Around the Institute

#MyAspenAction: Educating 100,000 Indian Girls

November 20, 2014

Above, watch India Leadership Initiative Fellow Manoj Kumar explain his Action Pledge.

The Aspen Action Forum is an annual event designed to connect Aspen Global Leadership Network Fellows as well as other action-oriented leaders from Aspen Institute programs and partners and spur them to move “from thought to action.” Each participant at the Aspen Action Forum is asked to make an “Action Pledge” — a public commitment to do something about a societal challenge of their choosing. More than 500 Action Pledges have been made since the inaugural event in 2013. Read below for a Q&A with one of our Fellows about his own Action Pledge.

At last year’s Aspen Action Forum, India Leadership Initiative Fellow Manoj Kumar pledged to educate 100,000 girls in India by 2020 through a program which places underprivileged girls in schools and equips them with uniforms, books, shoes, and other needed supplies. He has already well-exceeded his pledge in a little over a year , reaching more than 100,100 girls. While this program continues, Manoj has committed to a new and equally ambitious pledge for this year: to plant more than one million fruit trees in the remote Araku Valley. 

Aspen Idea: What about your approach to equipping girls with what they need to attend school is working when so many other interventions often seem to fall short?

Manoj Kumar: There are two primary reasons why our model works:

  1. We work with the entire community of men, women, boys, and girls for months before we enroll all the girls in the community into schools. It’s an inclusive, community-based approach.
  2. The girls are all given private academic lessons after school to ensure they score very well in all exams. This academic support is supplemented by direct support to all the girls in the form of their uniform, shoes, books, bags, etc. We call it dignity with academic support.

AI: Tell me a story of one person who has been transformed by the work you are doing.

MK: Hundreds of girls have done exceedingly well in studies and in life. All have life-transforming stories. Scores of them have attained rare feats of excellence including topping exams in their district. Lomeshwari is one such girl. She is from a village in the southern part of Chhattisgarh state in India. This region is notorious, for the last 20 years or so, as the center of a large armed insurgency movement called the Naxal movement. Inhabited by poverty-stricken indigenous people, this region is very backward, with almost no development — mostly forested, hardly any roads, schools, or hospitals. After enrolling in our program, Lomeshwari began attending school for the first time in her life and became a dedicated student. She performed the best in her class in her 5th grade exams and won an academic scholarship. Watch a short film on Lomeshwari’s story here.

AI: Tell me about your pledge for this year to plant one million fruit trees in the Araku Valley. Why are you taking that on and how will you accomplish it?

MK: Araku Valley is nested amidst the Eastern Ghats mountain range in India and is a scenic place that is also a facade to the poverty of the indigenous population and rapidly disappearing forest cover. It is here that my India Leadership Initiative project, Araku Originals, took shape — to grow organic/biodynamic coffee and market it to Europe, Japan, Korea, and the US. The work made me a John P. McNulty Prize laureate and that has spurred me to do more. A few years ago, we decided to plant fruit trees and have already planted three million so far. In the next year, as an Action Pledge I will plant an additional one million fruit trees.

AI: How has the Aspen Global Leadership Network and the Action Forum inspired you?

MK: The AGLN Fellows and their stories inspire me to raise the bar. It’s an organic steroid that keeps getting the better of me. Better still, it has no side effects; only total satisfaction that you made your life even more meaningful.

Check our playlist of #MyAspenAction Pledge Stories for more like this one. A new clip will be released each week through the fall until the 2015 Aspen Action Forum in July.  

Caitlin Colegrove is the network and communications manager for the Aspen Global Leadership Network.