To My Parents, On My 25th Birthday

On Resilience and the Freedom of Choice

 

Dear Mom & Dad,

As I celebrate 25 years of life today, you’re celebrating 25 years of parenthood. 25 was a special year, and it would be so incomplete if we didn’t celebrate this milestone together. Since I’m not home in person this year, I’m writing you this letter to share my gratitude from afar.

Mom, Dad, you have raised such a beautiful daughter!

…if I may say so myself. Today is about celebrating me after all, so let’s just acknowledge that one more time: you have truly raised such a beautiful daughter. I could not be more proud of who I am today. I have the courage to love and spread compassion. I have big dreams and the drive to work hard towards them. I am investing in my own growth and development.  I’m not perfect, but I am a person I am proud to be – and so much of that I owe to you. Thank you.

Growing up, we were never a family of long heart to hearts, and you instilled values in us not through your words, but through your actions. You showed me audacity, you taught me to work for my ambitions with grit, you showed me what it means to create small bits of happiness in tough times, and you showed me the power of a hearty laugh and warm smile.

Above all else, you showed me what it means to be resilient and you gave me the freedom of choice.

17 years ago, you immigrated to Canada with $200 in your pocket, and two young, confused daughters. I recognize today, what that decision meant for you – it was a decision lined with necessity and hope. Dad, I can only imagine what you must have felt the first time you heard your MBA degree had no meaning here, or Mom, when you heard that 10 years of experience as a college teacher were worthless. No matter how hard I try, I cannot understand how it would feel to be dismissed intellectually, and told that you were only capable of operating factory machines or driving a taxi. I wonder if I will ever have the strength and courage with which you accepted those roles, out of necessity for survival and the hope for Mehak and my futures.

Growing up, Mehak and I had everything we needed and more. Today, we see the physical marks of the stresses and hard work that went into making that happen in dad’s yellowing teeth from stress smoking over 15 hour taxi driving shifts, and the clotting nerve ends on mom’s legs from 12 hour standing shifts at night operating a chewing gum packing machine. Today, I can start to understand that the terrible decisions you sometimes made are not as irrational as we thought, given the constant stress and circumstances you faced the last 17 years.

But none of this stopped you, and for that, you are my heroes. I love that you stood tall against all of these challenges and rebuilt a life and an identity for yourself. The wall in our house with the diplomas of Human Resources, Millwright Mechanics, and Real Estate – all courses you did in your free time after the 12 hour shifts – are a testament to this. The way you speak to us in such a natural mix of English and Punjabi, and the way growing up, we hosted friends over for the most amazing Easter Egg Hunts, and then celebrated Diwali with pride on our street, show your determination to integrate your identity to your new world. Even today, 17 years later, when you still face racism at work, you stand tall and fight it silently with your attitude and hard work. Every single day, you embody resilience and do everything it takes to create the life you want for yourselves and for me and Mehak.

You taught me the definition of resilience is so much deeper than the dictionary version where they describe resilience as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties.  

I believe resilience is sustained courage.

By showing me resilience, you prepared me to stand tall in the face of any challenge that comes my way. I only hope that one day, when I need it most, I will have the strength and resilience you had in your life.

This last year, I know, has been especially tough for you, particularly with the decisions I’m making that you don’t yet understand. You’ve questioned out loud why you made the countless number of compromises that you did, if your daughter was going to leave behind her well-paying, successful career to go live and work in a remote village of India, by choice. The answer to that lies in the last two words of that sentence – by choice. You compromised everything to give Mehak and I the freedom of choice. This choice is one that not many children around the world have – especially not here in India, even not many Indians abroad,  and definitely not many girls in many countries around the world.

I can not be more grateful for the opportunities you created for me to grow up with the freedom to education and the exposure to radical ideas. You encouraged me to participate in programs like SHAD Valley, back when it was a crazy idea amongst your friend circle to let your 16 year old daughter go live away for 1 month, and you encouraged me to live on campus through university, even when we lived a distance that could be easily commutable.

Through this education and exposure, you raised daughters with bold, global ambitions. My education in Canada, and the savings I have today from the last three years of work, allow me the freedom of choice to dream boldly and pursue my questions.

I know that you’ll always support me in the choices I make, and I also know you have a responsibility to worry. But I hope you see that you don’t have to worry. In the worst of scenarios, if I fail hard and don’t find answers to the questions I’m pursuing, I’ll get up with the same resilience you used for the last 17 years. And if the day comes when I don’t have the same strength and resilience, I promise you, Mom and Dad, you will be the first people I call for help.

You did not work this hard for me to live a mediocre life. For you, the meaning of your work for the last 25 years was building a life of freedom for Mehak and me. I know how much it means to you, for me to live a comfortable life, because that will be the output of your life’s work. I hope you recognize that we already are living a successful life.

The output of our lives, having grown up with the success of your life, is going to be true equality, compassion, and freedom in the world. That’s what our generation is here to do.

You’ve raised me to have the audacity, humility, and courage to pursue this dream. Thank you, Mom, thank you Dad.

Here’s to the last 25 years of parenthood, and to the next 25 years of friendship!

With love and warmth,

Anmol

 

What they don’t tell you about immersion is that it’s emotionally hard AF

One thing I definitely underestimated when we started this journey 4 months ago, was the power of immersion.

By choosing to live in the village of Naddi, amongst the community we are working with, we had the opportunity to understand the lifestyle, the challenges, and the everyday decisions people made at a much deeper level than I imagined. As we bonded with the families beyond our research guide, they opened up their full selves to us. They invited us into the intimate spaces of their homes, told us about their fears and aspirations, and found their way into our hearts. What I didn’t realize was how hard it was going to be to work together with my new friends on such sensitive topics.

If your research plan involves true immersion, but doesn’t have time blocked off for self-care and emotional recovery, you’re doing it wrong.

I can’t even count the number of days in our 6 weeks of research where we planned for a full day of chats and came home at 1pm emotionally exhausted. There were days I was overwhelmed with a strange mix of guilt and gratefulness for the opportunities I had access to, and other days with anger at the realities I just experienced or heard about. Some days it was overwhelming happiness at how similar our experiences were, even coming from such different contexts. The hardest were the days of frustration at not being able to truly understand the situation, no matter how hard I tried to emphasize.

Immersion is so powerful for any project or research, but it’s important to recognize how emotionally taxing it can be, and be prepared to include self-care into your research plan.  

Why Social Impact Leaders Need to Think Like Designers

// and why we must make a commitment to deepening the toolkits of Design Thinking

 

The essence of design lies in discovering a problem shared by many and trying to address it.

This quote by Kenya Hara so beautifully demonstrates how the fields of design and social impact have never been distinct. Design is so much more than creating a plan to address a problem – it is about the process of discovering the right question to address, and it is a process that originates in society. Today, in the field of social innovation, we need leaders who can employ the design way of thinking to identify the right problem to solve and creatively design solutions that address the needs of the people we are solving for.

The term Design Thinking refers to design as a way of thinking – a set of mindsets and abilities to approach complex problems. For me, the power of design thinking lies in the ability to solve problems in a way that is participatory, creative, and iterative.

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Design Thinking is especially powerful in the world of social impact. When applied well, these mindsets and abilities can help break down traditional boundaries across sectors – bringing together government, NGOs, and the private sector – to reduce duplicate efforts and amplify results. It also allows us to tap into the local wisdom to uncover local solutions that best fit local challenges. Through an iterative process, it allows for more long term impact, with solutions that will be accepted and adopted by the communities we design with.

In the last couple decades, the thought leaders in the field of design have made significant contributions to articulating the concepts of Design Thinking and broadening its applications to the world of business, and now to the world of social impact. Because Design Thinking is a way of thinking – a set of mindsets and abilities – it is a subject anyone can access and apply. Today, many tools, frameworks, and methods have been created to support these mindsets and encourage this way of thinking, including IDEO.org’s Design Kit, Frog’s Collective Action Toolkit, and LUMA’s handbook on Innovating for People, just to name a few.

In a very beautiful and simple way, these methods allow something as a deep as a mindset to be captured into something that can be practiced – this is powerful. However, we must remember that these are methods are only a beginner’s guide. As Carissa Carter puts it, “Unfortunately, the accessibility of design is often confused with shallow ease and many (most?) organizations that set out to incorporate it into their company culture struggle with adoption because of this fundamental misunderstanding of the rigor behind the subject.

Beyond the Beginner’s Guide

We must deepen and broaden our toolkits of applying design thinking. In particular, the challenges of equality, climate change, education, and global health require us to apply more rigorous and integrated approaches. I believe that thinking like a designer will amplify the impact we have. Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyatt share some great case studies on the power of design thinking for social innovation here.

But using the toolkits available today at their surface level will not be enough – we need to deepen our understanding of the theory behind the methods. We need to question and challenge the methods we are using, adapting them for the contexts we are working in. We need broader recognition that the toolkits today are not the only answer but an introduction. We need more social impact specific case studies and examples to learn from – we need to share our work and open channels for dialogue.

A question I think a lot about is, Is Human-Centered Enough? Human-centered as a core design principle is so important and we must bring the human perspective into everything we do. But when we become only human-centered, do we miss something bigger? How might we incorporate systems level thinking into our work? What practices and tools allow us to better map the entire system – the needs and role of the human in connection to the needs of our planet, of other species, of future generations, of neighbouring communities?

Social impact leaders, in particular, must take on the responsibility to contribute to the definition of these new toolkits, and their applications to social innovation. 

Details are not the Details // a collection of thoughts on design

Module 1: Introduction to Design

As a designer, it is important to understand where the field of design originated, how it’s developed and evolved, and learn about the leaders and philosophies that have shaped the field. By understanding the core of design and expanding our exposure to theories of design, we can start to build our own perspectives, philosophies, and design styles.

For this Introduction to Design module, I designed this small booklet as an exercise of sense-making and perspective building. It is a beginner’s collection of inspiration to guide the learning process. 

The following pages capture my understanding and the philosophies that inspire me as of today, and I only hope that my thoughts will evolve as my understanding and practice of design deepens.

Hello, Naddi! // starting our first project

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A couple weeks ago, we moved from New Delhi to a beautiful village, Naddi, near the city of Dharamshala in northern India. Here, we are partnering with a social enterprise, EduCARE India, which focuses on facilitating community led sustainable development in rural areas, like Naddi.

After spending the first week getting settled, soaking in the vastness of the mountains around us, and meeting some of the community members here, we worked with EduCARE to define a challenge area.

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How might we reduce the amount of time women in rural communities spend on unpaid (household) work so that they can contribute more time to their personal aspirations, economic well-being of their households, and sustainable development of their communities?

Globally, women do three times more of the world’s unpaid work than men. This means women have less of an opportunity to join the labor force, contribute to community development, and address their personal needs. While men spend more time working for money, women take on the bulk of household labor like cooking, cleaning, shopping, and childcare – all tasks that are unpaid.

This is a problem – while unpaid work is essential for households and societies to function, its disproportionate allocation can be detrimental to women’s economic and social advancement. We leave behind countless opportunities when women aren’t able to fulfill their potential. With an extra hour, or maybe three, a woman may choose to go visit a doctor, start a business, spend more time on her school work, or take up paid work.

This project is about exploring the opportunities we have to reduce the amount of time women in rural areas spend on unpaid work in favor of activities that enable them to invest in themselves, their families, and their communities. Just as importantly, this project aims to go beyond creating extra time, to encompass a study of the systems, facilities, and environments that must exist for women to productively channel their energies into activities that support increased health and prosperity.

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We will spend the next three months living here in Naddi, immersing ourselves in the local culture. We will conduct ethnographic, participatory, and evaluative research to better understand the challenge. After mapping out the entire system, we’ll identify key opportunity areas, and define a narrowed problem statement.

Thanks for welcoming us here, Naddi! Excited for the next three months of chats over chai. 

From Learning Objectives to a Tangible Learning Program

As we think about translating our learning objectives into a tangible learning program, we’re starting with a few core values:

Perspective Building, Not Rote Learning – design assignments in ways that encourage and facilitate fellows with building their own perspective on the topics.

Pursue Your Questions – create the space for each fellow to identify and pursue their own points of inquiry within the learning modules.

Tangible Outputs & Share What You Learn – each assignment must be presented and shared out so that we can all broaden our perspectives and share what we’re learning, growing our collective knowledge base.

Do Real Projects – whenever possible, align our learning to real-life projects, and learn by doing.

Using these values and the learning objectives in my previous post are the basis of the structure we’ve designed for our learning year.

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