Sometimes there are moments in a day that happen by pure accident but end up having an incredibly inspirational impact. I wanted to share one such moment that began as a casual conversation with one proud mama who happens to work in Spry Middle School’s main office. I stopped to chat with Kathy Robinson and when I asked for an update on her son, Shaun, a 2007 Webster Schroeder High School graduate. I was astounded by what she told me.
Community service has been a part of Shaun Robinson’s life for as long as he can remember. As a student at Webster Schroeder High School, he found many ways to give back to others and that commitment to service continued while he was a finance student at Bentley University outside of Boston. Bentley offered a service learning program that Robinson participated in wholeheartedly. Following graduation, he was off to New York City and a job with Deloitte Consulting. Robinson recalls that as a global budget and portfolio manager, he was “crunching numbers in Excel” and feeling a bit “antsy,” yearning for a drastic shift in his life that involved a focus on helping others.
Robinson made the bold decision to leave financial security and a high-powered finance career for a six-month social entrepreneurship opportunity with the IDEX Accelerator in Bangalore, known as the Silicon Valley of India. “I wanted something to put my heart and soul into,” Robinson recalls. He also says this opportunity was both fortuitous and serendipitous as he always had an interest in India and its rich culture. Robinson spent the next six months working in the impact investing sector, focusing on raising funds for enterprises that directly affected those most in need. He specifically worked with education-centered technology companies that developed computer software and coding programs for young women in low-income families. Alongside his placement, Robinson underwent an intensive curriculum in impact monitoring, advocacy and outreach, social innovation, and resource mobilization. It was in Bangalore that he met his business partner, Gayatri Vijaysimha. Vijaysimha, having worked in the development field for the past few years with Amnesty International and the United Nations, was able to further provide insight on development. Eager to start something, they discussed at length the potential impact of building a community hub.
While in Bangalore, Robinson interacted with many social enterprises working to bridge the gap in public and private structures. He enjoyed his work, but knew he hadn’t realized his goal. Robinson needed field experience to fully grasp the process of development and become a more effective practitioner. In July 2015, he moved to Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal. He went to work for a start-up to tackle and innovate alongside the Indian education system and was tasked with managing the academic implementation for an after school program for students attending government school. Robinson was in charge of 25 teachers, 500 students, and navigating a serious language barrier. Students entered the program significantly behind their peers, and Robinson worked to design a contextualized math program based on mastering fundamental skills in students’ own vernacular language. Robinson learned greatly, but still felt incomplete. Vijaysimha, upon return from her stint in Syria, where she designed a platform to democratize the delivery of aid with the United Nations Refugee Agency, moved to Kolkata and together, they vowed to start something new.
The two were introduced to a community living within the Liluah Baghar landfill. The community was established around 50 years ago when Dalits were forced to migrate from their homeland due to lack of land ownership. Almost all of Kolkata’s waste is dumped here (Kolkata is one of the most densely populated and polluted cities in the world with an estimated population of 14 million). A majority of the women and children rummage through the waste to gather and sell recyclable material, while the men work long hours doing manual labor. In this tapestry of misery, there are weaves of hope, and Robinson and Vijaysimha believed this was the perfect place to test their ideas on community centered development. Thus, Bagheera Project was born in August 2016 to address this extreme need and fulfill their nonprofit’s mission of “building an empowered community that is united to solve pervasive, complex issues and overcome discrimination and marginalization through skill enrichment programming, mobilizing resources, streamlining access to services and opportunities, and advocating for community rights.”
The Bagheera Project is engaged in evidence-based initiatives that will provide the people of the Liluah Baghar landfill long-term sustainability: work opportunities, training, education and health care. They are a neutral third party, able to bring the active non-governmental organizations in the area together to accomplish a common vision and create partnerships to advance the opportunities for the community. Robinson and Vijaysimha will invest the next 12 months, working closely with young and old, to impart skills and education that will provide hope and a better future. To learn about the Bagheera Project: bagheeraproject.org; facebook.com/bagheeraproject; and @bagheeraproject on Instagram. To donate: generosity.com/community-fundraising/bagheera-project-building-resilient-communities--2/x/15353117.
I’m privileged to share Robinson’s story of compassionate connection with the people of Baghar. Am I ever glad that I asked Kathy a simple question, “So, what is Shaun up to these days?”