‘You need chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star’
If you are or have been a student of Delhi University, you’ve probably volunteered for or attended one of The YP Foundation’s many branches and events. Back in college, I worked for about a year with ‘Blending Spectrum’; a branch of The YP that works with under-privileged children. The concept of a youth-led movement, of making a change a step at a time inspired me tremendously. To know that age doesn’t determine your prowess and shouldn’t inhibit your actions is something pioneered, at least for me, by The YP. And on their 10th Birthday, it was only fitting to speak with the vision behind this movement, Ishita Chaudhry.
LBBD: What was the vision behind The YP Foundation? And how did it start?
Ishita: I think people experience different things in life that really challenge them and make them question, both internally and externally, who they are and what they stand for. And the starting point for The YP Foundation or TYPF was really the Godhra Riots. For me, the Riots were the worst possible jolt, a fire in my system was a burning reminder of how people’s social justice and human rights are not understood or ensured, by either the government or those in power who can influence public decisions and opinion.
I knew we saw the riots, the media made it hard not to, but how much of Human Rights issues we really understood, I wasn’t sure. Young people are often infantilized; they are misconstrued as submission or disinterested. The lack of ability to exercise informed judgment and decision-making has dire consequences at both policy tables that influence young people’s health and rights. I began my work 10 years ago, because I wanted to change those silent spaces. I want to live in a world where human rights are upheld, where young people’s leadership skills are strengthened, where women and young people are recognized as powerful change makers and equal stakeholders in society.
LBBD: Is it something you envisioned doing for the rest of your life?
I: Not at all!. I’m a musician by training and I think music is the only thing I ever envisioned doing with the rest of my life. This was a career by accident! I’ve trained as a Hindustani Classical singer and pianist since I was 13 and started learning Opera and Jazz when I was 15. I still feel for music despite my passion for what we do. Music is the only medium through which everything, in my head, makes sense in my head. I will always be committed to the issues TYPF works with; those are not career choices, but my belief systems.
LBBD: How has your vision changed over the past 10 years?
I: The last 10 years have allowed me to develop one. When you work here, eventually you start dreaming; it’s the single most amazing feeling in the world, to imagine something in your mind and have it come true. Whether it’s been a 10-day festival to bring 3,000 of us together, a national campaign to legalize the implementation of sexuality education, that has brought more than 300 youth activists working across 18 states together, or just the idea that a group of ordinary young, can build a powerful platform. 10 years ago, I didn’t have a vision, I felt that the system swallows & spits you out. I don’t feel that way anymore. I’ve understood that change is a complex set of wheels, but they can move and there’s a way to make them turn. That perspective has changed everything for me.
LBBD: What’s the biggest challenge when it comes to working with young people? And the greatest advantage?
I: The organization has a 2 yearly cyclical structure whereby the staff and volunteers change periodically. This creates a certain cyclical loss of knowledge and experience but on the other hand, ensures that there is consistent youth leadership and that changing generations of young people are participating in taking TYPF forward.
The greatest advantage is just the freshness – the ideas, the energy, the hard work. I don’t think a space like YP can ever become obsolete because of these things. In that sense, our challenges and advantages are two sides of the same coin.
LBBD: Many a times, youth run organizations are criticized for not being too practical and merely following an idealistic dream- did you face the same kind of criticism?
I: In our case, the real challenge was of being ‘urban’ and ‘elitist’ – because we all were, when this journey started out – a motley bunch of college students from upper and middle class households who had found each other and were working together. There was limited diversity in our mix and we weren’t reaching out to ‘young people in rural villages’, as I’d often hear. But things changed, like they always do, when you stick it out long enough and believe in why you’re doing things a certain way. The idea behind The YP Foundation was never to be exclusive, it just began with a certain story, and this one happened to be in a city.
We’ve come a long way, from being Delhi University college students, to now having projects that run at village, district and state level, and we still have a long way to go. But I still stand fast, that the only idealism worth putting your weight behind, is the one that believes that if you empower someone, they can create the change they wish to see. And I have to admit, there’s a little bit of wicked fun in going against the grain that I think I’m addicted to now.
LBBD: Do you think things would have been easier, had you been running this organization abroad? You’ve obviously traveled a lot – what difference do you find between CSR in India and in other countries?
I: I only began traveling in the last 3-4 years. Before that, all my experiences are limited to India and I hadn’t really been out of the country anywhere. I think setting systems up in India, there is challenging as nothing works as planned. Whilst the paperwork and systems may be a lot clearer with respect to non-profit organizations, the counterpart in India is nothing short of nightmarish; I think you can be a lot more innovative within the Indian system. Most countries in the global north, are clearer in their political and legal systems about the value of supporting youth-led work – in India. That’s still an anomaly.
That said, If you’re doing nothing wrong, the likelihood of getting into trouble is really low.
LBBD: An anecdote or a moment over the past 10 years that epitomizes what it means to be the founder of The YP Foundation…
I: To be truly honest, I don’t have a ‘founder’ moment, I just really associate with the thought that sometimes, you have to be the last one standing, and that’s okay. I’ve watched 10 generations of young people join and leave. Initially that was really hard- the thought of accepting someone leave. That day will come for me too, none of us are permanent and I may be the ‘founder’, but there are a lot of shoulders that carry the weight of the work that we do. If you are a part of the senior management of this organization, you have to get that this is not a 9 to 5 job, because that’s not what the people in this organization need you for.
LBBD: Your biggest learning over the past 10 years vis a vis running a youth-led organization.
I: One of the key reasons we designed the organization the way it is, is because we wanted to provide a hybrid resource space where young people with different talents, belief systems and interests could find their comfort. We cater to the diversity as well as respect that not all people think and feel the same way about how issues should be worked with and that not all people are good at doing the same things. TYPF’s multi stakeholder model has allowed us to encourage people to develop leadership skills and talents according to their own pace.
The model has also allowed multiple issues and young people to intersect. These intersections have been critical as most work gets developed and sustained in silos.
The strongest learning point is that the intersections that our work creates has pushed young minds to understand issues they normally wouldn’t be interest in.
LBBD: What is the biggest challenge that organizations like The YP face? And what is the best way to overcome it?
I: Youth led funding; It’s difficult to be self-sustaining- we’ve spent many years trying to understand how to keep going. In terms of funding, we have multiple sources now- private donors, the government, corporates; but one thing we still think is crucial- community support. Community fundraising, though it may not generate huge amounts of revenue, keeps us connected to our supporters and mentors. To ensure monetary support we talking to supporters, donors and to the community at large and remind them about the importance of our work.
The courage to continue; You have to keep pushing and moving forward. Continue doing programs with money or without and understanding that things will change. Also an organization likes ours has to push through the fear of getting it wrong and making a million mistakes, that’s the only way to move forward.
Lastly, in the recent years we have started getting involved in the process of policy making as well. A real challenge that we face is how to ensure that our participation does not just remain tokenistic. This involves building strong partnerships with adults and policy makers in the sector, which can at times be difficult. However, we continue to make sure that whatever opportunity we get, we are there- to ensure that the constituency of young people, has their voice heard.
LBBD: What are your thoughts on so many new Youth initiatives that have come up in the past 5 years?
I: 10 years ago, there wasn’t half the vibrancy you find today. Youth organizations were a one-hit wonder and it’s phenomenal to see how that’s changed. It’s amazing to see a new wave of entrepreneurs who aren’t afraid of taking risks. There are newer ways of building social change and we need all the young people we can get! There has to be a culture of solidarity and a need to encourage more young people who are running their own initiatives to come together and learn from each other.
In 2009, TYPF started a youth-led fund called ‘Vikalp: Searching for Alternatives’ that did exactly this, and the second round is going to be launched soon. Young people have to re-write the discourse on how history sees them, or we will only get absorbed and fade away.
LBBD: What or who inspires you?
I: My mother is one of the strongest women I know. We are alike in our values, and thought process andyet different in personalities She has undertaken tremendouspressure to ensure that I can do the work that I do today. Her ability to multi task relationships as well as her generosity in opening her home to the multitudes of young people, as well as her own commitment to finding creative and innovative community solutions has never failed to inspire me. As a human being, woman, mentor and a friend, she has taught me to perceive depths and identify possibilities within people, teaching me that absolutely, nothing is outside of my reach and that a balanced, patient and consistent approach, is deeply important.
Today, she works as a consultant with TYPF in our programme Blending Spectrum that works with children on education and health and to me, that’s absolutely amazing. I don’t know many women who have the mental strength to return to a job after 28 years of raising children, only to join their own child’s organization. It’s unbelievably inspiring and I hope I have her openness and honesty when I’m her age!
LBBD: Ten years from now, what would you like to see The YP develop into?
I: Simply put, I’m hoping that 10 years from now, TYPF can expand its presence from Delhi to rural parts of the country as well. We want young people in different community to be able to claim the model and use it for self-empowerment. The grand master plan is to have youth organizations in general, be more connected such that we can work more cohesively with the government and lobby in a clearer and more productive manner for young people’s rights.
LBBD: What does it mean to be a Dilliwaala, according to you?
I: I’ve lived here for 26 years, this is not an easy city to live or work in. It pushes you, swallows you, horrifies you and then at the strangest moments, I feel like I couldn’t live anywhere else. I have a love-hate relationship with Dilli, and the racist stereotypes that flourish here. But you fight your battles in the belly of the beast, so to speak, this is where things need to change – and so walking away is just not an option. There is also this incredible beauty to it, which I haven’t found anywhere else, between the streets and the sky, on mornings like today, when the sun rises and it’s raining. And there are plenty of us, tucked away in corners, who believe in what this city should be, and are willing to stand up to corrupt bureaucracies and violence. And no, I don’t think we’re a minority. We just possibly, need to find each other.
 TYPF worked from my parent’s home in the first 5 years of its functioning, literally borrowing bedroom space from my family so we could host meetings and strategize our training sessions. My family had up to 60 young people at times in a day, unknown to us, who would visit for organizational work and trainings, working at multiple hours of the day and night, from 11.00am to 6am the next day. We were able to only afford an office after 2007, when we legally registered in 2009. From 2007 – 2009, we shifted out of my parent’s rooms to work in the garage in the house.