CHANGE leaders do great things, and often that is all we know about them. Here we want to get a different glimpse of the personalities that constitute the development space. Every month we get one leader to answer four questions. This week we catch up with VISHAL TALREJA, co-founder and CEO of Dream A Dream.
What began as a dream has today become a gamechanger in the field of education. Dream A Dream was founded in 1999 to empower youth from disadvantaged backgrounds by giving them the opportunity to grow and achieve success. But, not through the conventional route. DaD use a creative life skills approach which lets young people breakout from stereotypical life journeys and explore as many paths as possible.
Small Change: What was the motivation behind starting DaD?
Vishal Talreja: I believe we all have those moments when we experience a stirring that is inexplicable and know that it will alter the course of our life.
About two decades ago, a chance encounter with a young girl in Oulu, Finland – Heidi Zopf who had just come back from a six-month volunteering stint with a village school in Pushkar, Rajasthan – started my journey of self-reflection.
During our many conversations she mentioned that she works at a local bar in the evenings. Deep down, from the place where stereotypes and judgments nested in me, a number of thoughts flooded my mind: Why would a girl want to work in a bar? How could I be friends with a girl working at a bar? What would my parents think?
But thankfully, in my head, there was also a whisper of a much-needed question: “Why am I thinking like this?”
A few weeks later, another incident added fuel to my self-reflection and deliberations. While still on my three-month trip to Finland, I met a gentleman who lived in a lovely two-bedroom house. But, by choice, he worked as a security guard in a five-star hotel.
These two meetings brought me closer to understanding a new reality – of choosing your own vocation and living a comfortable quality of life irrespective of one’s education and work.
This led me to think hard and deep about the roots of my stereotypes and judgments. Where did my social conditioning come from? I started connecting to my many experiences as a child growing up in a relatively poor neighbourhood and upbringing.
The whisper was getting louder and louder. It was then that I decided to go back to India and change the way we look at dignity, the way we treat the invisible in our society. I was all of 21 years old then.
Within a couple of months of returning to India, I met people with similar ideas and were willing to give me an opportunity to join their dream and thus Dream A Dream was born. My life has never been the same since.
SC: Name three specific subjects you know little about but are keen to learn/read up on.
V.T: Artificial Intelligence, how cartoon characters like Asterix and Tintin are created and alternative histories from the lenses of the oppressed.
SC: What is the bravest thing you’ve done or said to a group of people?
V.T: I once said no to a donor’s contribution to my organisation at a time when we were desperate for support. The donor had little respect for our work and treated us as well as other young people with no dignity. There should be equality in giving and receiving.
SC: What are three things that surprised you (or continues to surprise you) about working in the social/development sector?
V.T: First, that we don’t spend enough time in delving deeper and in understanding the challenge. We are eager to jump to solutions. However, staying with the problem has helped me go beyond the symptoms and get to the core of the problem and sometimes that can take years. We have to keep asking the ‘why’ question.
Second, the poor don’t need us. Hence, we have to be careful and constantly check our intentions of engaging with the poor. If we realise that it’s coming from our own need for validation and recognition then we know that we are not solving the problem. NGOs close down because they make themselves redundant and irrelevant.
Third, young people are resilient and eager to embrace their future. Many a time we are the ones holding them back. The best thing to do is to step out of the way and let them thrive.