“Giving back, paying it forward”

“Giving back, paying it forward”

January 28, 2013

I have always been possessed by an inexorable urge to fix what is broken: to penetrate, heal, reform those institutions that entrench social inequities and compress the human potential. I come from a family for whom subverting such structures was once cardinal to survival. My parents, both born and raised in Africa, arrived in the United States with little more than a passport and burgeoning dreams. My father— a bright, wiry boy bred on khichdi and Swahili— barely escaped the brutal regime of Idi Amin, when at age 17 he was forced to flee Uganda with his family. Political refugees, they lost everything, but America opened to them a new life and new possibilities that enabled my father to go to college, become a software engineer, and join a company soon swept into Silicon Valley lore. My mother, the youngest daughter of eight in Tanzania, left her home for England at the age of 16 to seek a better education. Moving to the states after pursuing a law degree, she eagerly earned her citizenship only to pay it forward by opening her own immigration law firm. As the fruit of my parents’ journeys and their struggles since to realize the American dream, I have been raised with the conviction in the intrinsic dignity of each individual’s narrative and the experience that how we reach out and touch the world is how the world will reach back and shape us in the future.

 

It is this spirit that imbues all I pursue, from my medical aspirations to my present public service. For as a young Indian-American, one of the first principles I imbibed from my parents was seva, or that life’s greatest gift lies in service, for it is when we give to others what we desire the most for ourselves that we truly attain peace. To this end, from my earliest childhood I have sought to give back, volunteering from San Jose, CA to Kolkata, India to try to improve communities’ quality of life. Galvanized especially by the gender inequities I had witnessed, at age 15, I determined to build an organization that would equip girls globally to assert their potential and effect positive change. Of course, launching a venture was not easy. I needed to code a website but had never once used Java or HTML. I needed to open a corporate bank account but had never deposited a check in my own. Managing the finances and paperwork of a full-fledged organization seemed inconceivable. But I had an idea, an idea worth spreading so simple that my team made it our name: Girls Helping Girls. So we launched our first chapter in India, then Ghana, then Nigeria. Then almost surreally, we started receiving phone calls and emails from girls in other countries, girls who were just itching to change realities but simply didn’t know how. And remarkably, propelled by our youthful idealism and conviction, these conversations burgeoned into a global community that today has trained and mobilized thousands of young women to challenge and redress social inequities.

 

Working with these young women has been an incredible journey, flush with sundry lessons, failures, insights, and epiphanies. But to this day, the most significant lesson I have learned is that, though Advanced Calculus and Biochemistry, Computer Science and Econometrics are important and enriching, no lesson is more vital than the understanding that every person has the power and destiny to change her world, and each decision she makes is as a portal to shaping this better reality. From my parents’ story and mine, I have learned that social transformation begins with the self, once a person recognizes her intrinsic potential; it blossoms from relationship, through service with others; and it thrives on persistence, faith, mentorship, and resilience from failure. It is not an easy journey: there are lots of ups and downs, pauses, and pivoting. But then a person does not embark upon this journey for its simplicity. A person becomes a changemaker when she realizes that if she is not outside her comfort zone, she is not learning; if she is not pushing her potential to the limit, then she is not giving of herself fully to the world. And while the thought of such action may be daunting, not seizing that opportunity— to reimagine, to challenge, to reform an unjust world— is even more dangerous. Because the world desperately needs us. It needs our seva, to keep moving humanity forward.