The Brick Project Conversations, Part Four: Allie and Anand

The Brick Project Conversations, Part Four: Allie and Anand

The Brick Project Conversations, Part FourAllie and Anand

Editor’s Note:

The following conversation between Stephanie “Allie”  Heckman and Anand Chandrasekaran is Part Four in a new series for Mezimbite Magazine entitled The Brick Project Conversations.

These conversations explore ideas that relate to education for children and the community building that nurtures and encourages progress in childhood education around the world.

The Brick Project will be re-launched in 2016.

The core premise of The Brick Project is the building of global school communities and the development of innovative multi-cultural curriculum within these communities in 4 subjects: History, Ecology, Art and Literature / Oral Storytelling.

To read more about the operational details of how The Brick Project concept works kindly visit this article link: []

I work with both Allie and Anand to develop and implement strategic plans for One World Children’s Fund, of which I am on the Board of Directors.

Allie is Executive Director and Anand is Chair of the Board of One World Children’s Fund.

About Allie

Originally from Scotland, Allie holds an MA in Philosophy, Psychology, and International Politics from the University of Edinburgh.

She has more than 15 years experience in international non-profit development and management. Most recently, Allie lead development efforts with the International Rescue Committee as Regional Development Manager for Northern California. In the UK, she led the development program for Africa Now, a non-profit which supports grassroots organizations in sub-Saharan Africa, and worked on fundraising initiatives for Amnesty International.

In 2002, Allie spent most of the year in Rwanda, where she coordinated an education program for high school students in the Lake Kivu region. She has traveled and worked across Latin America and Africa, including  Bolivia, Guatemala, Rwanda, and Uganda and just returned from a site visit to One World’s Partner, People First, in Bihar, India.

About Anand

Originally from India, Anand holds a M.S. in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University, a Bachelors in Engineering from PSG College of Technology (India) and has completed the Global Leadership Program at Harvard University.

In 2001 he co-founded Aeroprise Inc., which became the most deployed mobility tool for service management worldwide and was acquired by BMC Software (NYSE: BMC). Anand is currently a product leader at Yahoo! and formerly was at Openwave Systems & MyToday SMS.

In 2010, Anand was selected by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader. Anand is also a Venture Advisor at Storm Ventures, a $500M VC firm and has been an board member to several private companies.

Editor: Allie and Anand: as you know The Brick Project is about building a global community of school children, as well as children who are marginalized by society, such as the kinds of children you both work with in Bodhgaya in Bihar, India or in Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya.

Could you both kindly explain your experience in dealing with the current challenges of empowering children around the world; how both of your complimentary cultural backgrounds and skill sets are deployed in meeting these challenges, and what your strategic vision is for the future of One World Children’s Fund?

Allie: Thank you Karim for such a great question. I am delighted to have the opportunity to start this conversation. The world is so connected these days – through migration, travel, and technology and One World Children’s Fund truly represents a global community working together to serve the world’s children. As immigrants ourselves from diverse backgrounds both professionally and culturally, I think it is important for Anand and I to have this conversation.

So thank you. Let me start by saying my role in serving children around the world is driven by my experience in global philanthropy:

I am not a teacher. I was not raised in the United States. I studied Psychology, Philosophy, and Politics – or, to put it more concisely – human nature. So, my experience with education is seen through the eyes of someone raised in Scotland and privately educated from the age of 4 thru 16. From day one, I was expected to go to University – and so I did.

From day one, I was expected to go to University – and so I did.

— Allie

When you talk of challenges facing families and children around the world, I immediately think of access to education as opposed to curriculum, teaching styles etc.  Just being raised with the expectation and ability to attend school will have a profound effect on your future. I hope I do not take the opportunities that were handed to me for granted.

When I think of One World Children’s Fund, and our strategic vision, I think of an organization that is creating a world where every child has access to education. Every child deserves the opportunity to learn and build their best future. This should not be dictated by where and when you are born. What really drew me to One World Children’s Fund is this focus on community and respect. You mention our work with People First in India and St. Vincent’s in Kibera, Kenya. In both instances, we listen to the community leaders; Nick and Deepak (in India), and Lucy (in Kenya) respectively. What are the challenges the families are facing?

Is it security, lack of food, shelter, poor health – and how can we work together to eradicate these barriers?  In fact, these questions are what compelled me to travel to Anand’s home country, India, recently and to visit Nick and Deepak, the founders of People First.

Anand: Allie is right on – one of our values (that the board always strives to adhere to in key decisions) is that local communities are in the best position to solve their own problems – even if they need support and resources to accomplish things.

We pick programs and leaders who already espouse this philosophy, and we heavy-heartedly say ‘no’ to programs or champions who do not take advantage of the local communities and their say on key issues – education, healthcare, caregiving, security, opportunity, and so forth.

It has been our privilege to support leaders like Dr. Wanjiru Rutenberg of Akili Dada (Kenya), Nick and Deepak from People First (India) and Elena from Petisos (Argentina) in their amazing journeys. They’ve received incredible recognition from the White House, President of India, CNN (Hero) and so forth, and we are glad to have believed in their stories and dreams of creating change in their communities.

We are so happy to go on this journey with them, and as one of them said –

“be the wind beneath their wings!”

Editor: In the previous discourse: The Brick Project Conversations, Part Two, of this series, Harvard professor, and author of “Educating Children in Conflict Zones”, Sarah Dryden-Peterson, says this about her research of children who have experienced conflict:

“The concept of children trying to imagine a future, especially coming out of a situation of conflict where the future was so uncertain, seemed essential to me.”

Currently, a country of grave conflict and subsequent displacement of children is in Democratic Republic of Congo. Allie, I recently attended a presentation by you and representatives of CAMME (Centre d’Appui en faveur des Mineurs Mal Exploites):

CAMME is one of the organizations One World supports. Your presentation addressed the issue of children in the Congo – many of whom were in conflict zones. Can you please explain what CAMME does, why it does what it does, why OWCF supports this initiative?

Allie: Certainly, CAMME is an incredible organization with a mission and vision that is very dear to my heart. Founded by Christine Lunanga, her brother Stewart Lunanga, and her uncle Pascal Bashombana, CAMME works in extremely challenging circumstances in the Kivu region of Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. CAMME provides almost 500 children with the essential tools they need to build a future for themselves.

They are providing meals, literacy training, vocational training in mechanics, sewing, and carpentry, access to healthcare and social services, counseling, arts and cultural classes, and most importantly: a safe environment to play, learn and grow.

When people hear the words “Democratic Republic of Congo”, images of war, violence, rape, addiction, and child soldiers are what usually come to mind.

With Goma, where CAMME is based, recently receiving the unfortunate distinction of being the rape capital of the world, there is reason behind these associations. However, I think it is equally important to remember the other side of the picture: There are thousands of men, women, and children going to work, studying, getting married, having children, living regular lives. Behind all the headlines, there is a generation growing up.

Education is a tool to improve the future for a generation – not just an individual right.

— Allie

Children are trying to go to school, heal physical and emotional wounds, and have a safe place to grow and develop so that they can lead the country in a different direction.

In the conversation between Sarah and Jackson that you refer to above, Jackson talks of how, after receiving an education he could not ignore the ongoing injustices in his own village.

His education taught more than the simple lessons learned.

Education brought alive his compassion and called him to action. He now provides shelter and education for children who were affected by the conflict and violence in Uganda. CAMME, and many other of One World’s grassroots partners, share a similar story.

Pascal, Christine, and Stewart were compelled to ensure the children living in their community were able to have access to the same opportunities they had benefited from. Now, today, they see the same determined fight for justice in the children they are educating.

As a recent CAMME graduate told Pascal:

“I want to be a teacher. I want to educate others for free, just like CAMME has done for me”.

Again and again I see this happen.

Each time, it reminds me of the value of community and education. Education is a tool to improve the future for a generation – not just an individual right.

One World strives to partner with organizations and people like CAMME, because we believe in long term partnerships. When you are working to improve the lives of children, you have to be there for the long term.

All children need consistent care, support and love from family, friends, teachers, and mentors in order to feel safe, grow confident, and ultimately succeed. For children being raised surrounded by conflict, I can only imagine this need is even greater.

Volunteers at People First Educational Charitable Trust in Bihar, India

It is important to look past the stereotypes and the hype. We need to listen and talk to each other. Countries are changing.

Our hopes and dreams as men, women, and children are not.

— Allie

Editor: Allie and Anand, If you take a look at the opening presentation of the old Brick Project website, you will notice that the premise of The Brick Project is to build global school communities between those in developing nations and those in developed nations.

The general purpose of these communities is to break down cultural stereotypes and raise cultural awareness. The specific purpose of these communities is to develop multi-cultural school curriculum.

Allie and Anand, it intrigues me that this essential dynamic plays out in both of your lives:

Anand, you are a person from a developing country (India) who now lives in a developed country (USA). And Allie, you are a person from a developed country (Scotland) who has recently traveled – for the first time – to India (a developing country).

Allie, could you kindly launch the dialogue with Anand by describing your recent experiences and insights while traveling in Anand’s homeland? Of course, a vital component would be for you to describe your interactions with Nick and Deepak during your recent visit to Bihar.

All children found on streets and railway platforms of Gaya Railway station are cared for by People First Rescue Center.

That is 500+ children a year. — Allie

Allie: It’s interesting to recount, actually. My first visit to India, and I travel with my colleague, Katie Boswell and stay with People First’s co-Founder Nick Hansen, both from the UK.

So, my first week in India included a full English breakfast and marmite on the dinner table! So I in fact, spent most of my two weeks assessing the similarities between India and Scotland, India and the United States, and Scotland and the United States. I can easily say that I met ‘two Indias’ (and there are probably more)…

One ‘India’ was connected to the United States through technology, aspirations of wealth, and a spirit of entrepreneurship.

The other ‘India’ felt more British, but an antiquated British. Stuck in an outdated class system, with archaic language, and what I could only describe as an offensive treatment of women. In my first few days, I realized that India is complex and rapidly changing.

Bihar was also an abrupt introduction to India.

Bodhgaya is an incredibly important city, yet it is also an abused and neglected city. Large cement cylinders sat by the roadside, a reminder of a distant promise to install a drainage system to a rapidly growing city.

Temples, schools, hotels are all being built at an incredible rate. All the while, large pools (some the size of small lakes) of thick, dingy, brown water run off from the building complexes fester with rubbish and weeds, at an alarmingly close proximity to schools and people’s homes. I often found myself wondering who cared about some of the tragic situations you see on a day to day basis.

Fortunately, working with Deepak, Nick and the community around People First, I was able to meet people who do more than care. They have dedicated their lives to improving the situation. The staff at People First are patient and committed in their approach to educating and rescuing children in and around Gaya, Bihar. Their approach works. They have gained the trust and cooperation of local families, children, social services, police and government officials.

Local communities are in the best position to solve their own problems – even if they need support and resources. — Anand

As I said earlier, India is a complicated country so, I imagine this was no easy feat.  I also believe that it is only with this approach that impoverished children will access education. With regards to their rescue center, we have already seen the success of this collaborative effort.

All children found on the streets and railway platforms of Gaya Railway station are now cared for through People First Rescue Center. That is 500+ children a year. The government has noticed and there are now plans to replicate these services across the state of Bihar.

The idea of replicating realistic models of access to education has global implications. For example, People First and  CAMME, at their core, reflect children’s needs across the world.

It also demonstrates a common thread through all families – parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents. We all see education as a path to opportunity. We all value educating the next generation. I spoke in the beginning of my parents expecting me to be educated – this value of education is universal – in India, United States, Scotland…

This is something that unites us.

I feel so fortunate to be working every day with the very best of humanity. A global team of men, women, and children who are dedicated to ensuring every child has an education.

It is important to look past the stereotypes and the hype. We need to listen and talk to each other. We are all people. Countries are changing. Challenges being faced are changing. Our hopes and dreams as men, women, and children are not.

I recall Wanjiru Kamau Rutenberg, Founder of our Partner Akili Dada in Kenya saying:

“Imagine the world was only ever going to know one thing about you. And that one thing was the worst thing about you.”

That is what happens when you only read the headlines.

The world is now set up in a way to facilitate this global conversation, so I think it is an exciting time to re-launch the Brick Project.

Anand: I love Allie’s perspectives and stories from her trip to India.

One of the biggest takeaways for me is the amazing dreams kids have there, from my own experience having grown up in India. It’s no smaller in scale than that of any kid who went to Harvard or Stanford. But you notice also that many of them didn’t win the birth lottery – they end up having to fend for themselves and often care for their family or siblings at a very young age. Even more unfortunately, they sometimes don’t even get the basic security as well as food and shelter. This stands between them and their dreams, but it doesn’t dampen them any!

I am so glad Allie and Katie got to see these children and their dreams and aspirations first hand in India, after last year’s trip to Nicaragua. Once you know the names and stories, they stick with you. And now, you know who you are fighting for.

These are the communities who are our partners in this effort to create a better life for the children. And for us to have been a part of them and heard their story (even for a few days) is a huge honor for us.

The amazing dreams kids have in India is no smaller in scale than that of any kid who went to Harvard or Stanford — Anand

Editor: Allie and Anand, thank you both for your generosity in giving us these insights.

Anand, as you just said, kids in India have “amazing dreams” that are “no smaller in scale than that of any kid who went to Harvard or Stanford”.

You and I, Anand, were once Indian kids “who went to Harvard and Stanford”.

Moreover, I know you feel the same kinship I do when we both hear reports of Indian children that Allie speaks about in this interview – Allie says of Nick and Deepak’s work:

“All children found on the streets and railway platforms of Gaya Railway station are now cared for through People First Rescue Center. That is 500+ children a year.”

You and I, Anand, could easily have been one of those “500+ children”.

Kathiawar village in Gujarat, India at the time Karim’s grandfather was a boy

I know in my own case, having had conversations with my grandfather who was orphaned at the age of ten years old, in the village of Kathiawar in the state of Gujarat in India; that has it not been for circumstances that had more to do with chance and events rather than industry and earnestness, I could well have ended up being one of those children at a railway station that Nick and Deepak work so hard to rescue from human trafficking.

For those like you and me, who are grew up in developing countries and have a Western education, it is only our hubris and a false sense of entitlement that might delude us into thinking that we are “different” from the children which One World works with around the world.

However, when we confront the fragile and fleeting nature of circumstances in our Indian family histories, we find that all of us are just a slender sliver of separation from each other.

The concept of “one world” becomes real and substantial when we dismantle economic and social norms and realize we could easily have been the children One World serves in India.

That’s a sobering thought: one that comes with a sense of responsibility for you and I to leverage our education at Harvard and Stanford in ways that complete the circle.

Allie: Karim, can you expand upon what you have just suggested about how you and Anand “leverage” your “education at Harvard and Stanford in ways that complete the circle”?

Also, could you describe please, a little about your own grandfather’s life in village India. This is of interest to me since I just visited India and want to learn more.

In the context of children, such as the children I visited in Bihar with People First, I am thinking a lot about the word ‘opportunity’. How does one cultivate and harness opportunity? How did your grandfather cultivate opportunity from village India? How did his harnessing opportunities then have a generational impact as they trickled down to your generation?

Editor: Allie, there are two converging perspectives from which to address your question – a personal level and a policy level:

By a ‘personal level’, I mean an individual level, such as the case of my own grandfather who was born poor in village India. By a ‘policy level’, I mean governmental initiatives and innovations that are part of an educational policy vision of a country.

On a personal level, my grandfather was born poor in a small village in Kathiawar, Gujarat.

He became orphaned at a young age. Fortunately, he had compassionate relatives that took him in and looked after him and that emboldened him to look about the world for opportunities to better his life. However, he and his relatives all bobbed precariously above or below the poverty line, just like so many millions of Indians in the over 700,000 villages in rural India.

Just as I emigrated from East Africa to America – because America was the land of opportunity for immigrants like me – my grandfather, in his day, emigrated from British India to British East Africa which had opportunities for pioneering Indians who had nothing to lose. Although literate, my grandfather had a 5th grade education having left school at age 10.

As a schoolboy, I watched my grandfather’s painstaking struggle to read the English language newspaper at the kitchen table – he had hardly a 5th grade education, and was barely literate, having left school in village India at age ten to go to work.

— Karim

My grandfather was very much a Gandhian, embracing the values of frugality and austerity.

I recall how as a schoolboy I watched his painstaking struggle to read the English language newspaper at the kitchen table – looking up words in his tattered Gujarati-English dictionary.

As a young immigrant from India, he ventured into the hinterland in British East Africa and became a dukkawalla (shopkeeper) selling sundry items and scraping together a meagre living to support his family. Education was important to him since he did not have much himself.

He scraped together enough to send my dad to Shivaji Military School, a boarding school in Pune, India where he worked hard and won a full scholarship to Wadia College in Pune.

In the subsequent generation, I also received the opportunity to work hard at school and I eventually won a full scholarship to Harvard University. We were not well-off – I attended public high schools – but we had the opportunity to work toward a scholarship if we tried. This is my aspiration for all children we work with at One World – to offer them a hand-up not a hand-out.

This brings me to the policy level of governmental initiatives:

As a student in India, my dad was fond of frequenting the rallies of the very eloquent, Cambridge University educated Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India. Nehru loved to talk to student gatherings and inspire them to study hard and build the newly independent, modern India. He also wanted to create educational policy with a lasting legacy.

Nehru’s post Indian Independence policy vision was the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT).

The Indian Institute(s) of Technology (IIT)

Just as the Peace Corps was not the brainchild of President John F. Kennedy (it was Sargent Shriver’s), IIT was not the brainchild of Nehru (it was Sir Ardeshir Dalal’s).

However, had not President Kennedy nor Prime Minister Nehru invested their political capital into pushing these pioneering policies through, there would be no Peace Corps and no IIT.

When I was at graduate school at MIT (upon which IIT is modeled), many of my Indian friends at MIT had done their undergraduate work at IIT, India. Today, they are captains of industry back home and are playing their part to ensure that India is a player in the global economy.

This was precisely what Nehru had envisioned back in the post Independence (1947) India.

IIT graduates are building a legacy in the US too, such as: Subra Suresh (IIT, Madras) who is appointed by President Obama to head up the National Science Foundation; venture capitalist Vinod Khosla (IIT, Dehli) who helped found Sun Microsystems; Arun Sarin (IIT Kharagpur), the former CEO of Vodaphone and Dr. Brij Kathari (IIT, Kanpur) the president of PlanetRead.

If there is any doubt that Nehru intended for the educated and technocratic elite of India to apply their education to uplift those – especially children – living in extreme poverty and vulnerability then that doubt can be quelled for good by this example:

It was in the state of Bihar, in Champaran, that Gandhi began his satyagraha, the non-violent Indian Independence Movement. He was protesting on behalf of tens of thousands of indentured laborers and land serfs who were being oppressed by the British Raj and forced to grow indigo instead of food crops to sustain themselves. Their children suffered most of all.

The Champaran Satyagraha of Mahatma Gandhi in Bihar, India

When Nehru heard about this, he immediately called up all his college friends from his days at Cambridge University and had them go to Champaran, disguise themselves as land serfs and laborers. Nehru’s Cambridge classmates secretly, journalistically, documented this exploitation so that Gandhi could make a compelling case on behalf of the oppressed Bihari indigo farmers.

As he recruited them, Nehru implored his Cambridge University chums that their privileged education had little integrity unless it was devoted to a higher purpose and a just cause.

In Sanskrit, there is a saying that education should not take the shape of a straight line – education should take the more holistic shape of a circle.

It is not simply a trajectory toward upward social mobility and economic opulence, but a pathway toward “circling back” – toward empowering those (like the children at People First whom you recently met in India, Allie) that also yearn for the opportunity of a better life.

That is essentially what Anand and I are striving to demonstrate.

We are leveraging our knowledge base and our skill sets which we honed at Stanford and Harvard and we are redirecting all of that back (circling it back) to children in developing countries whose visions for a better life deserve to be fully realized. That is only natural.

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