Acumen Blog

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Highlighting our Incredible Pakistan Fellows

Acumen Regional Fellows are leaders tackling the most challenging social issues by starting with their own communities. This year’s Pakistan cohort brings together leaders from all over the country, addressing issues ranging from sex trafficking to the education of street children. With two seminars under their belts and three more to go, the Acumen Pakistan Fellows are mid-way through their Fellowship Year. Below, we check in with four of them to see how they’re using the skills from the program to help translate their vision into reality.

Imran SarwarImran_Showcase[1]

Imran cofounded Rabtt in 2011 while he was still a student at LUMS (Lahore University of Management Sciences. Working with students from less privileged backgrounds at the university’s National Outreach Program, he realized that apart from formal education, students also needed a more holistic and enhanced learning experience, one that encourages learning through questioning, rather than rote learning.

Rabtt is a response to a call for action for a more thoughtful and critical Pakistani youth. Through summer camps and workshops where students partake in cross disciplinary modules (e.g. World History is taught through Dramatics; English is taught through Debating), Rabtt is focused on enhancing critical thinking, tolerance and creativity among school-going children from low-income communities in Lahore.

To date, Imran and his team have organized five summer camps over three years for grade 9 students in public schools. There are forty students in each camp, and students cover seven courses: World History, Art, Dramatics, Public Speaking, Thinking Skills, English and Mathematics. The camps are run by volunteers who comprise of students from universities across Lahore. These volunteers, who have the appropriate educational background, are trained by Rabtt to ensure students are able to interpret varying information and gain value from the courses, while having fun. These volunteers are Rabtt’s greatest asset and liability. As the face of Rabtt, they are constantly challenged to ensure all students are on the same wavelength and understand the vision.

Imran’s Turning Point

This year, Rabtt is branching out by simultaneously running ten summer courses in ten schools. From course content to logistics, the set of challenges facing Rabtt’s team are daunting, yet exciting. The summer camps will be concluded with a closing ceremony with an expected foot fall of 3500-4000 people, consisting of performances and readings from the students. The team is also looking to raise funds for the annual closing event from corporate sponsors.

For Imran, this summer will serve as a litmus test to determine the resilience of his team and the impact of his work. Upon completion of the summer camps, Rabtt will formally conduct an impact evaluation through surveys, focus groups, and anecdotal evidence revolving around their core metrics.

Additionally, Rabtt is designing their Young Professionals Program which will provide high-cost private school-going students with a set of professional trainings to enhance their skill set and prepare them for college and professional life. The students will be charged directly and revenues from this segment will be used to cross-subsidize Rabtt’s operations in public and low-cost private schools.

By 2016, Rabtt is focused on reaching more than 2,000 students through all their programs. To do so Imran and his team aim to conduct over 90 Young Professional Program modules, 20 summer camps, and 120 follow-on workshops. The education system in Pakistan requires change on multiple fronts, and to equip students to be productive students and members of society, Rabtt faces an uphill battle. Acknowledging that attitudinal changes take time and effort, Imran is focused on strengthening his team and working closely with his students to ensure the effective, long-lasting engagement. Read more on Rabtt, here.

Mohammad Ali

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NGO’s working with children in Pakistan tend to focus on their education, health, and keeping them out of the underage labor market. More often than not, issues regarding rape, prostitution, trafficking, kidnapping and extortion are left unaccounted for. While working with a child protection agency, Mohammad Ali recounts an incident that he found deeply disturbing of a young girl who was raped and murdered only a few blocks away from her house. This served as the genesis of his own child protection organization named Roshni Helpline. Set up in 2005, Roshni Helpline helps families in the search and recovery of missing children and offers psycho-social support to the victims and their families. The organization operates a first-of-its-kind helpline which allows people to report incidences of kidnapping and missing children.

At the time Roshni Helpline was set up, there was no legal definition and consequently, no legal process to register a police report of a “lost child”. Therefore, even well intentioned authorities were unable to assist in the recovery of a missing child. Through Roshni Helpline, Mohammad Ali worked diligently to set up a network of 248 partners in Lyari alone. These partners, or “watchdogs”, consist of members who frequently interact with the local community, such as mosque imams, shopkeepers, public call office operators, and street vendors. Recently, Mohammad Ali has also expanded his partner network to include members of the khawaja-sera (transgendered) community. The network works through an extensive feedback system where his watchdogs are on the alert for suspicious behavior. If a watchdog hears about a particular case, he informs Roshni Helpline, which in turn alerts the entire network to keep an eye out for the child. He works closely with the Sind police from thereon to conclude the case.

In the short life of his organization, Mohammad Ali has mapped eleven union councils in Karachi which assist in child recovery. In his experience, the earlier he finds out about a kidnapping, the easier it is to recover a child. To spread the word about Roshni, Mohammad Ali has done more than 200 radio programs, and was featured on the BBC and Voice of America. He continues to spread his work in the international community as first a Fellow with Ashoka, and now Acumen. He is also currently pushing for a petition in the Sind High Court which requests better reporting and action of kidnapping cases.

Mohammad’s Turning Point

Mohammad Ali’s challenges are beyond the ordinary, ranging from death threats from extortionist groups to inconsistent national policies. As he plans the expansion of Roshni Helpline, Mohammad Ali also faces the challenge of developing multiple networks to cater to Karachi’s population of 13 million. For a job that is ominous and exhaustive, Mohammad Ali has pushed forward with his commitment and compassion. His task is not easy, but one that is desperately needed. Read more on Roshni Helpline, here.

Mashall Chaudhri

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Mashall Chaudhri, the founder of Reading Room Project, one day decided to teach herself math. Upon researching online, she was fascinated to find a cornucopia of lessons and tutorials concerned with a myriad of subjects. Here was vast knowledge accessible at the touch of a button that was not being utilized by students because of the lack of school infrastructure and knowledge about open courseware. The Reading Room Project (RRP) aims to bridge that gap by educating students in English and Math through a blended learning approach that incorporates digital mediums in the classroom. Once students establish a command over the language and digital architecture, they have the opportunity to tap into learning networks online and practice self learning.

Unlike the typical lecture style classroom setting, at RRP a lesson plan involves switching through various learning stations. These could involve watching a tutorial video, playing a game that demonstrates the concept, collaborating with class fellows and solving problems individually. The guiding idea is that learning should occur in a conductive and stimulating environment that allows the students to understand and master concepts at their own pace and through their own efforts.

The RRP launched its pilot in Feb 2013 and the results so far look promising. In three months time students without any knowledge of English were navigating the internet on their own. In four months, they had email accounts. By the time the fifth month was over, they had learnt a year’s worth of math. The significant jump in knowledge and concept mastery apart from benefiting the students academically, also illustrates what their potential really is. This observation does not go unnoticed by the parents, who are then encouraged to continue educating their children. Mashall recounts a vignette of a father who works as a valet at a shopping mall and was so proud of his daughters accomplishments that he bought her a computer.

The biggest impediment to learning through digital mediums does not lie with the parents, schools, the curriculum or the cost of computers. Before students can even begin to interact with the mediums, it is imperative that they master the foreign language the content is in. It is this neglected space that RRP intends to address and expands its operations by designing an English language immersion program, which consists of decoding, speaking and listening, reading and comprehension. This fulfills Mashall’s vision of everyone having access to learning – in her words, “once you know English a whole world of knowledge opens up to you”.

Mashall’s Turning Point

As RRP enters its second year of existence, Mashall’s challenges expand in breath and scope. With the pilot complete, the team is primed to expand their operations, but location, infrastructure, funding and sustainability are key questions. Mashall’s approach is simple – her next step will be one that will bring her closer to deeper impact, quality, and organic growth because at the end of the day, access to motivating content and the creation of a supportive environment are two key elements that will change how and what children learn in Pakistan. Read more about the Reading Room Project, here.

Sarah Adeel

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Lettuce Bee Kids (LBK) was created by Sarah Adeel, a Fulbright scholar and architect by profession, to cater to street children who are often deprived of not just education, but also the dignity of being considered productive members of society. LBK aims to provide quality education to street children thus enabling them to lead a self actualized life of social inclusion. They do so through four programs which focus on blended learning, digital literacy and character building. These four programs include arts and crafts, gardening, music classes and “adopt a grandparent”. To date, LBK has piloted this program with a class of over 60 students in Islamabad. LBK has also converted the children’s art work and launched a series of products, the revenues of which are used to fund further activities.

Sarah’s Turning Point

Looking ahead, Sarah and her team are taking LBK’s work beyond Pakistan. Next month, Sarah plans on taking the exhibition on a road show around Europe. With this, not only will Sarah champion LBK’s work but also educate people about the possibilities of carefully integrating street children into society. LBK is also working with the mothers of these street children on a project called “Second Life” where women will stitch discarded fabric to be converted into a furniture upholstery line.

LBK, which has been in operation for a number of years, is currently at a turning point. Thus far, the team has focused on using informal modes of education to educate and reintegrate these children. But the new challenge they face is using formal education within their mix. LBK is in the process of formulating a two-year program for children aged 10-12 which prepares children to take and excel in entrance exams of various public/private schools. Since this sphere is new to LBK, one major hurdle is ensuring the proper curriculum is set, and the right teachers are employed to achieve success. Read more about Lettuce Bee Kids, here.

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