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Revolutionary Optimist: Sikha Patra

By Rebecca Bedrossian

“We face challenges in life. If we are creative, we can overcome them.”—Sikha Patra

 

In the West, “challenge” often refers to something relatively minor: a difficult client, for example. In Sikha Patra’s community, the challenges include polio, childhood marriage, and other life-altering issues. Sixteen-year-old Sikha comes from the slums of Kolkata, India, where high-density living conditions, poor sanitation, and poverty are common.

Yet Sikha hasn’t accepted her environment’s limitations. She is a daredevil—literally. The Daredevils are a group of kids who collect health data and educate their community about vital health issues, such as polio vaccines and access to clean water.

PUPPETS AND MEGAPHONES

The Daredevils grew out of efforts led by Amlan Ganguly, the founder of Prayasam. Members of this nonprofit coach Sikha and many other children about vaccines, hygiene, and the importance of education. The kids disseminate what they learn to their peers and to older generations with story-telling techniques that include puppetry, comics, and role-playing, methods the children also learn at Prayasam.

Lively and colorful, this analog storytelling is highly effective grass-roots theater. But first, the kids have to grab the attention of sometimes-skeptical adults. “Listen, listen, listen!” urge The Daredevils through paper megaphones. “There will be polio vaccines at the club this Sunday. Please come, and bring your children!”

When Sikha began working on a monthly vaccination campaign in her community—going house to house and conducting surveys—just 25 percent of the children were getting the polio vaccine. That figure has since increased to 85 percent. It’s a dramatic improvement, but The Daredevils aren’t satisfied. They want 100 percent.

MAZES AND MAPS

To achieve 100 percent, Sikha realized she needed to know how many children lived in the area. That meant securing reliable data and a map. A Google search showed that her community was a blank spot on the globe—invisible to the rest of the world. To make this sprawling maze of narrow streets and 9,000 residents visible, Sikha set out to map it.  

Through Prayasam, Sikha and The Daredevils got involved with the Map Your World project, developed at the BAVC Producer’s Institute for New Technologies. It puts mobile technology in the hands of young change agents. Armed with smartphones, they gathered health data, gave the houses numbers, mapped, and tracked, and the community was made visible.

GOING GLOBAL

“I love telling stories,” says Sikha. As a participant in Adobe Youth Voices, she has added digital methods to her repertoire. For one of her short films, The River of Life, she tackled childhood marriage. (In Sikha’s community, most girls marry by age 18.) The girls in the film want to be self-sufficient, get an education, and find work—before they marry. By uploading her videos to YouTube, Sikha makes the whole world her audience.

Sikha and The Daredevils have also appeared in a film: The Revolutionary Optimists is a documentary that chronicles their efforts. And Sikha and Salim Shekh, her friend and another main player in The Revolutionary Optimists, participated in the TEDxChange series “Positive Disruption,” which focuses on people who challenge preconceived ideas.

LUCK VS. WORK

In some cultures, fate and destiny hold people back. Luck controls lives. “As a girl, I’m told things happen because of fate. But it’s the things I do, not luck, that determine my fate,” Sikha says. “Luck is just a word.”

Today Sikha is focused on her studies, vaccination and nutrition campaigns, and a campaign encouraging girls to go to school. Not your typical 16-year-old, she does her community work after school and on Sundays.

While Sikha faces challenges most of us will never know, she exudes enthusiasm, especially when discussing how young people armed with creativity can solve problems at home, at school, and in their communities. Inspiring other students to join the movement, she leads by example, saying, “Forget fate, move forward.”

Sikha is writing her own destiny.