‘buzz’, the heart of a startup powering a 7,000-person-strong organization with a culture that keeps everyone together like a family. The folks involved really believe that they are destined to change lives. The sense of empowerment within the teams is incredible. Pratham creates a template for change, and then the field staff adapts it to the on-the-ground realities. This model works because the field staff is empowered to take action. This is what allows Pratham to operate at scale.

As I concluded my journey, I carried with me not just stories of transformation, but also a profound sense of gratitude for the work Pratham does. I encourage any donor who is interested in supporting our mission to take some time to visit one of our programs, and to meet our people on the ground. No matter which program you visit, you will come back inspired. Learn more and sign up for a visit today!