Rohit was born in a middle-class North Indian family that favored STEM over the humanities and, more importantly, social work. Hence Rohit's foray into the developmental sector came as a surprise. However, when he began seriously pursuing volunteering at his corporate workspace, it led him to his current path. His commitment to education was so strong that he pursued an M.A. in Education from TISS while working full-time at TCS. He spent weekends volunteering with educational institutions and non-profits, and this newfound passion slowly ignited the zest to become a full-time educator.
Against the wishes of his family, Rohit left the corporate world and started working with Akanksha Foundation, an NGO in the education space. Having learned a tremendous amount about educational equity and diversity with the organization, he moved to his current position as CEO of the Apni Shala Foundation. While talking about his journey in the development sector, Rohit is incredibly particular that his work should not stem from a savior mindset. More than "saving the world," Rohit is particularly focused on understanding it.
Rohit believes that the work of education is to improve one's mental capacities. In the era of mental health advocacy, Rohit and his organization are focusing on the often neglected source of trauma — childhood. Traumatized children often become anxious adults who lack the support to understand and process their emotions and experiences.
Children spend a dominant part of their childhood in schools, and yet the educational system in India does not have the infrastructure to develop the mental well-being of children as a part of the academic design. Rohit tells us this problem is twofold: schools lack the infrastructure and support, while teachers lack the tools, skills, and training to nurture the mental well-being of children.
In this regard, Apni Shala imparts socio-emotional learning (SEL) to school children. Their SEL process, often branded as "activities and games hour" for better acceptance in the Indian school ecosystem, is focused on developing self-awareness, social awareness, self-regulation, and interpersonal skills which are vital for one's societal and institutional existence. Strong SEL skills lay a foundation for stable and less anxiety-ridden experiences in academic, professional, and personal relationship settings.
Rohit is well aware that one’s mental health is a result of the environment. Hence, Apni Shala’s efforts are not limited to school children alone, but to stakeholders - i.e. teaching staff and parents - as well. He strongly believes that supporting the soil aids the growth of saplings within it.
Rohit candidly shares an anecdote from Covid times. His team had arranged for a parent's meeting with his trainers online and at the end of the meeting they could notice one of the parents had teary eyes. When enquired, the parent responded that the meeting was the first time in two months that they had spoken to adults.
Covid had forced most of their neighbors to migrate, leaving this parent isolated in an otherwise crowded society. Other parents could relate to the sense of isolation. They joined in to cheer this parent up by sharing numbers and asking for monthly parent training instead of quarterly ones. It was quite magical how a training session could generate solidarity through shared vulnerability.
Rohit also spoke about a headmaster who realized the impact of corporal violence on a child’s mind. In one of the school activities, children were asked what they were most afraid of. One kid told the trainers "When my father is angry at me and is about to hit me." The headmaster of the school, who was watching this session, walked to Rohit after the session and confessed his realization, "I didn’t realize how much fear I must have induced in the kids I care for in the process of disciplining them."
Rohit and his team work for moments like these. We have been raised by a generation who think it is quite normal to beat children. Even today, this behavior is a justified method to teach children discipline and how to behave and act in the world. Sadly, the ends cannot and should not justify the means. Parental and academic violence has been normalized for the Indian boomer generation and their households because their parents did the same. Breaking this chain of violence requires dialogue with the persons who perpetrate such violence; it is an uncomfortable, but necessary process that can educate parents on the ineffectiveness of such violence and the grave costs that children face. Through this, they too, victims of violence, can make peace with their scars and misgivings.
This requires holding space for them as they become aware of their own experiences, their own childhood, and how those experiences and mindsets have shaped their adult lives. Safe to say, breaking the generational cycle of violating children in the name of discipline is not an easy task but is an imperative one. To do this, Rohit and his team do not shy away from creating safe spaces for children, teachers, and parents.
When asked about compassion fatigue, which is quite common among social workers, and how he deals with it, Rohit gives us a profound answer.
The distress is coming because the dominant and powerful groups are not ready to create more harmonious systems of care, love, and well-being for all. They operate essentially from a deficit mindset.
He correctly points out the source of distress — not the marginalized groups that social workers tend to, but the systems designed to keep these groups marginalized. The distress or compassion fatigue stems less from the violence occurring in poverty-ridden areas and from systems that allow poverty and violence to perpetuate across generations.
Rohit tells us how he deals with such distress by reframing "fighting the system" to "responding to the system." He candidly explains how he arrived at this. When he entered the developmental field, he had dreamt of changing the world, to change the systems that led to the suffering of children. But soon, just like every other person who has wished to make the world a better place, he was beaten down by the reality that change takes time.
When he started unpacking his distress and fatigue, he realized another element that had blindsided him. Another source of fatigue was this savior mindset he had nurtured all along: "I will save them, I will save the world." It dawned on him that a lot of his work for others was actually less for others and more for him. He was unknowingly clinging to and expecting the recognition, appreciation, and praise that comes from social work. He came face to face with this mindset and realized that it needed to be changed if he wanted to effectively contribute to education without eventually burning out.
The same SEL tools he shared with kids helped him through this. He started pausing, noticing, reflecting, and responding to each moment that brought him distress instead of pursuing professional endeavors with the vague goal of "fighting the world." With this new-found realization and support from his co-workers, Rohit and Apni Shala have been able to overcome their struggles and achieve their goals.