Creating Leaders from Poor and Marginalised Social Groups: Grassroots Leadership Development Programme, CORO, Mumbai (Part 1)

Almost all these fellows came not only from poor families and marginalised groups but also from difficult and/​or disabling circumstances. Most of them encountered different forms of discrimination. Girls and women have faced sexual harassment and violence in their social context. Social life was highly restricted for most of these women. The GLDP has enhanced their capabilities along multiple dimensions.

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The persistence of poverty and underdevelopment in India points towards the inadequate empowerment of its poorer and marginalised groups. There is a need to enable them to empower themselves. Education can and should play an important role in this, however, the effectiveness of mainstream education in this regard is doubtful. How far the content and pedagogy of our education empower the poor and marginalised groups to resist and struggle against social structures and norms which keep them in the current situation, is not clear. Higher education in India, though may help a set of individuals belonging to these groups (through reservation in jobs) gain employment and incomes, may not be aimed at empowering these vulnerable social groups to address their challenges collectively.

The creation of informed and capable leaders should be part of quality higher education. Since a sizeable section of people from poor and marginalised groups do not complete school education successfully, they cannot access higher education even with the reservation of seats for this purpose. Therefore, there is a need to think of alternative higher education programmes to create leaders among these groups.

It is in this context that we look at the education programme of a non-governmental organisation to create grassroots leaders through its initiative, namely, the Grassroots Leadership Development Programme (GLDP) in this essay. The organisation, Committee of Resource Organisations for Literacy (CORO), headquartered in Mumbai, came into existence in the late 1980s. This essay is based on the reflections of a set of key actors of CORO and the observations of a few members of the University Practice-Connect (UPC) initiative of Azim Premji University. The interactions between these two groups, and that of the University faculty with about 20 grassroots leaders who were educated through the programme (GLDP), inform this essay.

The beginning and leadership transition

The organisation came into existence in the late eighties as a resource organisation to support the National Literacy Mission. Started by a set of urban, middle-class activists with progressive views, its initial focus was on literacy – they used non-formal adult education to empower poor people and communities.

It attracted a set of young volunteers who had only a certain level of secondary school education. Almost all of them came from poor and disadvantaged social groups living in the slums of Mumbai. It is this set of people who are now leading the operations of the organisation. They are not merely managers of different programmes; they are organic intellectuals and leaders of a social organisation which is creating hundreds of grassroots leaders from similar socio-economic groups. All the founding activists, barring one – Sujata Khandekar – have moved out and are part of other initiatives in the social/​development sector.

Hence, CORO has been successful in creating its second-generation leaders from the communities that it wants to serve. This is a major challenge that confronts a number of social organisations which are started by middle-class activists but aim at improving the welfare of poor and marginalised groups. The relative success of CORO in this regard is due to a combination of hand-holding and a process of systematic but non-formal adult education. There was a para-professional education programme that enhanced the capacity of most of these new-generation leaders. It aimed at improving their skills in communication and in understanding themselves. It also covered topics such as the history of humankind; science and society; different religions; the movements of oppressed communities, classes and women; effects of urbanisation; the functioning of different tiers of the government; etc.

Some of these second-generation leaders have pursued formal higher education while continuing with their work at CORO. This education has helped them to validate certain ideas which they have acquired through experience and internal education. They seem to believe that it is internal education that has contributed more to their perspectives, skills and other capabilities. They are able to intellectually reflect on social realities on the one hand and carry out actions methodically to make changes in their social context in the desired direction, on the other. This is important when we note that they came to the organisation without a sound educational background and from social groups whose transformation requires many more reflective and effective social actors.

The programme

The experience in creating this second generation of leaders encouraged the CORO team to design a fellowship programme to build leaders in other grassroots organisations. This programme, which started nearly 15 years ago, created more than 1500 community organisers/​leaders. The UPC team of Azim Premji University had an opportunity to interact with 20 such leaders. These were mainly women but there were a few men too. They were from different batches of the fellowship programme and were between the ages of 20 – 60 years.

The organisation was influenced by the idea of conscientisation of Paulo Friere in the design of GLDP. It is a process which enables people to think critically about the socio-cultural-political context which has shaped them, which in turn, enables them to reflect and act positively to make a change in a direction that is more equitable. The programme follows a human rights-based approach and processes are designed to be participatory and collective.

Almost all of these fellows came not only from poor families and marginalised groups but also from difficult and/​or disabling circumstances. Most of them had encountered different forms of discrimination. Girls and women have faced sexual harassment and violence in their social contexts. Social life was highly restricted for most of these women. The GLDP has enhanced their capabilities along multiple dimensions; we discuss some of these below.

The ability to reflect on and make changes in their personal lives

The programme has enhanced the ability of these fellows to reflect on their personal lives and circumstances. This is important since the majority of these fellows may have internalised the social restrictions on them and the discrimination that they are subjected to as normal’ and this may have dampened their desire to stand up against these practices. However, the leadership programme enabled them to understand their own personal circumstances (including the impact of discriminatory social norms in their personal lives) which may have shaped and prevented them from realising their aspirations. It has transformed them into highly reflective human beings. This is evident from the interactions that the UPC team had with the fellows. Each one of them – women, men, youngsters in their twenties, middle-aged, those with some level of higher education and those without – talked about their own lives with a deeper self-reflection and understating of the influence of social norms.

The ability to reflect on one’s own life and awareness of the limiting environment has encouraged them to take steps which are liberating to a certain extent. For example, it has encouraged some of these women fellows to walk out of their oppressive marriages. Some others negotiated with their spouses and families to carve out more space for their social work. The stories of the personal transformation of most of these women are phenomenal. Those who never stepped out of their homes without a male escort are now travelling long distances on their own in their work as active social workers. Those who were not actively seeking a meaningful life, but were waiting for marriage or a job, started thinking about what they could do to be useful to themselves and society. Some of them have also received local, regional and international recognition for their social actions. A few of them have travelled to other states and countries as part of their activism. All this has enhanced their exposure to and understanding of the world around them.

The ability to reflect on social problems

The programme has enabled these fellows to reflect on their social contexts and challenges in an informed manner. Identifying something as a problem’ itself requires an ability to reflect with perception. This was evident in how a woman fellow, in her early twenties, told us how her understanding of harassment (shared by others in her circle of friends and relatives) had changed. Or in the fact that a male fellow with only three years of school education could realise that different wages to men and women for the same work is a problem’. This is especially so because these kinds of discrimination have been prevalent historically.

The organisation has used a rights-based approach in its fellowship programme. The idea of a harassment- and discrimination-free environment for every individual is an important part of enabling social transformation, without which people may not work towards acquiring it.

The ability to participate and lead collective actions for change in a social context

The training and interactions as part of GLDP enabled these fellows to take action against the social issues that they had identified. These also enabled the organisation to realise that there was a need to facilitate collective action by these fellows to make a notable impact on certain social issues. Hence, it has encouraged them to come together around a few important issues/​themes.

When some of these women fellows came out of their own repressive marriages (based on a self-reflection of their own situation), they realised that single women (or single parents) face other kinds of challenges. The challenges faced by single women in India are mostly seen in the context of urban elites. However, these can be severe for women from poor families as evident from the experiences of the GLDP fellows. Addressing the issues of single women, therefore, became a rallying point for a number of these new leaders.

A set of fellows who work in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra have been active in the implementation of the Forest Right Act (FRA). The active participation of such grassroots leaders is important for the effective implementation of the FRA – an issue that Azim Premji University has recognised as crucial in its studies and capacity-building initiatives. The district administration in the region is using leaders trained through GLDP to design the implementation of the FRA.

The absence of safe and hygienic toilets (in homes and nearby public areas) is a crucial challenge for women who live in the slums of Mumbai. The absence of toilets can create conditions for increased sexual harassment, the younger women fellows of GLDP noted. That has led them to design the Right to Pee’ campaign. Demanding for and facilitating the construction and maintenance of community toilets is an important social action for these women leaders.

Enabling women to resist domestic violence and sexual harassment (including rapes) and helping poor and vulnerable families and communities to connect with law enforcement agencies are also important responsibilities of these leaders. The way women from different religious groups develop fraternal relationships among themselves and work jointly towards a common good is comforting for those who are concerned about the widening communal divide in the country.

A set of fellows have taken an active part in local democracy and social/​political mobilisations. Though a few of them are joining mainstream political parties, they are aware of the constraints of mainstream politics, namely, money, muscle power and loyalty to leaders, that continue to matter in Indian politics. One can hope that the entry of more of these women into politics can make a qualitative improvement in it.

The kind of social changes that these fellows have pursued given their limited formal education is remarkable. A man from a tribal community with only three years of formal schooling who went through the fellowship narrated his successful struggle to give equal wages to both men and women in his village. It shows the internalisation of the rights-based approach even by those with minimal formal education. The fellowship programme enabled some of them to cross the social barriers which are widely prevalent in India. A few of these leaders could build relationships across caste and religion and lead meaningful lives.

The transformation of these fellows into effective social activists has not been a smooth process; they have faced and continue to face a number of challenges. However, GLDP has raised their willingness and self-confidence in confronting these challenges.

In summary, GLDP has encouraged in its fellows a process of critical self-reflection. It has also enhanced their ability to understand their own social contexts. In addition, the programme has enhanced their capacity to respond and act to make notable changes in their personal lives and social contexts, which is an important achievement of this systematic but non-formal higher education programme. We may not see such a desirable outcome in many forms of higher education, especially in countries like India. The following section deals with this issue in our higher education.


V Santhakumar and S Das Antoni Arokianathan of University-Practice Connect jointly with the leaders of CORO

V Santhakumar is Professor at Azim Premji University, Bangaluru.

S Das Antoni Arokianathan leads the outreach for the Placement Cell at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. He has also completed his Master’s in Development from Azim Premji University. Prior to this, he worked in the area of Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) and Youth programmes as Senior Programme Manager. He is also the Founder and Board Member of a volunteer-based non-profit organisation. He has also gained expertise in programme design, planning and implementation of state-level projects and interventions while working closely with Women and Child Development in Karnataka.