Why India's kanthari charity is leading the way in social change

16 January 2018

Empowering the most vulnerable and driving social change is something Governments, charities and NGOs have been attempting to do for decades. Haley Beer, Assistant Professor of Performance and Responsibility, is researching a charitable trust in India, led by Sabriye Tenberken, who has been blind since childhood, and Paul Kronenberg to find out the secret to its success.

People are becoming more and more aware of the environmental and personal degradation caused by incessant production and consumption. 

The internet has connected us to communities that are still suffering great violence and oppression against women and children.

Many individuals still starve to death every day and yet even more die from the consequences of over-eating.

The evidence is indisputable that our treatment of the planet’s natural resources in the name of products and services is unsustainable.

The transparency of it all is slowly leading companies and governments the world over to seek activities, preferably economically efficient ones, that can create social impact – positive change in the lives of people and the state of the planet.

But what does it take to actually create positive social change? In a lakeside campus near the capital of Kerala in India, there exists a group of social visionaries running the kanthari, who may have uncovered the secrets.

Here are a few of its projects:

  • Children abducted by armies, that found the courage to flee, but later succumbed to blindness, now teach other blind Africans how to keep bee hives, making money with honey products and changing the perceptions of the local community concerning the worthiness of blind people.
  • Women who were ostracized by their communities for being raped have started enterprises that empower other women to leave  men who abuse them physically or mentally, enabling them to regain confidence, self-esteem, and independence.
  • Men who have lost their parents to war and suicide, forced to raise eight of their siblings, yet watch several of them die in gang violence, now starting a Peace Academy so other young people do not have to resort to violent sub-cultures.
  • Teenage girls who have suffered genital mutilation after being sexually abused by a community member, are building movements that sensitize elders and young people to the dangers and harm of these practices, thereby stimulating a mindset shift and putting pressure on the government to enact political change.

Are you noticing the patterns yet? Social change cannot be bought - it is earned.

The kantharis, now a network of 160 entrepreneurs, activists, inventors, artists and initiators, agree upon and live by a philosophy in their pursuit of social change:

  1. Change starts from within. The communities we wish to have social impact upon understand better than any theory or expert their contexts, history, and norms. They have lived through the issue at hand and therefore are better able to say why community members view a condition as impossible and unresolvable. These people need to be empowered to lead the change.
  2. Comfortability with vulnerability. Often what requires changing is intimate aspects of peoples’ lives – mindsets, emotional healing, and stigmas. Therefore, instead of considering so-called weaknesses and disabilities as taboo or difficult, they need to be treated as valuable assets. For they teach us about what it means to be marginalized or otherwise mistreated, and hence provide insight into how to lead change around the issue.
  3. Do not seek to be liked, seek to do what is right. Tirelessly question norms, traditions, and ideologies. It is likely others will feel vulnerable or scared and hence react in negative ways. Status quo approval is not necessary, only ethical steadfastness and integrity to the social vision.
  4. Work as a collective. Pull on the peoples’ strengths that surround you. Preferably a diverse group that has different cultures, ideologies, and norms – it will help you to be humble and tolerant.
  5. Dream big. Envision a world where the social issue is resolved. What does the ideal situation look like? Aim for that, see past the cynics. Change is always possible.

Positive social change is what happens when we join hands with vulnerable groups in order to empower those within to come up with a solution that is heartfelt. A heart that truly understands the issues at hand and the dreams to see, and move, past all of the nay-sayers.

Maybe it’s time we stop depending primarily upon funding injections, material possessions and state of the art technologies to achieve social change, and turn our attention inwards instead so that we can heal from global and local fears, disabilities, and adversities; thereby gaining the insights and strength to change the world for the better.

Haley Beer teaches Operations Management on the Distance Learning MBA, Design in Business on the MSc Management and Business Studies on the Undergraduate programme. Follow her on Twitter @_HaleyAllison_