Kanthari Change Makers

Updated: Aug 20, 2020

A few weeks ago we [Not Your Newspaper] were pleasantly surprised to receive a mail from Sabriye Tenberken. Sabriye is the founder of Braille Without Borders, the first school for the blind in Tibet. In her mail, Sabriye wrote to us about kanthari [spelled with a small 'k'], a leadership training program started by her and her partner Paul Kronenberg, for social change makers.

“A kanthari is a very small, but extremely spicy and powerful chili, for us the perfect symbol for a change maker!”

kanthari, which is a Thiruvanthapuram-based organisation, offers a 12-month scholarship program to equip young visionaries with the tools to start and run their own NGO or social venture. kanthari's change makers are usually situated at the margins of society. These go-getters have overcome adversity and because of that are driven to start a social venture.

Sabriye and Paul have found global recognition for their initiative. Sabriye has been nominated for some of the world's most prestigious awards. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. Sabriye has also been named Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum and cited as Oprah's personal choice on her show “Eight Women Oprah Wants You to Know". She was also awarded a Mother Teresa award.

An example of a kanthari graduate is Sadhana Nayak from Odissa. Towards the end of her college education, Sadhana was sexually abused. Like many other victims of sexual violence, she was forced to marry her abuser; this was the beginning of years of mental, emotional, and physical abuse. After 6 years of marriage, her husband filed for divorce. Sadhana’s experiences at home and at her workplace prompted her to work towards societal change. In 2017, she started Sadhan, which is a non-governmental, not-for-profit organisation working to redress violence against women, and improve the lives of the marginal communities of Odissa. Sadhana says that kanthari helped her "gather more knowledge… gave me more strength and courage to address violence against women issues.”

We got in touch with kanthari graduates Aparna Gopan and Meghana Raveendra. Aparna is the founder of 'Elefant In The Room', a movement which runs theme-based campaigns against taboos like sex education, sustainable menstruation and female genital mutilation, among others. Meghana is the founder of Moringa, which aims to transform the current mainstream education system into one that is more child centered.

Aparna and Meghana shared their experiences at kanthari, and how they were able to use what they learned in their respective social ventures.

Aparna writes:

“My name is Aparna Gopan, I am the founder of “Elefant in the Room”. It is a provocative movement which runs theme-based campaigns against taboos like sex education, sustainable menstruation and female genital mutilation, to name a few. We have run campaigns in South Indian cities of Bangalore, Goa, Kochi, Kollam, Trivandrum, Hyderabad and a research on gender and reproductive rights in Kenya for an ongoing East-African project.

Recently, we started running a gendered cyber bullying campaign in Trivandrum [Thiruvananthapuram] with upcoming exhibitions in Sri Lanka and Thailand. Our campaign series are designed to provoke as we deal with subjects that are hard to build conversations around. So, we use diverse methods of engagement to target different audience groups through tailor made interventions and activities like “elefant library” and “elefant graffiti” projects.

I have been running this organisation since 2017, after completing my stint at kanthari. As a 2016 kanthari change maker, I was trained in diverse aspects of social entrepreneurship, especially fund-raising, project management, impact assessment and evaluation. However, most of my lessons come from the real-life stories of change and impact that each of the changemaker came to kanthari with. Their life lessons and the varied perspectives from across the globe that gets discussed in every participative session helped to shape my ideas about social impact and ethics.

The course at kanthari focuses a lot on experiential learning. As changemakers and human beings, the curriculum gives us a safe space to experiment and make mistakes. It gives us first hand experience of starting pilot projects in a controlled environment. Such projects further get continuous feedback from catalysts, fellow changemakers, volunteers and visiting subject-matter experts. As a result of the same, most of us come to kanthari with ideas that sometimes get transformed completely for the better as we leave the campus after 7 months. We even have an inside term for the process, coming out of the “washing machine”.

I have personally witnessed people going through a process of unlearning at the campus. With constant interaction and exchange of perspectives from peers across the globe, we get the chance to consider the intersectional complexities of the problems we deal with. We also get introduced to working solutions to problems elsewhere that can be adapted into our own solution models. That kind of exposure is hard to come by, in other organised set-ups.

I started the groundwork for my organisation as soon as I completed the course at kanthari, in 2016. When the initial concept of my organization was not working, I could use the tools we used at kanthari to transform my concept into something that’s need based and relevant for the communities I work with. Since then, I have been able to actively work on impact-oriented campaigns. Recently, I was the TedxSpeaker at the greatest Tedx event in Kerala and am working as a gender consultant for various government and startup organisations. And… I have friends across the developing world through the kanthari Almuni network which continues to act as an ecosystem for meaningful collaborations.” [sic]

Meghana shares her experience at kanthari, and of founding Moringa:

“What do you feel when you bite into a small chili? A bit of bitterness, a whole lot of spiciness, a tinge of sweetness and a base of rawness. This is exactly how we become as we graduate from kanthari.

I have always been a person who evolves through life experiences and kanthari has been one such [experience] that has transformed me into a different person. I have an anxiety disorder which began in school because of the expectations the education system sets on us and defines success based on the kind of job you get and money you earn. Thus, throughout my life I could never study at ease like most others do. I quit legal studies and decided to take a go at what I loved — teaching dance and volunteering to let myself learn from experiences instead of college or a university. So, when I was looking for a course where I could understand how to build a social venture, I realized it was not going to be easy in a country which thrives on mainstream education. I wanted a place where I could learn by experiencing and not just reading. I researched quite a bit and could not find any other course similar to what kanthari offers. I applied. Got through. And there has been no looking back since then.

I graduated from kanthari in 2019 and set up my social venture called Moringa — which aims to transform the current mainstream education into a system that is more child centered. The course at kanthari helped me arrive at this vision through its intensive curriculum during the first and second phase where I had to really dive deep to understand what the problem I really want to solve is? And is the solution that I am going to bring through my venture actually going to address that problem? What are ethics? I learnt how to let go and think out of the box without worrying about whether the solution fits into the rules made by the society or not. It is very important for a social change maker to be ethical and to fully understand the problem they want to solve. I can confidently say today, that I bring this clarity to my social venture, Moringa.

Another part of the course that I loved are the Hot Seats! Anyone who participates in the kanthari course is someone who has overcome their own adversities and who now wants to empower others who go through similar challenges. Hot seats are a platform where we are constantly asked critical questions and have to answer to a panel. Hot seats make us vulnerable, but they also build courage and resilience in us to go out and face the world. And this is something that has helped me immensely with not just my venture but also as an individual. It gave me the tag of being “Not everybody’s darling” which I still proudly wear. Thanks to these hot seats, I focus on research immensely, I prepare myself to be answerable to those who will question the need for transformation of the education system and hence the need for moringa as well.

My batch is almost at the end of this 12-month course. And through these tough times of pandemic, Paul, Sabriye, catalysts and mentors have constantly been in touch to support us participants with the challenges we are facing in running our organisations. Their constant motivation has helped me to also re-evaluate my projects, will they (still) make sense in post Covid 19 pandemic? Thanks to the tools that I was given at kanthari, I now know how to re-evaluate the situation and to adapt to the current need, and I am not afraid about such changes anymore. I have not seen or heard of any other institute providing such honest support, with all their heart.

I would like to quote Sabriye – co-founder of kanthari as I end this article, “When you fear, think of how it can be used positively. Fear also means being alert, full of energy and adrenaline.” This was one of many great take-aways.

kanthari is truly a place where a small chili like me has learnt to make a huge difference.” [sic]

kanthari is welcoming applications from young change makers. Applicants must be at least 22 years of age, speak and understand basic English and possess computer skills. To know more about kanthari, or apply for the program visit http://www.kanthari.org/about-us/kanthari-at-a-glance/

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