As a young girl, Neha Buch felt like a misfit and wanted to escape school to see the world outside it. This is how she stepped into the world of volunteering by joining the WWF nature club in her school.
Neha’s journey as a youth worker has been a long one. 18 years ago, while Neha was still in college, she started volunteering at Pravah, an organisation based in Delhi that works with young people to impact issues of social justice by nurturing them as active citizens. Today she is the CEO of Pravah.
Recently CYC chatted with Neha, who is one of India’s foremost advocates of youth work. In this interview, she talks about her inner journey, the growth of her organisation and the larger youth work scene in the country.
Q: When did you start your career as a youth worker?
I never saw youth work as a career. I was always driven by what I was interested in. It sounds really weird but I always needed some sort of push to keep learning because I can get bored very easily.
Working with young people was absolutely perfect for me because they don’t take anyone’s word for it so that became a driver for me to learn constantly and find new things.
The first time I described myself as a youth worker was when I was going to an international conference and had to fill out an immigration form. The form had a section which required one to state their profession. I remember staring at the form for a few minutes and wondering what to write. I toyed with the idea of writing ‘social worker’ or ‘development worker’ but finally I wrote ‘youth worker’.
Q: Youth work is an unconventional career choice. How did your family and friends respond to this choice of yours?
I think I have been extremely lucky because my parents have been open to me pursuing my interests. I was never forced or told to do this or that. My parents have always been a little ahead of the times that way about things like these.
It has always been interesting to see that my parents have never quite completely understood what I do and yet supported me because it made me happy. They even pushed even when they saw me facing challenges at work instead of allowing me to take the easy way out and quit.
My father has been able to understand that we work with young people in schools and colleges. Like any parent, especially in the early years, my mother suggested that I could have had a corporate job and earned some money but on the whole, there has never been any resistance to it.
Q: Today Pravah has grown to become a larger organisation with more than 50 employees and another office in Jaipur. How did you and Pravah grow side by side? Did you see yourself as a leader of a youth organisation from early on?
My growth at Pravah unfolded organically because the organisation evolved. I took on a fuller role only in the last few years and I realised that the organisation has grown much larger than the one I stepped into.
Aspirationally I never wanted to head the organisation. After having benefited from the leadership development that Pravah does (both as a volunteer and staff member), I wanted the organisation to grow internally and that’s why I took on this role. I looked at it as paying it forward. The decision to do this came from a sense of responsibility.
I made an effort to learn so that I could make this happen. I am a person who does not like to be in one space all the time. I like creating things. My current role at Pravah is completely opposite. It has pushed me in several ways to learn things that I wouldn’t have learnt had it not been demanded of me.
Q: You’ve been doing youth work for 15 years now. What are the changes you have seen in the landscape of youth work in India?
The biggest change is that the aspirations and capacity-building of youth are being talked about. It is the new buzzword. I think at one point of time, as an organisation, we were questioned about why we were even doing this sort of work.
Now people are saying that actually there is a reason why youth work is important. It’s not just about what young people need to do for the country but the idea is to ensure that young people can go on a journey before they start to create changes in the system.
If young people do not have a connection with their world, then you have to help them create that journey and make that connection happen.
Increasingly there is an awareness that when you work with young people there are going to be certain type of challenges which will come by virtue of the fact that the person is young.
Youth work needs consistent engagement using a diverse range of issues. Also, young people will bring their universe into the space of engagement. Someone may come in to volunteer on forest rights but just like any other person they will bring what’s going on with them whether it is their relationships and aspirations.
You cannot look at young people as a drop in the ocean but you have to look at the ocean that resides in that person.
Q: Why is there a need to invest in youth work?
The basic rationale behind investing in young people is that they are the present and the future. This has been said many times and it’s not new.
We have to build youth’s capacities so that they can create their own learning journeys and make decisions which are inclusive, which take into account the present but also consider the impact seven generations later in order to create sustainable solutions.
As for a company, it is in their vested interest to invest in young people so that they can create interesting new ventures which will also be able to generate the profit they need along with becoming a better organisation with better products.
The government exists for the betterment of the country. In India’s case, you have a potential demographic dividend and it is really necessary that there is investment in young people not just for the sake of giving them jobs but also because they are human beings without whom the entire fabric of the society would collapse.
The moment there will be increased frustration, there is chance that there will be increase in violence which will disrupt everything. However, if the government does invest in young people, the gains are much higher and if it does not, the losses are much more severe.
We have to invest in youth. I don’t think there is any other way that this world will survive. It’s not about working with just the privileged youth or tribal youth or just one section of this large heterogeneous society. It means working with all young people. Every society in the world owes it to themselves and to the world to invest in their young people.
Q: Is there a youth movement in India?
I think there are many youth movements in India, not just one. I think all the youth movements have one thing in common – the need to be taken seriously and the need to be treated as equal citizens.
I think it is very hard for a larger movement to emerge because there are too many identities and different needs. I think it will require years and years of work for that to happen because all of us are not on the same page.
Q: UK, Australia and Sri Lanka have formalised youth work. Do you think India needs to do the same?
I think there are pros and cons. We need a certain degree of formalisation in the form of having some principles in place so that we are on the same page about the understanding of youth work.
Professionalisation of youth work should not stifle its passion. I think even if youth work is formalised in India we need to create context and flexibility so that we can recognise that any person can potentially be a youth worker provided they have specific capacities, the willingness to adhere to certain principles and the ability to learn continuously.
Q: What is your advice for a youth worker who is just starting out or struggling?
The first thing is do not underestimate the role of boundaries. Sometimes boundaries are seen as negative but I think they can be beautiful if drawn in the right way and mutually.
When you are starting out as a youth worker, it is critical to understand your values that are driving your engagement with another young person so that you can draw the right boundaries. In the absence of that, relationships and learning journeys can get jeopardised pretty significantly.
The second thing is to remember that you don’t need to be perfect. The third thing is be kind to yourself – you will screw up more times than you can imagine. Have the courage to say sorry. And lastly, never do anything just because, understand why.
We hope this interview with Neha offered you an insight into her inspiring journey as a youth worker. If you’d like to get updates from Neha, follow her @nehabuch on Twitter or @nehabuch on Instagram. You can also learn more about Neha’s organisation Pravah on Facebook and Instagram.
ComMutiny – The Youth Collective is a coalition of 35 (& rising) youth led and youth engaging organizations across India working towards promoting empowering spaces for youth leadership. CYC aims to be one of the key youth workers associations in India. Pravah is a member of this collective and has been instrumental in creating deep and impactful work with young people and youth workers through their 5th space designs.
Never heard of the 5th space? Then head over to What do young people really want – a 5th space.
If you’re considering working with youth, learn why a career in youth work is awesome.