From Internet To Innernet: A Unique Ecosystem

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Nipun Mehta is the founder of ServiceSpace, an incubator of projects that works at the intersection of volunteerism, technology and gift-economy. What started as an experiment with 4 friends in the Silicon Valley has now grown to a global ecosystem of over 500,000 members that has delivered millions of dollars in service for free. He has received many awards, including the Jefferson Award for Public Service, Wavy Gravy’s Humanitarian award, and Dalai Lama’s Unsung Hero of Compassion. In 2015, President Barack Obama appointed him to a council on poverty and inequality. He is routinely invited to share his message of Giftivism to wide ranging audiences.

In January 2005, Nipun and his wife, put everything aside to embark on an open-ended, unscripted walking pilgrimage in India—use our hands to do random acts of kindness, our heads to profile inspiring people, and our hearts to cultivate truth. Living on a dollar a day, eating wherever food was offered, sleeping wherever a flat surface was found, and the couple walked 1,000 kilometers before ending up at a retreat center, where they meditated for three months. He shared his experience with me in an exclusive interview:

Who are you?
Since Dec 31 of 1975, I have been called Nipun Mehta. As such, science tells me I’m 99.9% empty space and 0.1% vibration in constant flux. So, technically, I am seeker of an answer to this very question.

What have you done in life?
In junior high, I had a paper route. By high school age, my goal in life was to either become a tennis pro or a Himalayan Yogi. My 17th year transformed me in ways I can’t describe in a sentence. After that, I got a degree from UC Berkeley in Computer Science and Philosophy. A job at Sun Microsystems in my third year of college gave me more money than I needed. So, I started to give it away. As money ran out, I started to give time; and as time ran out, I gave myself. By 1999, those experiments in gifting birthed ServiceSpace that has now mushroomed into an ecosystem of 500,000 members.

What was the pilgrimage about?
6 months into our marriage, my wife and I embarked on an open-ended walking pilgrimage across India to use our hands to do random acts of kindness, use our heads to profile inspiring people, and use our hearts to cultivate truth. We ate whatever food was offered and slept wherever place was offered. After 1,000 kilometers, we ended up at a monastery where we mostly meditated for the next three months. That whole year radically deepened the values with which we wanted to carry ourselves. We survived on gift economy.

What is Gift Economy?
In a gift economy, goods and services are given without any strings attached; it is an economic system where it is the circulation of the gifts within the community that leads to increase in connections, increase in relationship strength; in this context, hoarding actually decreases wealth. At its core, gift-economy is a shift from consumption to contribution, transaction to trust, scarcity to abundance, and isolation to community.

How is that different from just philanthropy?
Gift economy is an ecosystem of sustenance where you are taken care, not by earning your keep, but by doing small acts of kindness and trusting that what goes around will eventually come around. Philanthropy, kindness and compassion are some of the values of that ecosystem.

How does it actually work?
Imagine a restaurant where there are no prices on the menu and where the check reads 0.00 with only this footnote: Your meal was a gift from someone who came before you. We hope you will pay-it-forward however you wish. That’s gift economy. Our initial response might be, “Wait, that can’t work. People will just take and not give anything.” In practice, though, it’s quite the opposite – such restaurants actually work. If you have the commitment to give long enough, inevitably there’s comes a point in time when the recipient’s cup of gratitude overflows and a pay-it-forward spirit arises naturally. There is a restaurant named Seva Cafe in Ahmedabad that runs on this philosophy.

Is this is a new idea?
Not at all. In fact, it’s an ancient idea. Native Americans in the West, Bushmen tribes of the Kalahari Desert in Africa, monastic traditions of the East, and perhaps all indigenous cultures around the world were rooted in the gift-economy.

What are your fundamental guiding principles?
Be volunteer run. Don’t fund raise— friend raise. Think small.

How can we work together?
Tag someone with a Smile Card, sit in silence on a Wednesday, sign up for DailyGood, volunteer on a ServiceSpace project, start a gift-economy endeavor, host public event with everyday heroes, or simply do an act of service that makes you come alive. In serving others, we’ll find ways to stay connected.

Empowering With Cinema

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Oorvazi Irani is an independent film-maker, film educationalist and acting coach based in Mumbai besides being the Director of her home production media company SBI Impresario Pvt. Ltd., incorporated by her father Sorab Irani in 1975. As a pioneer she is the only International Baccalaureate film teacher in Mumbai, and she understands the need for young minds to be nurtured into the powerful medium of cinema in a globalized and interconnected world. She has recently directed, produced and acted in the feature film The Path of Zarathustra which is probably the only feature film produced on the first prophet Zarathustra, an ancient faith followed by Parsis who are now a dwindling community on the possible verge of extinction. She shared her experience with me in an exclusive interview:

Who are you?
An artist—ever seeking, ever learning and striving to reach out and self-actualize. I prefer not slotting myself into fixed compartments and I play various roles that help me to keep my spirit alive and kicking – professionally I feel connected and excited by the medium of cinema and that is my universe in which I live.

I make films, I teach films, I write about films – or should I say I married cinema and have now given birth to little creations (films), it’s all in the family.

What do you think is the role of cinema? Do you think that films can bring social change?
Cinema is a medium that affects your emotions, your senses and your intellect and thus can bring about a change in a very complete and powerful manner, it is the combination of all the arts. It is the art of the modern century, the art of the future as it has technology as its central pillar.

Cinema, like all art, affects the world of ideas and emotions and that is where real change first occurs, the world is created from that space. Good cinema is like a seed it can grow a forest inside you. And yes, it can sow the seeds of a revolution in thought, in attitudes, in culture, in belief system, in law, in politics and fashioned on that would be the world you create and live in.

The The Path of Zarathustra is a film, which essentially talks about Zoroastrianism, why should a non-Parsi see this film?
I feel any film, any art for that matter talks about the specific and through that reaches out to the universal. My first short film Mamaiji was a cinematic portrait of my maternal grandmother and it was specific and personal but the audiences connected with the universal concept of a grandmother and each found their own in the image of my grandmother. Similarly, in this film even though the film is revolving around the Parsi Parsi faith of Zoroastrianism the film is tacking the universal aspect of belief system. It’s interesting that at the Kolkata International Film Festival, where my film was recently screened to a 800 packed audience, I had many non-Parsis come up to me after the screening and congratulated me and quite a few said that they were moved with the experience and it helped answer some of their own personal deep rooted questions on faith and belief system.

As a creator of the above film, how have you managed to bring magic and reality on the screen together?
The film is in the magic realism genre—the narrative does not necessarily follow rational logic in time and space at all times and I would like to believe it has a magical spirit but the world inhabited at the same time is very real, there is great care in the production design including locations, props and costumes to portray a real world in all its detail. It’s not special effects that we are dealing with but a subtle rational logic that’s amiss and makes the experience challenging and hopefully stimulating. To illustrate my point, three characters in the film are first introduced to be real people in the real world but soon you realize they are not truly real and are spirits of the historical past, not spirits as in ghosts but creative manifestations of that spirit. As a film-maker, I find it very satisfying to be able to create a world, a universe with my film that is suspended between the real and the unreal—fantasy—and take the audience on this mysterious journey and hopefully in that gap I try to glimpse the truth with them.

How do you wish to contribute to social change using your art and craft?
Social change can be achieved by addressing important themes and ideas besides issues that need our attention, so as a film-maker, I strive to take up the cause of making such films, some are overtly social causes and some are more subtle and disguised. I feel all genuine art starts from oneself and therefore it stems from your identity and I will continue to discover myself and the world being a Parsi, a woman and a human being.

What is your dream?
My dream is to stir the consciousness of individuals with my art with beauty and grace and nurture the youth empowering them with the language of cinema.

Any message for aspiring film-makers?
Seek your unique individual self before you create but that does not mean you procrastinate, if you want to make films don’t just think about it, go out and make it. On a lighter note if it would not be for father, I would still be thinking about that ideal film which I want to make, so I would say go out there and make those imperfect little works of art and strive for excellence.

When was the last time you decided to quit, but picked it up again and gave it one last try?
I had started the process of trying to get funds for my debut feature film The Path of Zarathustra and for some time now there was no progress, father suggested to shelve the project. Even my well-wishers said that Parsis will not fund the film. This was my dark night and I felt all dejected but soon a thought replaced this dejection and I just made up my mind that this film has to be made come what may and once I did that it was actually like the universe conspired to make it happen. I got the funds and the film got made. I remember when I was young and had chicken pox, I think and looked at myself in the mirror, I hated myself the way I looked and was very depressed, and the disease was at its peak. And that’s when father said:

Only when things get so bad that there is no choice, they have to get better after that. So, the dark night is when you prepare for the dawn and don’t give up as dawn is not far behind, and believing in it makes it come alive. It helps to find a deeper purpose in what you are doing and it drives you harder to succeed.

I salute the spirit of this film-maker and wishes her success for all her future projects.

Camera Is Mightier Than The Gun

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TASVEER is a student founded and run youth initiative that offers free photography and cinematography services to any NGO that would like to publicize and document its work through these forms of media. Two 17 year young students living in Mumbai, Riya Behl and Aaryaman Sen, began this in 2015 and there are now teams all over India. The Founders shared their experience to me in an exclusive interview.

You’re just in your teens, how did this Do-good side happen and why?
Often through mainstream media, we only hear about people doing good or making a difference in the world by donating large sums of money to a cause. So as teenagers, we’re made to believe our contribution to helping someone should ideally be a monetary one and so this Do-good side can be achieved only when we’re much older. But we refused to believe this was the only worthwhile contribution we could make. So, we put time is more precious than money into practice. After all, everyone of any age has 24 hours in a day. And so, by providing our time to NGOs and our skill of photography and cinematography, we realized we could make a difference. This realization marked the beginning of our do-good side.

When we reach our teens, we’re brimming with dreams and ambition to change the world but we don’t know where to start. This do-good side happened when we decided to start somewhere despite people saying we’re too young. Pen is mightier than the sword, camera is mightier than the gun!

How did TASVEER come into existence?
About a year ago, my school newspaper asked me to photograph a social project wherein grade 11 students taught peons and other support staff rudimentary English and Computer Applications in an attempt to improve their ability to understand their work. The assignment was gratifying in a manner unlike anything I had ever done before. Contrary to my expectations, the employees were thrilled to be in front of a camera. For ninety minutes, they were stars of a show, grasping concept after concept with astounding ease and sneaking poses in for me in between. It was an awe-inspiring display of optimism and adaptability in the face of harsh conditions, the first of many I would have the privilege of witnessing. Later that night, I relayed an account of this to Riya, and in the following week, we founded TASVEER.

What is your mission?
Our aim is to two-fold: Firstly, to offer high-quality photographs and video to NGOs for free. Our world is powered by social media and imagery plays a pivotal role in showcasing the work of these organizations. So, we hope to help NGOs strengthen their on-line visibility. Secondly, a majority of our audience on Facebook right now is teenagers. We want to expose teenagers to a wide spectrum of community work and encourage them to be part of different NGO initiatives. We believe people of any age can make a difference if they are willing to provide their time.

Describe the scope of your service?
Our journey has been phenomenal. It has made us look at photography as not only an artistic medium but also an opportunity for us to contribute to our community by telling the stories that really matter. We have three teams in these cities, each comprised of 20-30 enthusiastic, talented photographers and cinematographers working together for a cause. Lately, we have also embraced the task of creating and fostering socially impactful video content.

How many volunteers serve through TASVEER at the moment? How can someone join?
Around 80, all three cities combined. They vary from 14-20 years of age and majority of us don’t know each other, our common cause has brought us together. It’s a very simple process to join us. Contact us from our social media presence.

What are the challenges you face?
We’re restricted to some extent by our will to maintain our integrity as a student-run initiative. On occasion, we aren’t able to offer our services to those requesting them due to their timings clashing with school hours, extracurricular activities or exams. However, we work extremely hard with a group of incredibly dedicated people to make sure these occasions are kept to a minimum.

What is your definition of youth?
Youth is the capacity and desire to make mistakes; to keep getting better; to keep moving forward. As soon as we stop and settle down, I think youth ceases to exist.

What is your message for youth?
If you have an idea, stick with it. Start small but work on it. And keep working, keep innovating, keep creating. Our initiative began with just two people. It’s OK if you don’t get that many Facebook likes or Instagram followers to validate this idea. The only validation you need is your belief. So, believe in your capability to make this idea a reality and don’t let anyone tell you your age can stop you from helping someone. You’ll soon find you have a whole army of friends on the Internet who will provide unwavering support and endless knowledge. Use these resources to network and reach out to people who share similar beliefs.

Never before have we had the opportunity to be so connected around the world. Use this. Together you are stronger. Together, what began as a small, fleeting idea is now much more.

I salute the spirit of these young students who are changing the face of youth and the nation. I believe that through these little acts of kindness and selfless compassion we can create a wonderful world for ourselves, and the generations to come.

The Toilet God Of India

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Jayeshbhai Patel is the co-founder and director of Manav Sadhna in India. Formed in 1990 with the mission to serve the underprivileged, the trust now provides health and hygiene, education, and employment services to over 4,500 women and children through over 38 projects. The trust runs Environmental Sanitation Institute that has become a main center to provide manpower as well as technical know-how and research facility for cleanliness work in the country, especially for toilet. He shared his experience with me in an exclusive interview:

What is your idea of cleanliness?
Cleanliness is a beautiful word. Where there is cleanliness, there is beauty, there is order. My father used to say that cleanliness means to keep a thing at its designated place. For example, if hairs are on head—cleanliness but if it’s in food—uncleanliness. If you go to toilet—cleanliness but if you go on road—uncleanliness. If you put your garbage in dustbin—cleanliness, if you it throw on road—uncleanliness.

Today, thousand hands litter and few hands clean. The one who cleans is looked down by the society and one who litters, easily escapes. We’ve coined the manual scavengers—cleaners of our garbage or latrine—as untouchables but when a mother cleans the latrine of her child, it’s quite okay for the society. No one calls her an untouchable and hence, this thinking has to go. Cleanliness or sanitation is everybody’s work, not only of a particular community or individual.

But why put so much emphasis on cleanliness?
Cleanliness or sanitation has a scientific side attached. If you’re unclean, you’ll be ill, if you’re ill, you can’t go to work, if you can’t got work, you cant earn, if you can”t earn, you can’t eat good food—so there is uncleanliness in the root of poverty; physical and economical both. Today, the situation is such that we keep ourselves clean but don’t keep our country clean. Cleanliness is Godliness.

There is gold in garbage. There is no waste as such, best can come out of waste – in the form of gold. There is so much to do with waste but we should have the consciousness for it.

What do you think is the solution?
If we want cleanliness and sanitation, we’ve to develop good habits. Cleanliness is not a project, it’s a value system, it’s an art and it’s a service. Cleanliness is a work of compassion. In India, 80% cause of any disease is unsafe water and poor sanitation. Prevention is better than cure, so instead of going to the doctor now and then, we should cultivate clean habits. We should follow the 4 R formula—Reduce, Recycle, Reuse and Refuse.

Why was Environmental Sanitation Institute established and what does it do?
The institute was established to support our cleanliness and sanitation workers. We work in the areas of training, construction, and supervision of environmental sanitation campaigns across India. Our passion to change the current poor national and global sanitation situation stems from the Gandhian philosophy of eradication of in-accountability. The dangerous and demeaning practice of scavenging, or manual removal of feces, and its designation to the lowest caste in India has been the motivation for us.

We expertise in low-cost sanitary technology that has spawned the construction of a new training and education institute for sanitation to meet the need and demand for such programs. The institute is used not only for current training and capacity building programs, but also to provide training, workshops, and research opportunities for professionals, NGO representatives, university and post-graduate level students. The Eco-friendly site reflects our dedication to creating a world free of un-accountability and harmful pollution and waste.

What is story behind being called The Toilet God Of India?
In 1958, my father, Ishwarbhai Patel, was fondly called by this title. He has dedicated his entire life for cleanliness and sanitation work. I was in college and peers used to call me Baby Toilet and I felt proud about it. Most of the women in villages go to the toilet at night. They control the call of nature the entire day, and face health problems like constipation. At night, they’re victim of eve-teasing and sometime, rape. Won’t I built toilets for my mothers and sisters? We have lockers in our homes but why not toilet?

In India, we have more televisions, telephones, temples than toilets. If we have to clean our mind, we go to prayer houses, but where do we go to clean clean our body—in the toilet. This is the entire focus of my work—toilet, cleanliness and sanitation. Father is no more, and now I am the proud owner of this title.

I salute to the spirit of this worshiper of cleanliness and sanitation. I sincerely hope that all of us get inspired by his message.