Teach For India – In Conversation with Shaheen Mistri

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Watch the full conversation on the Spaces International YouTube channel.

Shaheen Mistri, CEO, Teach for India, Founder, Gender, Transformed Spaces, Safe Spaces, Spaces International, Inclusion, Mixed Race, Interracial, Experience

Shaheen Mistri is the CEO of Teach For India, and has earned global recognition for her commitment to the fight for educational equity. Shaheen launched Teach For India in 2008. The organization has recruited, trained, and placed nearly 1700 Fellows with over 1200 alumni working to end educational inequity.

Could you share some of your story and journey so far with us?

I was one of those people that very early on had a lot of clarity as to what I wanted to do. I think as as early as 12 or 13 I knew that I loved kids, I loved animals and I wanted to do something that made a difference in the world. Then at 18 was the first really big moment of my life where I dropped out of Tufts University. I moved back to India, walked into a deprived community and started teaching. I decided purely on an instinct that I wanted to be in India and do something in India. So that was the first major milestone. At that point I think what I wanted to do was really use the resources that I saw everywhere around me for the education of kids and that led to the first organisation I set up which was called Aakanksha. I was very young. I was 18 and I didn’t really know anything about anything- including about teaching.

We started our founding board as college students. We’d sit around in each other’s homes and think back to our school days – what we liked and didn’t like. We started by teaching ourselves and mobilising volunteers to teach. Akanksha was a huge learning and growing experience for me. I spent 17 years building it up. The vision of Aakanksha was to give kids living in poverty an excellent education. Through that experience I got to spend a lot of time in communities, a lot of time with children and a lot of time teaching. That shaped me in the most profound of ways.

Then 17 years later the next big milestone was a sort of ‘looking in the mirror’ and asking ‘how do I do this at a larger scale?’, given the complexity and scale of india. That’s when I founded Teach for India, which was not a new idea. It was modelled after and deeply inspired by Teach for America, which had started years earlier in the US. It was based on the idea that if we are to solve the problem of equity in education, we need leadership and we need leaders to come together across sectors at every level of the system to solve the problem, that very deeply resonated with me. So I launched Teach for India. Teach for India is now 11 years old – we have completed our first decade! That in a nutshell is my story.

You mentioned starting Aakanksha with friends, sitting in people’s houses. How did you know who to contact, who the right people were for your team? Did you just approach everyone you knew, or were you more strategic about who you picked?

I was not at all strategic! I think at that time I enrolled in a college – Xavier’s college in Mumbai. I would hand paint posters saying things like “You can make a difference, do something!” and I would walk around from class to class and put these posters up. I literally walked up to people sitting in the canteen chatting, and I would ask them questions like “why aren’t you doing anything to solve all of India’s problems?” Looking back, I think people were a little taken aback. But interestingly I never came across a single student that didn’t want to do something – and that was really powerful for me. I realised that there were a lot of things stopping people from acting, but the intention to do good and contribute was very, very high. That’s how I started and through that organically some people became more interested. The first five years we were all volunteers so it was literally people that had a little bit of time and wanted to do something who came together.

Did you feel any hesitation internally or a fear of people’s responses?

No. I think it’s so interesting so much of our actions reflect our personality. I think and there’s an aspect of my personality that’s quite rebellious and part of that means that I don’t care that much about what most people say. I care dis-proportionally about what a few people say. For me the the idea that I may approach someone and they may say no or they may think it’s a stupid idea, mattered less. I remember, for example, one of the big early challenges at Aakanksha was finding a space to teach. I went to 20 schools and they all said no – some of them for the most bizarre reasons. As a younger person I couldn’t understand people saying, “ basic education is revolutionary and I don’t want people from slum communities in the same classroom as high income kids.” But I just kept going, and I said eventually someone is going to say yes. I guess I was quite thick-skinned and didn’t care that much about the no. It served me well in many ways, it it has a flip side as well of course!

What would you say were the most difficult challenges or barriers for you?

I think the most difficult undoubtedly have been the real problems children who live in poverty face. Nothing has been as difficult. 30 years into this work when a child commits suicide or a child has severe mental health issues or a child ‘s father is abusing a young girl in the home – that’s not the kind of thing you ever get used to. And that’s been the most difficult – that constant reminder of what it means to grow up in poverty and the disproportionate challenges our kids face. And then extend that and very closely think about the impact that has on the people that work with the child. How does a 23 year old fellow process those kinds of challenges and issues? learning how to support them and be there for tem while at the same time embracing the idea that there are challenges we just have to face and we have to develop the resilience to be able to do that – I think that’s been the hardest challenge.

If I were to choose a very close second it is the surprising mindsets at so many different levels. When I was young, I used to spend a lot of time in the community encountering mindsets that were very different from my own. When I started my work we were all volunteers and I struggled with the mindset towards volunteering where sometimes you’d show up and then if there was a movie with your friends you wouldn’t show up. People’s mindsets and shifting that have been much bigger challenges for me than the actual challenges that are ongoing, like raising funds or leveraging the government. Also of course, building a team. All of those are difficult. But it is people’s biases, mindset, shifting the way they think and then shifting the way that I think about it all – that has been the toughest.

How do you ensure that you’re constantly listening and challenging your own mindset?

One of the main things I ask myself is – ‘who are those people and things around you, that have really been a mirror, that made you look at yourself in different ways?’ At the top of the list would actually be the children I work with. They help me see things very, very differently, for example, the way I thought about the amount I give to others.  I saw children give so unconditionally, and realised I never really understood what unconditional giving looked like. It was also seeing the courage they had and going back, needing to look in the mirror and really asking myself, “are you courageous and how and how much more can you push yourself?” I think when you work with children and communities that live with so much challenge there is a resilience and a courage and a compassion you see every single day that is humbling. That’s really been a very big mirror for me.

More recently, it’s been more explicit practices while I’m spending more time on my own. It’s been different things at different times. Spending time with animals has taught me a great deal about who I want to be. Meditation, the people around me, conversations, learning from people that are very different from me and listening to them – it’s all work in progress.

I got a little bit of a shock a couple of years ago, when we went through a crisis within Teach for India. I had always thought of myself as a deeply empathetic person but feedback I got when we really looked into it was not so. It turned out there were blind spots I had around listening, around power, that I was unaware of. Just being as open as you can be, is really helpful. You keep getting surprised by your own thoughts and things you need to work on.

When you were made aware of blind spots, what was your internal reaction? How did you handle that and move forward?

For me, there were phases of reaction. The first was a little bit of disbelief and shock. I think the second was action. I’m a very action oriented person. I don’t like remaining in the space of thinking for too long. I learn from doing. So I thought, ‘let me just do it differently!’ If I wasn’t doing something enough, I could do that more. The last phase, I think, was tremendous gratitude that it had surfaced. Even if you go through that difficult time, the worst thing is actually the ignorance. Because it’s all happening around you, but you’re ignorant of your own blind spots. I think, just knowing and acknowledging that has been really, really helpful. One thing that a board member told me years ago, is something that I’ve clung to, for many years. This was at a time when I was very worked up – I wasn’t able to manage home, I wasn’t able to manage work, and everything seemed like a struggle. She sat down and said, “who do you think you are?” And I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “Why do you act like you’re Superwoman? I want to tell you, you’re fairly ordinary. You’re never going to be a superwoman at home, you’re never going to be a superwoman at work. The minute you stop trying to be that, you will accept yourself as human and other people will accept you as human as well.” That has been really liberating for me -the idea that I don’t have to be perfect, that I don’t even need to aspire to be perfect. I can just be human.

What has it looked like for you as a mother, while starting up some very big organizations like Teach for India and having to negotiate that while raising two daughters? How have you balanced it all?

I think if you were to ask my, my daughters, they would say, not very well! I think balance has been extremely difficult. For many years, I didn’t even believe in the concept of balance. I actually thought that to be successful and to have impact in the world, you need to be imbalanced and that really pushed me. There’s still a part of me that hangs on to that and says, ‘anyone I really look up to in the world, threw themselves entirely into what they achieved.’  I struggle a lot with balance. What helped me a lot over time was letting go of guilt. I used to hold on to a lot of guilt. One day I just woke up and said, it’s such an unhelpful emotion, it makes you feel bad, and it doesn’t change anything. And that comes back to that theme of – the more you see yourself as flawed as human, as not needing to be perfect – the more accepting you are, and counter-intuitively, the more effective you become, because you then have a lot of positive energy. After that day, I started becoming more aware of when the imbalance was affecting me. And I would rebalance at those times. But it’s taken me a lot of a lot of time. And I’m still definitely not fully there.

So much of this is just internal work and it’s slow internal work which is where daily meditation, silence, reflection and having people around you who are your mirror and accept you unconditionally are crucial. Those pieces all together don’t change the situation, but help you become much better at dealing with life.

What would be your top three self care practices?

For me it’s about spending time doing things that give me energy. Those things have changed at different times in my life. One is spending time very consciously with people who give me energy. I realized that a lot of my energy was getting pulled down by a few people around me. There’s nothing wrong with those people, but they just drained my energy. Second is learning new things –  that gives me a tremendous amount of energy. I’ve recently started painting, which has given me a lot of joy and energy over the last year. The third is spending time with animals. We got a new puppy, just three days ago and I have six animals at home. That also gives me a lot of a lot of empathy.

A lot of people connecting with spaces are ordinary people, feeling really small and daunted by the scale of the problems, which have been highlighted in so many ways in 2020. What would you say to people like that – ordinary people around the world who see the need for change, and think ‘I would love to do something, but the problem is so big and how can I ever hope to make a dent in this?’

At the risk of retelling a cliched story, the starfish story comes to mind. A little boy was walking on the beach while the tide was washing up thousands of starfish. This little boy started picking up one at a time and throwing them back into the sea. A man comes up to him says, “What are you doing? It’s so pointless! For every one you throw in, 1000s are being washed up.” The boy looks at the man, picks up one more, throws it in and says, “But for that one, it made a difference.”

I think that’s the way increasingly, we need to see our place in the world – every step that we take, every kind word that we put into the world, every kind action, every time we help somebody. It’s the collective force of good and when we add to that, there is real hope for the world.

When I was 18, when I first started my work, I had the same question. I thought I had to change everything! I remember I was interning with a reporter from The Times of India and he sat me down at a small South Indian restaurant. He pulled out a piece of paper and asked me to write the population of the world down.  I put the denominator down and then he said, “now put a line over it and put one at the top.” He said, “ that’s you and that’s the number of people in the world – anything you can do more than that is good.” Don’t try to solve everything – just take a lot of pride and confidence every step and push up as much as you can.

Is there anything else you’d like to say to our community?

Thank you so much and good luck to all of you at Spaces. I really hope that it is a safe and constructive space for real dialogue. The most powerful thing that can change the world is real, honest, authentic conversation in spaces that allow you to be fully yourself. So good luck to you all!

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