In conversation with Samina Bano, Founder & CEO at RightWalk Foundation
1. Samina, drawing from the multiple disadvantages you have faced since an early life, can you delve into the challenges you've encountered as a founder, reflect on the ways you've surmounted these challenges, and elaborate on the methods you've employed to nurture resilience as you've embarked on your entrepreneurial path?
Delving into the development sector, particularly within the domain of public policies, presented a unique set of challenges that profoundly influenced my journey as an entrepreneur in the public welfare policy domain. Working with the aim of ensuring essential rights for the marginalized, brought me face to face with tough resistance from both individuals and institutions. These challenges not only demanded innovative solutions but also required the cultivation of unwavering resilience.
One of the most prominent challenges I encountered was navigating the intricate landscape of public policy and advocacy. The complexities of government procedures and functioning sometimes pose barriers to progress. To overcome this challenge, I embarked on an intensive educational journey, leveraging my engineering background and my status as an IIM-B alumnus as a solid foundation. In addition, I quietly pursued fellowships, delved into extensive reading, engaged in profound discussions with domain experts, and sought invaluable guidance from mentors. These deliberate actions equipped me with the knowledge and insights necessary to not only comprehend but also effectively address the nuanced issues within the public welfare sector.
In the face of bureaucratic obstacles or individuals/institutions hindering the delivery of rightful policy benefits to the eligible citizens, legal interventions became a necessary tool to break through. Patience and strategic thinking played a pivotal role in ensuring that our mission continued moving forward. These experiences reinforced the importance of adapting to adversity while preserving an unwavering belief in our cause.
Another formidable challenge lay in fostering trust and collaboration within the marginalized communities we aimed to serve. Building relationships and partnerships demanded qualities like empathy, active listening, and a flexible approach to accommodate the unique needs of each community. This endeavor required resilience of a different kind, as it meant persevering through complex social dynamics and constantly adjusting our strategies to create meaningful change.
Collaboration emerged as a key approach not only within communities but also with various stakeholders, including bureaucracy, political leaders, and organizations. These collaborations served as a strategic means to mitigate risks and challenges.
As a leader, I recognized that resilience needed to be a constant companion. Challenges, setbacks, and moments of self-doubt were intrinsic to the policy entrepreneurial landscape. I reframed these obstacles as opportunities for growth rather than roadblocks. Learning from failure, innovating in the face of adversity, and unwavering commitment to our mission were the essential methods I employed to nurture and embody resilience throughout this transformative journey.
Lastly, I never let gender / disability be a crutch to achieve RightWalks goals. We were acknowledged by senior leaders in bureaucracy, politics, civil society for the quality, innovation and commitment we delivered to our goal. Till date, many of these senior leaders acknowledge our work and we maintain a strong professional relationship which has nothing to do with either gender or my disability. At the graduation ceremony held in April 2023 for graduating students of Class 8, in Lucknow, many of these renowned personalities attended and celebrated our success, which was well covered in the press.
2. RightWalk Foundation's achievement of enabling over 600,000 children in Uttar Pradesh to access education through Right To Education (RTE) is truly remarkable. Can you share the key strategies that have contributed to this success, and what are RWF's aspirations for harnessing RTE's potential to a greater extent in the future?
Our key strategies for this success include:
- Community engagement: We empower local communities and parents to actively participate in their children's education, fostering trust and collaboration.
- Advocacy and awareness: We raise awareness about the RTE Act, educating parents, schools, and local authorities to increase enrolment and school participation.
- Governance collaboration: We work closely with government agencies to align our efforts with policies and efficiently deliver education services.
- Social Inclusion training to Schools: The success of section 12(1)(C) of the RTE Act, 2009 is highly dependent on the inclusive practices and pedagogical techniques used by the private schools for seamless integration of children from the economically weaker sections in their schools. However, these schools were not equipped for the same. We conducted Social Inclusion Workshops to enhance the capacities of private schools on inclusive pedagogical techniques thereby ensuring the effective implementation of section 12(1) (C).
Total 2,000 teachers were trained on social inclusion by RightWalk in partnership with UNICEF
- Innovative tech solutions and creating Public Goods: We use technology for data-driven decision-making, monitoring, and evaluation to scale our impact and increase transparency. This included a state portal developed for the UP government which received the best portal award by the government in 2020. This portal has subsequently been handed over to the UP government in a successfully operating state.
RTE Scholars Fund: The RTE Act is applicable for kids till class 8th. To address the challenge of continued education for eligible students beyond 8th grade under RTE 12.1.c, we have established the RTE Scholars Fund. The RTE Scholars Fund will cover 50-200 students in UP for a period of 4 years (9th-12th grade) for their school fees, books, travel, uniform and mentoring support to enable these kids to successfully complete the school education. The fund is open and philanthropic contributions are being sought from philanthropic sources.
Our Aspirations include:
- Expanding our reach nationwide - we have already started work in Gujarat, our second RTE state, while exploring for the third.
- Increasing learning outcomes based on “EPINC“: We have developed an App “EPINC” in collaboration with Prof Anuj Kumar, Florida University, focussed on increasing learning outcomes in school going kids, based on peer based-learning, given the shortage of teachers in Indian schools. A pilot is in progress.
- India wide RWF owned tech portal : In addition to the State portals at each state which will be set up on the basis of our successful experience in UP, we are exploring using FOSS (free open source software suitably customized) to set up a RIghtWalk owned modular portal across all geographies enabling a) data aggregation and information access via Dashboard b) enabling multiple logins for local implementation partners and community volunteers for outreach, awareness & training c) enhanced on-ground community engagement d) Registration of kids and schools to enable coordinating PASS (post admission support system) programs and EPINC. This will enable expansion and impact at scale vs one state at a time
- PMU at the Centre We are in conversations with the government at the Centre to facilitate the above expansion using design thinking to create impact at scale, via a potential PMU at the centre.
3. Youth unemployment is a significant concern in India. What specific measures does RWF have in place to ensure that the Apprenticeship Project makes a meaningful impact in reducing youth unemployment? What are your aspirations?
Apprenticeship Project delivers a meaningful impact in reducing unemployment in youth via:
- Holistic skill development and employability: In addition to technical skills, we prioritize soft skills such as communication, problem-solving, teamwork, practical skills, exposure to industry-specific challenges, and mentorship, equipping young individuals to be job-ready. and thereby enhancing their employability. This comprehensive training empowers youth to get selected for apprenticeship roles in an interview process and subsequently thrive in professional settings.
- Facilitating access to opportunities for youth: To mobilize youth towards policy benefits, our Policy Management Unit at the state and dedicated ground teams work together by engaging with institutions, communities, and eligible youth to ensure they can effectively access apprenticeship placements, ensuring a seamless transition into the workforce.
- Partnering with industry / businesses: We offer apprenticeship opportunities across diverse sectors. We actively engage with businesses and industry leaders to register on the NAPS portal thereby providing opportunities for youth on the portal. We create apprenticeship opportunities and advocate for youth employment policies, closing the gap between aspiring youth and industries seeking skilled talent.
- Tech and Data based outreach for apprentices: On the basis of detailed district wise data we outreach for recruitments in those districts where there is a higher prevalence of skills as required for the roles required. This focussed outreach enables efficient and fast onboarding of youth. In addition, we're working on enhancing the existing tech solutions and developing appropriate tech interventions to optimize the policy impact. These interventions will streamline the apprenticeship matching process, enhance training, and expand access to opportunities for youth. Collaborations with organizations and individuals are actively pursued to create a community of changemakers, aiming for exponential impact in addressing youth unemployment.
- Our goals: Over the next three years, we aim to provide 5 lakh youth with apprenticeship opportunities. To achieve this, we are actively creating partnerships with government agencies, strengthening institutional frameworks, and deepening our engagement with industries to scale our impact.
4. Lastly, could you elaborate on the insights or lessons you've gained through your engagements with a variety of stakeholders, including private schools, bureaucracy, and the governments, in the context of your efforts related to RTE and the Apprenticeship Project?
Collaboration stands as the bedrock of our approach, elucidating the transformative power that arises from unifying efforts across a spectrum of stakeholders. Our interactions with private schools, government bodies, and bureaucratic entities have demonstrated the immense potential harnessed through collaboration. This ethos not only amalgamates diverse strengths but also consolidates resources, forging a unified front in pursuit of our mission. Our active engagement with communities and parents exemplifies our grassroots approach, cultivating trust and fostering active involvement, especially among economically disadvantaged segments of society. This underscores the pivotal role of community engagement in reshaping the entire landscape, ultimately advancing the cause of equality of opportunity for all.
One pivotal lesson we have discerned is the imperative to bridge the chasm between policy formulation and the practical execution on the ground. This challenge is further compounded by the paucity of government officials available to facilitate policy implementation. In response, our strategic collaboration with the Government, rather than the creation of parallel structures, has emerged as a key catalyst in overcoming this obstacle. By offering essential support, we fortify existing systems, enhancing their resilience and responsiveness to the needs of marginalized communities. This approach, rooted in systems thinking, enables us to address the root causes of educational and employment disparities, fostering lasting change rather than merely addressing surface-level issues.
Our collaborative efforts extend beyond Governmental bodies to encompass communities and like-minded organizations, reflecting our commitment to systems-level change. This holistic approach empowers us to navigate intricate challenges more effectively and to align our initiatives seamlessly with broader policy frameworks. I believe these learnings keep us steadfast in achieving our goal of long-term societal transformation by addressing the systemic underpinnings of inequality present in the society.