By Akash Kumar, YES 2014-2015, India, hosted by AFS-USA in Mesa, AZ
My name is Akash Kumar, and I am an undergraduate student at IIT Madras in India. I come from a remote part of Bihar, which is India’s poorest state. The YES program was a dream come true for me, and it played an instrumental role in making me who I am today. It changed the way I look at the world and gave me what I like to call a “glocal” perspective. My experience in the U.S. left me with moments to cherish and lessons to remember. When I returned to India, I was a changed individual – changed for the better and prepared to confront not only my problems, but also problems my community faces.
Around the time I returned from my exchange year, the United Nations General Assembly was discussing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and, with the passage of this agreement, the global community adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The success of the SDGs depends on the participation of all stakeholders in the process, and over the last three years, the agenda has seen some collaborative partnership from governments, non-profits, and businesses. The SDGs inspired my friends and I as a focus point on which to direct our passion for community improvement. We were quite positive about this direction until the end of 2016, when my friends at the Cluster Innovation Center at the University of Delhi undertook a survey through which they found that most young people do not know anything about the SDGs. While the preamble of the GA resolution 70/A starts with calling the agenda, “a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity,” we felt that common people and their participation was largely missing from the agenda.
The SDGs are still mostly understood as a top-down framework which must be led by governments and big non-profits. We feel that there is a fundamental problem with this approach. We need to incorporate a bottom-up approach, recognizing that citizen participation is key to realizing the true potential of the SDGs. It was with this in mind that we started SDG Society in 2017 with the help of a YES Alumni Grant.
SDG Society aims to raise awareness and induce action in line with the SDGs. In consultation with educational and SDG experts, we designed, developed, and implemented training modules, workshops, and games about the SDGs for high school students across India. Our workshops help students incorporate sustainable practices into their day-to-day lives and connect the global framework to what is happening around them in their community. While implementing the grant, we were able to reach around 7,500 students in 45 schools in Delhi, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, and Tamil Nadu. We have conducted workshops in both English and Hindi and have put special focus on government schools. Our interaction with these students has also helped our team learn and grow both as individuals and as a start-up organization.
We are now planning to add additional components, including a follow up to our workshops with an action module in which we help selected student leaders from each school organize themselves into small groups, identify a problem in their neighborhood, brainstorm solutions, evaluate project viability, and implement their idea. We will offer incentives to high-performing teams. For this next stage of our programming, we will need additional resources and partnerships. Our start-up is currently being “pre-incubated” at Nirmaan, Center for Innovation, IIT Madras, where we are being mentored by professors and experts to take our work to the next level.
The core of our philosophy lies in our approach towards localizing the global goals and putting them in the hands of the common people. The success of the SDG agenda depends on our ability to turn it into a mass movement. The onus of such an ambitious development agenda cannot be solely dependent on governments. We must get common people involved in its implementation.
I am very thankful to my team: Kuldeep Kumar, for being an integral part of this journey from day one; Syed Maaz Hasan (YES ’14), Nandlal Mishra, and Srivedant Kar for helping establish the framework for the project; and Mimansa Bhardwaj, Rahul Kumar, Sharada Priya, Ashish Kumar Yadav, Abhishek Sharma, Ravi Kishan, and Ashwath Anbuchelvam for helping with both strategy and execution.
The success of this project depended largely on the active participation from students, teachers, and school administrators. We would especially like to thank UniMity Solutions Pvt. Ltd. for their pro bono website development and to everyone at Nirmaan, IIT Madras for their constant mentoring and support. Last, but not least, this project could never have happened without the amazing people at American Councils and AFS India, as well as the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs who funded our YES Alumni Grant. Thanks a lot for this opportunity.