“What you seek is seeking you.” – Rumi
Rewind to 2015: I had around 4-5 years of experience in sales and marketing positions. But I was discontent with what I was doing. I was just questioning my role in this entire cycle of consumption, capitalism. Was I just selling a bunch of lies? I felt like I had become part of a cycle of just creating demands. Around the same time, the concept of ‘user-centred’ design was gaining momentum within the design industry and that is what got me curious. As the term suggests, ‘user-centred’ design is basically a concept wherein the end user’s needs, wants and characteristics are kept in mind while designing a product or service. It means we first identify what the user wants or needs through research, rather than creating a product and forcing the user to change their behaviour and use the product. And so, I thought research would be the answer, that it would get me closer to knowing what people actually want or need, in another sense for me it meant that research would bring me closer to the truth of things.
So one fine day, I was just googling for research jobs and I stumbled upon PUKAR’s website where I read about the research fellowship and their Community Based Participatory Action Research approach. I found it very interesting and thought that maybe this platform could help me gain research skills and some hands-on experience. Also, from a philosophical point of view, the community-based approach sounded apt to what I was looking for in terms of building my foundation for being a researcher. So I submitted the application, went for the interview and committed that year’s Sundays to PUKAR.
The fellowship started with a residential orientation workshop which gave me a glimpse of the PUKAR style of learning- learning through introspection, learning through experience. I realised how uncomfortable I was with myself because throughout the orientation we had to express ourselves through various activities. I vividly remember during one of the sessions we were told to close our eyes and imagine ‘Humare Mann Ka Hathi’ (the elephant in our imagination). The idea was to be creative and to look at things from another perspective. Tumhare mann ka hathi, hathi bhi ho sakta hai, ya kuch aur bhi. Wo kuch aur kya kya ho sakta hai, ye apne mann mein jhak ke dekhna hai (The elephant in your imagination, can be an elephant, or something else. What else it can be, apart from an elephant, you need to look within to find out). I finally got in touch with Mere Mann ka Hathi- two big eyes filled with curiosity, which was my state of mind at that point. I left the orientation feeling more self-aware, specifically in terms of the judgements I had towards myself, others and my then existing worldviews.
The research topic our group chose to work on was ‘Smartness’ of a city through the lens of Urban Poor Women in Mumbai. The idea was to choose a topic which affects our life on a day-to-day basis. The Smart Cities Mission was just announced at the time we were deciding on our topic and we thought it would be interesting to study a project that was in the making.
By the end of the research, the thing that struck me was the realisation that this was not our research, it was the research of the women we had spoken to and it was about their identities. They were not respondents, they were participants. We were merely observing and documenting the knowledge and experiences of these women. Till date, I do my best to ensure that I enter the research field with this mindset in my professional work.
During the fellowship, the capacity-building workshops were something I would eagerly look forward to. Discussing, debating, questioning norms related to gender, religion, etc, through relevant case studies, films, poems, etc. helped me become more critical as a person. The focus of these sessions was more on what we ‘felt’ about the issues/events rather than just a discussion of concepts and their definitions. Unlearning became easier since my views were constantly challenged by the facilitators and my fellow researchers. There was no hierarchy, nobody was a teacher or a student, we were all learners, learning from each other.
After graduating from the Youth Fellowship, I had the opportunity to work as a YF Programme Assistant for a period of two months. I was specifically brought on board to assist in coordinating the Alumni Mentor component. I also mentored a group studying the role of education in a career. This was a totally different experience because as a mentor I struggled to draw the line between assisting the group and knowing when to take a backseat. It was a new learning for me as tried to strike a balance.
Thanks to my facilitators’ suggestions, I had the opportunity of attending workshops conducted by other organisations across India. After the fellowship, I attended a short workshop called Nayi Dishayein – Rethinking Development conducted by Sambhaavnaa Institute, Himachal Pradesh and a month-long course on Gender, Diversity and Social Transformation at Visthar, Bangalore. Both these workshops were immensely helpful in increasing my systematic understanding of capitalism and patriarchy. This is what I love most about the people at PUKAR, if you have the desire to learn, then support is always made available to you. The Youth Fellowship and the other workshops I attended, still make me question my materialistic needs, make me aware of my privileges and help ask more questions.
A big thank you to my facilitators who pushed me to be more confident about myself and helped bring out the leader in me. They motivated our group when we needed it most. Thanks to my group members for making me more patient and persistent. I may be in a different time zone now, but the learning from PUKAR will always be with me, consciously and subconsciously.
Preet Kiran Sandhu is an ex-fellow who completed the Youth Fellowship cycle in 2016. She is currently in Canada pursuing her passion for research and community development.