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What do you want to be when you grow up? Allie Shier, RangSutra Crafts India

Aap badi hokar kya bhanaa chaahti ho?

What do you want to be when you grow up?

This is a question that I have been asked countless times. It is a question that has evoked a range of emotions over the years, ranging from excitement about a vision for the future, to anxiety from having too many options, to the disinterest that comes from being asked the same question over and over again. My responses, too, have shifted as I learned about potential career paths and opportunities that awaited me. I was raised to believe that I could do anything. Anything was possible if I worked hard enough.

I was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. My parents always encouraged me to nurture my skills and interests. I took art, tennis, and dance lessons; I went to summer camp in Northern Ontario; I travelled around South America independently. I studied very hard in school and was always working toward the next stage in my life; I couldn’t wait until high school, then university, and then graduate school in London, England. I have been given many opportunities to explore who I want to be and to decide, through trial and error, what I want to be when I grow up. This is something that I may have taken for granted.

It was not until later that I truly came to understand that this question is one that many girls just like me, with ambitions and capabilities, are not afforded the opportunity – the right – to answer. Many girls have their life’s path deeply etched into the walls of their homes, where rigid gender roles threaten to confine them. RangSutra Crafts India, where I am completing my AKFC International Youth Fellowship, works to change this narrative while honouring rich cultural traditions. RangSutra empowers artisans in remote villages across India by providing them with a steady income, a social network, and the chance to become leaders.

Photo provided by: RangSutra Crafts

Working with RangSutra, I have seen first-hand how this social enterprise connects women to the global economy through craft. I have watched designers create beautiful embroideries, meticulously analyzing each stitch. I have heard stories from artisans about how working with RangSutra has enriched their world. RangSutra has humbled me and enlightened me about the powerful ways in which what we wear can influence our lives, the lives of others, and our environment. I have seen how all of this ultimately enables girls to be asked and to answer the question:

Aap badi hokar kya bhanaa chaahti ho?

What do you want to be when you grow up?

“I want to be a leader in my village!” – Ashiya, Ajeri Village, Rajasthan

In Fall 2017, RangSutra and a partner organization, UMBVS, invited 25 women to participate in a Craft Managers Training Workshop in Bap, Rajasthan. Here, the women were given the space to have important conversations about RangSutra’s work, girls’ education, and financial management. They were given the tools to channel their drive to lead into managerial positions in their communities. On this field visit, I helped to organize and set up the event. I also observed the group discussion and was given the opportunity to interview some of the participants for a research project. This allowed me to learn more about how working with RangSutra has impacted participants’ lives and given them more autonomy and decision-making power in their homes and villages.

It was inspiring to see these women leave their villages for the first time to participate in the workshop. They expressed a desire to learn more than just how to stitch and sew. “We are not just here to learn ralli [a Rajasthani method of patchwork]. We are here to connect with each other and to have important conversations,” one participant from Mangan Khan Ki Dhani village expressed to the group. The artisans spoke about saving their money, sending their daughters to school, and providing a future for their children. For these women, ralli represents more than just a sewn quilt; through craft, their lives are now woven together, interconnected through their drive for independence and autonomy.

After this inspirational workshop, I was taken to URMUL Setu campus, a vocational training school in Lunkaransar, Rajasthan, to meet the next generation of Indian female leaders who live and study there. URMUL Trust is an NGO with seven platforms to empower rural Indians, from health care, women’s empowerment, and education, to livelihood development, which includes embroidery, weaving, and sewing. The artisans who work with URMUL are shareholders in RangSutra Crafts.

What I expected to be a quick visit ended up being an experience that will stay with me forever. When we opened up the classroom doors, we were greeted by 100 smiling girls. I was overwhelmed with thoughts of my own privilege as I looked into the eyes of the girls seated before me, all first-generation girl students in their families. We introduced ourselves and received a warm introduction in return, filled with poetry and song. When the time came to ask the girls some questions, I had to ask:

Aap badi hokar kya bhanaa chaahti ho?

What do you want to be when you grow up?

“A teacher!”, one girl exclaimed.

“A police officer!”, another girl stood up.

“A dancer!”, a girl in the back of the room bellowed.

Before I knew it, girls all around the room were standing up one after another, proudly sharing their dreams for the future. “I want to be in the army!” “I want to be a singer!” “I want to be a social worker!” The question stirred waves of hope in the sea of students before me; students with dreams and ambitions, and a place to learn from and inspire each other.

One student stood up to describe the school to the visitors. She had abandoned her dupatta and kurta (traditional Indian clothing) for short hair and blue jeans. She proudly explained, “At school, there are no distinctions between caste or creed, girl or boy. We are all equal until we turn 18.” This made me wonder: what happens when these girls turn 18 and return to their villages? Does the empowerment that they experienced at school get washed away? Would this brave girl be pressured to grow out her hair and trade her button-down shirt for a saree? I thought about this as the girls sang and danced before we said our final goodbyes. They sang a beautiful melody, with powerful lyrics that I later learned described all of the amazing things that girls are capable of doing.

My experiences in the field have given me inspiration for my own work and hope for the future. I feel comforted knowing that RangSutra continues to support these girls long after they finish their studies so that they can continue to grow into autonomous agents of change in their communities.

I will never stop asking girls what they want to be when they grow up, or what they want to be now, in the present. Organizations like RangSutra and URMUL grant women and girls the right to answer this question freely and with the possibility of fulfilling their dreams. I cannot wait to discover the important contributions these girls will make in their communities, in India, and in the world.

Allie Shier was part of the 2017-2018 cohort of the International Youth Fellowship Program. She participated in the International Development Management stream of the program and was placed at RangSutra in India.

Since 1989, Aga Khan Foundation Canada (AKFC) has been helping to develop young Canadian leaders in the field of international development through its International Youth Fellowship Program.

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