This week, a remarkable grassroots organization in India, Vasavya Mahila Mandali (VMM), celebrated 40 years of achievement and service. Founded by two social reformers, Saraswathi Gora and Goparaju Ramachandra Rao, VMM is an inspirational social development NGO in Andhra Pradesh that empowers vulnerable women and families to develop their talents, become productive, and change lives—their own, and those of others in their communities.

VMM’s comprehensive programs provide access to education, health, life and trade skills, as well as protect the human rights of families who are marginalized. Quite simply, its approach honors human dignity by enabling individuals and families to confront challenges they face, define their own solutions and access skills and resources to transform their situations.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to witness VMM’s “empowerment in practice”. Although the groups varied—from children living on the streets of Vijayawada and families ostracized because of HIV, to women seeking escape from abusive homes or the sex trade—VMM applied consistent principles. The process began by listening carefully as people described their lives. There was no sugar-coating of tough realities. People were asked about what they could and were willing to do to improve their circumstances with support and resources. In effect, VMM asked them if they would take ownership of change. For many, particularly children and young people, it was the first time they realized they had a voice and the power to change their lives.

The next step involved flexible and customized responses. Programs were designed, implemented and measured by the participants themselves. The solutions were practical as well as innovative. For example, based on input from street youth, a night shelter was established to offer them a safe place to sleep and where they could acquire literacy and other skills. These young people ran the facility, kept it clean and were mentors to each other. VMM established a savings program for each child who contributed 2 or 3 rupees a week from their day jobs. Far more powerful than the value of individual accounts, the practice of savings oriented these young people to think about their futures.

VMM also created forums to elevate the voices of these families and young people to policy makers and enable direct learning. By giving them a voice and platform to express their ideas, VMM has instilled a sense of identity, confidence and purpose in thousands of “lost children” in Andhra Pradesh whose lives have been affected by HIV/AIDS. Many entered VMM with the trauma of losing family members and humiliation of being ostracized. After participating in VMM’s programs, they are now earning a living and giving back as volunteer mentors, trainers and advocates of VMM’s initiatives. 

For me, VMM embodies leadership by example. As we reflect on the past year and plan for the new year, let’s draw from the inspiring work of the many organizations we know. And, as we innovate and evolve, let’s continue to listen to the voices of the people we serve.