“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” These are the words of Gandhi. When you step into the shoes of another and look at their needs with empathy, you are likely to discover qualities you never knew you had.
More than a decade ago, Zeeshan Mohammad and Prakhar Bhartiya started to engage with other young people and in the process discovered themselves. Ever since, they have set up organisations to create opportunities for youth in urban spaces to become doers and leaders. In this article, CYC chats with both these social entrepreneurs to learn how they defied convention, changed their own lives and led with empathy.
Zeeshan Mohammad, Co-founder & Executive Director, Yeh Ek Soch (YES) Foundation
Zeeshan grew up in Sitapur, 90 kilometres away from Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh. Coming
from a very conservative family which valued popular professions like engineering, medicine and government services, it was expected that he would become an engineer. After finishing school, he took an engineering entrance exam and cleared it.
Very soon Zeeshan realised that he was interested in unconventional and creative work, so he dropped the idea of pursuing a career in engineering. And he finally enrolled into a B.A. at Lucknow University in 2003.
In college, Zeeshan observed that many students who came from government schools performed poorly. He wanted to organise a competition for students who could not afford coaching classes to help them prepare better for their exams by but his idea didn’t work out. “When I reflected over it, I realised that I did not have a proper plan and understanding of the issue. Besides there was no one to guide me,” he says. And so life went on.
Corporate sector & the lost dreams of the young
After graduation, Zeeshan wanted to be financially independent. He and his friends would read job ads in newspapers and come to Lucknow to appear for interviews. As he waited in long queues filled with anxious young people who had come from all parts of U.P, Zeeshan began to notice how they struggled with private companies who made certain promises but did not keep them.
Zeeshan soon found a job in a private bank where he worked as a unit manager for four years. His time in the corporate world left him feeling that although young people in the private sector were making money, they were losing their dreams and values.
Starting a conversation about sexual harassment in a local train
By 2007, Zeeshan began to feel pressured to get an MBA degree to improve his career prospects. But instead he wanted to understand social issues in depth. He took admission in a Masters in Social Work (MSW) programme in Lucknow University. Two months later, with enough savings to sustain himself, he quit his job.
Five days a week, Zeeshan commuted between Sitapur and Lucknow for 6 hours daily to get to university and back. While traveling in the train to Lucknow, he would see boys moving from one compartment to another to harass girls. Although he did not participate but he also did not intervene.
After some time, the MSW programme opened Zeeshan’s eyes to patriarchy and forms of violence that he had never noticed before. He learnt about gender violence and sexual harassment through workshops and by reading books.
“I realised what I had been witnessing was very unjust and it was important to stop this harassment. I started to read my books about gender and sexuality in the train by holding them up. This made the boys curious. I started a conversation about gender with them and helped them understand why sexual harassment was wrong.”
“With each passing day, we started to discuss more about this and soon a group was formed. The boys began to examine their beliefs which objectified women and they admitted their actions were wrong. I started the same conversation with the girls and slowly both groups began to talk to each other. They even befriended each other, ” he says.
Engaging auto rickshaw drivers to ensure a Safe Safar
After completing his post graduation, Zeeshan moved to Lucknow. In 2010, he started working full-time in a youth-oriented project at SAHAYOG, an NGO that works on rural women’s health.
During this time, Zeeshan witnessed the discomfort faced by girls who travelled in shared autos with men who would often sexually harass them. He says, “The girls who used the autos were usually from small towns in U.P. and they were totally dependent on public transport. I realised it was important to work with auto drivers and the passengers and make them gender sensitive.”
“Along with my partner and a small team, I started a campaign called Safe Safar through which we approached auto rickshaw drivers to ensure a safer riding experience for young women. The campaign succeeded in engaging not only 350 drivers but also reached out to both kinds of youth – the ones who were responsible for harassment and the ones who were affected by it.”
During this campaign, Zeeshan closely saw the complex challenges faced by youth.
“The biggest challenge is that youth are expected to become people who will earn an income. No one cares about what they really want. They have no one to guide them from the very start. Many youth end up wasting several years because of this. Another big challenge is they do not understand their own selves and what they really want to do,” he says.
Launching Yeh Ek Soch (YES) Foundation & finding inspiration from the 5th space
In 2010-11, Zeeshan became a Changelooms fellow with CYC. For the next two years, he and his co-founder Shariq Ahmad Khan explored the idea of running an organisation that would build young people’s capacities so that they could achieve their full potential and bring positive social change. In 2012, they finally decided to take the plunge and co-founded YES Foundation. “YES stands for Yeh Ek Soch which literally means ‘this one thought’ because changing mindsets begins with just a simple thought,” explains Zeeshan.
While doing the groundwork for YES Foundation, Zeeshan and his team began to explore the 5th space. “I came across the idea of the 5th space during a workshop with Pravah. It is a space that enables youth to understand themselves and others. It helps them to navigate issues in a win-win way. The youth facilitators at YES have benefited from experiencing the 5th space and they bring those values to our programmes,” he says.
6 years on, today Zeeshan leads a team of 22 members at YES Foundation. They work in Lucknow along with 18 other districts of Uttar Pradesh. YES Foundation is currently working with children, adolescents and youth through different programmes. They are addressing the issue of child marriage among youth and strengthening their decision making skills through the programme My Life Meri Journey. They also enable young people to learn about their sexual and reproductive health through Know Your Body, Know Your Rights, a programme run in partnership with The YP Foundation. They also conduct Youth Addas, in partnership with Pravah and UNFPA, where youth come together and discuss issues that affect them.
YES Foundation has been running Samvidhan LIVE! The Jagrik Project, a campaign about constitutional awareness in collaboration with ComMutiny for the last two years. This year YES is leading 11 organisations in U.P. to run the new and improved version of the same campaign. Now called Be a Jagrik – Samvidhan LIVE!…Live the SDGs, the programme is supported by CYC, Pravah and UNFPA. It engages young people to live and practice the values of the Indian constitution and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Finding his tribe through ComMutiny
Zeeshan has been associated with CYC since 2010 and he has been a forum member for 5 years. He feels that the forum provides a common platform for diverse voices and helps them make a noise about issues that affect them. “It is also a way to exchange knowledge and learning. It provides an opportunity to meet different kinds of people, check one’s prejudices and get rid of them. There is no such other youth collective in India which has sustained itself for so long”, he says.
Zeeshan signs off by advising aspiring youth workers to first explore themselves and find out what is close to their heart. “Change is a slow process. That is why you need to start the change from within. Find out which issue is the closest to your heart, learn about it and start implementing solutions on the ground,” he says.
You can follow Zeeshan on: Facebook
Prakhar Bhartiya, Former Founder & ex-CEO, Youth Alliance
Prakhar was born and raised in Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh. Although he was brought up in the city, his family life was firmly rooted in a rural set up. As a child, he spent every summer in his family’s village. The youngest among four siblings, he remembers growing up in a atmosphere where no questions were asked.
After high school, Prakhar went to an engineering college. Studying alongside 2,500 students, he felt that nearly all of them did not know what to do with their life. He also felt a disconnect with what he was studying and did not spend any time in the classroom.
College life was not so bad after all because it pushed Prakhar to become self-aware. He gravitated towards like-minded people and soon formed an inner circle. He was also inspired by the ideas of Gandhi at this time. He wanted to create a platform for young people to observe and experience real India and its issues. So, he created Youth Alliance as an informal group in 2008 while he was still in college.
Learning life changing lessons at Teach For India
When most of his fellow students were getting recruited by MNCs on campus, Prakhar decided to skip the placements altogether. Instead he joined Teach for India (TFI) as a fellow. This was a crucial juncture in his self-discovery process.
At TFI, Prakhar worked as a teacher in the slums of Pune and Mumbai. “After having hung out with mostly upper middle class and English-speaking people in school and college, I got the opportunity to meet a diverse set of people from across the country through TFI,” he says. He was also deeply inspired by Shaheen Mistri, the founder of Teach for India.
In 2009, Prakhar visited the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad for the first time. There he spent time with Jayesh Patel, who heads Manav Sadhana, an NGO that works with marginalised children and women. He says, “I saw Jayesh bhai living his Gandhian values. This strengthened my belief in inner change. The ashram is a powerful place and it inspired me.”
Creating journeys with head, heart and hands
In 2011, Youth Alliance was established formally as an organisation with the aim to facilitate journeys for youth to discover their inner selves and the world around them by “engaging the faculties of head, heart and hands”. When asked why he chose to work with urban youth, Prakhar admits that they are the ones who have the choice to experiment in life. He says:
“I acknowledge that as a middle class young person, I have the privilege and choice to do something else and be someone else.”
Based on his interactions with youth, Prakhar observed that young people usually lack a voice and face multiple challenges. He says:
“Youth are under tremendous peer and parent pressure. They are confused and do not know what to do. They live in a bubble and are disconnected from reality. More so, they do not have an ecosystem to explore themselves and their ideas. We all have an inner voice and we need a place to say things out loud. Young people need a place where they can express themselves.”
Designing experiential learning to create empathetic leaders
In its early days, Youth Alliance worked on addressing these issues by creating Lead The Change, a 5-week volunteering & leadership programme for 18-25 year old youth. Participants visited NGOs, learnt about their work and got involved in action projects. After learning from this experience, Youth Alliance launched Gramya Manthan, a 10-day rural immersion journey where youth visit a village, live with the community, learn about the issues affecting them and work together on solutions.
“Through Gramya Manthan, we wanted to encourage doing which was the missing piece. We wanted to prepare young people to work in the development sector by observing issues faced by rural communities,” he says. Currently in its 10th edition, Gramya Manthan happens twice a year.
Today Youth Alliance has a team of 10 full-time staff members who work out of their main office in New Delhi and also operate in Kanpur, Ahmedabad and Kutch. They also have a core team of 17 alumni volunteers who assist them with their activities.
This year Youth Alliance launched Earth Shastra, a bi-annual 9-day immersive journey which helps young change agents explore the relationship between ecology, economics and the human self. Located in a natural setting, the intensive journey invites young people to reconnect with nature, understand the larger economic system & its impact and encourages participants to build communities to initiate change.
Youth Alliance also organises leadership retreats for other organisations and provides constant support to their alumni. Today they have more than 650 alumni, out of which more than 220 work in the development sector, 26 have started their own enterprises and 63 have launched social initiatives. “Our alumni have strong bonds with us. They feel that Youth Alliance is a place where they can come back. Saturdays are always special because alumni can drop into our office in the second half of the day,” says Prakhar.
Finding friendship, community and support through ComMutiny
Prakhar became a Changelooms fellow in 2012. “The fellowship recognised Youth Alliance, acknowledged our work and provided us with financial support. I also met two of my dearest friends – Kuldeep Dantewadia and Gautam Gauri through the fellowship. We have great conversations about various issues and we advise and support one another. Kuldeep even helped me raise funds for my post graduation,” he says.
Prakhar sees CYC as a space for empowerment. He says:
“Youth organisations cannot solve problems alone. Therefore, they need to come together and collectivise. We have learnt facilitation and building frameworks from CYC. Ashraf has been a great support to us.
For Prakhar, the 5th space represents collective spirit which is not tied to any ideology. He says, “The 5th space is a space which allows the young to take ownership of it and shape it the way they want.”
Over the years, Prakhar was able to nurture the next line of leadership at his organisation. In 2018, he decided to explore a new path and handed over the baton to his co-worker Shashank Kalra, who is now the CEO of Youth Alliance.
These days Prakhar is pursuing a Masters in Public Administration at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). He says, “I came to SIPA to understand the academic side of democracy and policy frameworks. After my studies, I plan to return to India and establish Indian School of Democracy, an institution that envisions to nurture leaders who would be the epitome of principled leadership and would serve the nation with the idea of Antyodya.”
Prakhar and his co-founder Hemakshi intend to launch ISD in 2020 with the first cohort of 100 people for a year long program.
We hope that the stories of Zeeshan and Prakhar have encouraged you to explore your inner self and your relationship with the world around you. If you’re looking to start your journey to self-discovery, we recommend that you check out A Mini Guide to Self-Awareness for Young Leaders.