More than 20 years ago, 10 friends were performing street theater in Delhi and trading radical ideas as university students. Following a natural disaster the group went to help with relief and met Babe Amte, a lawyer turned activist working closely with people suffering from leprosy. Inspired by his work and mission – one that stated even those greatly disadvantaged can manage on their own, without charity – the group of university friends decided then and there to commit to a life of empowering others.
This group of 10 inspired people became the founders of Samaj Pragati Sahayog, the organization where I am interning this summer. Last Thursday Aashna (my fellow UPenn comrade) and I met a few of these members for the first time. They told us stories of how they came to work in a remote, rural area of central India, where they have committed to improved livelihoods of the most poor and marginalized individuals – mostly women working as small farmers. We also met some of SPS’ 200 employees (mostly young men, some women) and various interns from around India. This past week we have been learning about the various programs that SPS has established over the years – a Watershed Management Programme, Micro-Lending Groups (Self Help Groups), Sustainable Agriculture initiatives, and a Right to Food Programme geared towards children.
At the end of the day last Thursday, about 20 employees, including founding members and family, gathered outside around a small courtyard. With the seriousness and passion that they seem to engage in their work, they quickly involved us in a game of “Seven Stone,” where we stood around a circle hurling a tennis ball at a small stack of flat rocks. The same spirit of playfulness that led the initial group to street theater remains with them, and their energy is contagious. As I spend more time with the organization, I am excited to gain a better understanding of their work, their goals, and the games that keep them grounded.