Wednesday, September 28, 2011

the God in us - a tribute to Wangari Maathai

Wangari Muta Maathai (1940-2011)

"I don't really know why I care so much. I just have something inside me that tells me that there is a problem, and I have got to do something about it. I think that is what I would call the God in me.

All of us have a God in us, and that God is the spirit that unites all life, everything that is on this planet.

It must be this voice that is telling me to do something, and I am sure it's the same voice that is speaking to everybody on this planet — at least everybody who seems to be concerned about the fate of the world, the fate of this planet."

-Wangari Maathai
Environmentalist and womens' rights activist
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, 2004
Founder, the Green Belt Movement

..And also,

-Nikhil Sheth
Teach for India Fellow, 2011-13

(hey, she's literally spoken my mind! No kidding!!)

Wangari Mathaai proved that we can all make a difference in saving the planet, and that we don't need huge resources at our disposal to lead the way.

Photo and words peacefully adopted from this album on 's facebook page:

The Golden Cage

Here is an interesting email forward, and then below it is my unsolicited opinion!

My Degree Isn't Worth the Debt!

Facing college costs that are rising far faster than incomes, many Americans are relying on massive amounts of debt.
We talked to people overloaded with student loans.

Courtesy: Erik Solecki
Erik Solecki
Student debt: $185,000
Bachelor's in industrial engineering from Kettering University
Was my college degree worth it? Hell no.
I graduated from one of the top engineering schools in the nation, thinking my starting salary would be between $70,000 and $80,000 a year.
Such a specialized, technical degree is supposed to lead to a great career, so I was willing to take out the debt.
Instead, I was hit with nine months of unemployment after graduating. And now that I finally have a job, I'm making about $15,000 a year less than I had hoped.
Even if I were able to afford the $1,800 payments each month, it will probably take me 30 years to pay off my student loans.
I engineer high-end autos. Ironically, I'll probably never be able to afford one.

Courtesy: Saniquah Robinson
Saniquah Robinson
Student debt: $82,000
Degrees: Master's in Health Science from Chatham University; Bachelor's in psychology from Temple University
After holding my Master's for three years, I'm still fighting to find a Master's level position.
I have been seeking employment in the medical field and after about a hundred interviews, I'm left doing contract work for $19 an hour.
I once believed that part of the American Dream was to earn a college education and this would ensure a great career and financial freedom. Unfortunately I am losing hope.
I'm a mother of three, and my husband and I have been turned down from purchasing a home due to our income-to-debt ratio.
I don't want people to think they shouldn't go to college -- it definitely gives you a great foundation to start your career. But it's very important that when you do, you know exactly what you want to study and you're knowledgeable about debt.

Courtesy: Shane Dixon
Shane Dixon
Student debt: $72,800
Degrees: Master's in public health from University of South Carolina; Bachelor's in biology from Clemson University
In my early years after high school, I wavered between trade school and college, but eventually opted for college and earned a Bachelor's in biology.
I quickly found work, but at an abysmal wage of $7.25 per hour, which did not even allow me to live on my own.
After an exasperating year at that wage, I decided to go back to school and I graduated in 2004 with a Master's in Public Health, thinking I was on the road to recovery.
During that time, I had been married, had a child, gotten divorced, and ended up raising my son on my own. I took a low paying government job in Southern Florida, and because I couldn't even make the minimum payments on my debt, I took forbearance after forbearance.
I have had a good life, but now at age 37, the weariness of carrying this financial burden frustrates me to no end.
My son is nine years old now and will want to attend college when he graduates high school. But what will I tell him? First I have to decide if the college degree is worth the debt. I hope by the time he is making his decision, I will have figured it out.

Courtesy: Michelle Shipley
Michelle Shipley
Student debt: $140,000
Degree: Bachelor's in political science and international development from Tulane University
Like many, I had no idea what money meant when I was 17. My family is not wealthy. I simply didn't have the information or knowledge to know what it would be like now.
I had to pay for college on my own and took out loans for everything - rent, food, books, tuition, etc.
Then, during my sophomore year, I lost everything to Hurricane Katrina. I finished my degree, but continued to take loans to make it possible.
I'm now working at a non-profit and I love it -- but I don't make much. I've been able to put off the payments through forbearance, but I know the $1,400 a month bills are coming soon. Not to mention, I've also racked up about $7,000 in credit card debt.
My debt is a life-swallowing, all-consuming, hole in my life. No college degree is worth that.

Over there it's Student Debt; for many Indians it is mostly "Parents' Investment". For a very few, it's a scholarship. In either case, it is ultimately some few very well-off people to whom all the hard-earned or hard-raised money goes, with only a fraction coming back into the ecosystem in any beneficial way.

If only 100 or 1000 people did this, it would be still ok, but what about the big picture? We must ask ourselves, "could there be an alternative?" Is the world just a narrow tunnel we must rush into, or an open field where there are many pathways to success and where you can also be happy by not running around too much? Especially in the fast-developing global scenario of nearly all education becoming completely free and open to all and existing materials getting outdated by the time their students graduate, should we keep running after the old bandwagon?

I loved the personal stories shared here in this email forward and their power to drive in the point. (Apologies if the photos of the people didn't come through...) They're not isolated incidents : several people I've grown up with, studied with, gotten acquainted with - extremely nice and talented people, are also living under mountains of debt - either to banks or in a few 'lucky' cases, to their families. Does that explain the abnormally high incidence of talented and well-educated people ultimately not marrying the men or women they had fallen in love with, or not taking up their dream projects but instead fake-smiling their way through compromise and calling it all a part of "growing up" ?!

I can tell you this : They are not happy with the way their life has panned out, sorry. Many still have expectations that it's all turning around and "just a little bit more slogging!" but I foresee frustration lurking around the corners. The vast majority aren't doing the revolutionary, ground-breaking, world-changing or noble work that they'd set out to - somewhere in the race for prosperity and status, those innate aspirations took a backseat. In many cases the heart itself has changed and they're no longer the people I knew that genuinely wanted to help others.

They're working hard, all right - too hard in fact, but what and who are they ultimately working for? Couldn't their immense talents have been better utilized? And the biggest tragedy is that they can't just change tracks now even if they desperately want to : the debt has trapped them in golden cages - trapped them until the time comes when they will no longer be able to return to their dream projects. They are no longer free people.

I'm also attaching a couple of great info-graphics I've found elsewhere that explains the fine lines brilliantly. And don't go for the comfortable ignorances : the picture of student loans in India too isn't getting any better. I highly recommend all youngsters who are gearing up for further studies, and their parents who are planning on bankrolling them with the expectation of magically giving them a better life, to please check this out, switch off the TV for an evening and spend some time thinking over it together.

Nikhil Sheth
Pune, India
Teach For India Fellow, 2011-13

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Need your help for funding my classroom and under-resourced school @TeachForIndia

Hi Friends,

Need your help to raise funds for my classroom, to give my students who come from slums and low-income families a fighting chance in the battle against educational inequity. Please spread this link around :

You can donate here in a simple online process using your netbanking, debit or credit card. And you'll get the tax exemption from this as well.

If you'd like to know more about the Teach for India fellowship that I'm a part of, please visit

If you'd like to know more about my class and my school and the amazing 35 kids who have become my heartbeats, please visit our website I set up recently : ,
or check out my profile on Facebook! In case we've been out of touch for very long now, then sincere apologies, but after checking out these links you'll know what's keeping me 100% occupied nowadays!

Thanking you,

Nikhil Sheth
Pune, India
Teach For India Fellow, 2011-13

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


Hi All! It's been LOONNNGG since I wrote anything blog-worthy here, but a recent conversation with an acquaintance on FB, and an open-ended question, seems to have made me spit some things out. That too this isn't about some issue that I'm just observing (as most posts are), but something VERY personal : the events that led me to quit the corporate world and make social work my life!

The question was phrased excellently : I'm hiding the name of the person for now and will reveal it when he gives permission. My answer was a direct thoughts-to-text conversion so it may be a little crazy and I don't really want to "copy-edit" it right now.

Hi Nikhil!

Upon going through some of your recent updates on Fb, an intriguing question popped up in my mind. (It may sound a bit personal, so please feel free to respond as you wish.)

The question simply is: why?

I admire your altruism especially seeing as how it is so rare today. But what makes you tick? Why do you do the volunteering or the social work that you do?

What is it exactly that goes through your mind when you make decisions that we have to face everyday? For instance, the choice of whether to start working, after a (post)graduation with an NGO or an MNC -- the obvious factor being the money involved. Even if, let's say, one can get well paid even in NGOs today, why prefer the trouble of social work and social change rather than sit at home and have some fun? Even at a rather micro level, why help anyone at all except when helping them is going to increase your own chances of success?

Let me tell you why I'm asking this question. This is a question that bothers me daily. For some reason it turns out that compared to helping others and being all enthusiastic about social amelioration, focussing on one's own issues and solving them as fast as possible is so much more enjoyable, easy and comfortable. In you I already see the social activist, all focussed on positive social impact -- not just the wishy-washy campaign sort of thing but genuine change that is based on ideas that are intellectually and morally very very satisfying.

I would really love to know these answers from you.

Thank you for your time.

Answer: (or a confusing excuse for one!)

Hi !
Thanks a lot for your compliments; I don't know if I deserve them because currently as far as TFI is concerned there are others doing a much better job of it than I am.

Your question forced me to really think about this.. I haven't completely found out the answer to your question yet, but in reflecting over it during our intensive training program with TFI, I had found a few things here and there that may add up to an explanation.

Beginning with : I've always been better at helping other ppl than at helping myself. At a personal level I'm extremely disorganized and always in a mess. Somehow my greatest successes have come when I was doing something not for myself. In the process I did gain a lot so it was always a win-win. But I've never had the kind of ambitions or even interests that I see in guys around me. During by 10th-11th-12th grade years, my Mom was fighting a battle with cancer and the whole family was caring for her. She passed away when I was in 12th. I remember being completely tuned out of all the things my peers were crazy about - cars, bikes, games, clothes, etc. Materialism just didn't make any sense at the time and the MS-in-US bandwagon stopped being attractive.

I didn't become any activist type just then. But I took out a great deal of time to read news and articles and think about things. Was always very connected with anything related to environment and technology and human rights - but only as an observer. It was after college and over a year after joining my company and working in Gurgaon, that I was very depressed over a heart-break, felt like my world had ended and had resigned myself to accepting that I would never have a normal family life and there I found that the only thing that gave me relief from my depression was helping others. (No, I had read way too much scientific stuff in my teenage years and never bought into the drinking/smoking game, plus I hate being one of the crowd) I signed up to join a team of volunteers from my company that was taking part in a Yamuna cleanup drive. I stayed at the camp overnight, shared the tent with some youngsters whom you will find in the most posh mall of Delhi - but on the other side of the counter, as the staff. From conversations with them I found that they all were actually smarter and more deserving of good opportunities than I was. The question of why they didn't get better opportunities - only because of lack of money - haunted me. Even when riddled with so many issues, these youngsters were out here giving their time for a noble cause when all their wealthier counterparts - the facebook generation we're part of - who COULD help easily - weren't around.

That kick-started my volunteering spree that went on for 2 years and I put 50% of my work time in that (and still did enough good quality work to get a big cash award and appreciation from client!). During the time my thirst for knowledge made me watch several documentaries and read new ideas from all around the world and I'd gotten very sensitized to several issues. In 2010, something tragic happened to the person I was closest to in Gurgaon and who had become my sister over the years - she lost her father in a terrible incident and her family was put through severe emotional trauma. I watched as just within a week after the funeral she was back for work - being at a level equal to me (we were recruited and trained in our company together), she was now the sole earning member of her family and supporting a mother and two smaller siblings. This made me question my own situation : no dependencies, no big aspirations, I spend over half my time in doing volunteering or organizing things other than work, was very comfortable financially because of zero excess expenditure lifestyle. The girl who was like my sister was also so invested in doing social work (she'd celebrate her birthday at a home for spastic children) but she did not have any luxury, she had to care for her family. Just like that there may be someone else who needs my job, my seat for real reasons. I remembered something I'd read as a kid somewhere about how in a society it's the "dharma" of those who are well off to help those who are struggling. I got this overpowering feeling that I was occupying someone else's seat - that my role in life is not this and that if I can afford to then I should do something else worthwhile and make the best use of my skills for the common good. I didn't have any other plans but I resigned from my company in June 2010. (without consulting with anybody! it was a personal decision!)

It was a crazy decision of course, but I had made a deal with myself that I'm not going to do anything that isn't approved by the conscience. I swore to give myself max 1 year before worrying about money again. Had enough saved up to sustain myself for 2. I then went even more all-out on the net and read any and every news, opinion article, downloaded and watched nearly every documentary and ted video in existence (related to present-day global issues ie - i hate the dramatized history channel crap, they waste your time and replace the real experts with paid actors). Came across TFI, liked it, volunteered at a school, and then joined TFI. Now I'm sorely missing the freewheeling days! In the long term I want to work in renewable energy and sustainable living, AND technological advancement.

But I hate the monetary paradigm, am convinced it's all a huge ponzi scheme, have seen all the global collapse-related predictions come true (we should all really watch these documentaries that are never screened on TV) and believe the world is in for a major change, and am hopeful it'll be a nice one. So I don't want to be in any rat-race anymore and am still hoping I can shift my lifestyle to a self-sustained moneyless one and protect my family before the shit hits the fan, plus do something to help stave off the disasters of global warming. Meanwhile I'd love to just help as many ppl as possible - it's very important to do positive things around us and so the fellowship. After all, just in case the world really ends in 2012, might as well live doing something good right now!

PS: Why the choice of image?? No reason except it may look good on Facebook! And, just to make you ask, "Why?" ;)

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