“Why are we waiting for others? We know our own problems, and we also know the solution.”
Name: Vimal Kumar
Occupation: Social entrepreneur
“I was born into a family of sanitation workers in India. People in our social caste were considered “untouchables.” My mother, Babli, cleaned toilets to support my education.
In 1996 when I was 10, sanitation workers went on strike because their salaries were being paid out six months to a year late. The government arrested 700 women, including my mother, who were fighting for their rights. I failed my exams that year, and so did all the children in the ghetto, because their mothers were in jail.
A few years later, my friends and I formed a cricket team, and the upper-caste team challenged us to a game. We lost the first match very badly. But we practiced hard in the 118-degree afternoons, the only time the cricket ground was empty. We untouchables were only allowed to play when the others didn’t want to.
We went on to win three city championships in a row. That angered all the best cricket teams in the city, so they got together and made a team of the best 11 players to challenge us in a match.
It was a difficult game; we played in the biggest ground in my city, and everyone came to watch. People bullied and heckled us while we played. Some of our team members were barefoot, some only had pajamas to wear. But we kept focused. The rule I set for my team was: Don’t reply to the bullies with words, reply with your bat. Show them.
Our cricket days ended when it was time to get jobs. Most of the boys on our team became sweepers, but some of us started an after-school program tutoring kids in our community. The experience stuck with me: I didn’t know what social work was, but I knew I wanted to do something good.
I graduated high school and gained admission to college through affirmative action programs. The discrimination against me was rampant, but I released my anger through running and playing cricket. I never replied with words.
After graduating with my bachelor’s degree, I faced pressure from my family because everyone else my age was earning money. I started to work as a computer teacher in a girls’ college, but I soon quit that job because my boss treated me like a servant.
I didn’t know what I was going to do next. I’d put in a lot of energy into learning computers and receiving my teaching certificate. I went away and lived in isolation for a while. That was a low point in my life.
Finally, driven by my desire to help people and do more, I applied for a master’s in social work—a rare thing for lower-caste people. My professors discriminated against me, gave me low scores on the subjective portions of the exams, and tried to kick me out. I released all my anger by working harder.
After getting my master’s, I visited around 250 organizations all over India for NGO work. I realized that sanitation workers don’t have leadership within their communities and have the highest school-dropout rate in the country. I asked myself: Why are we waiting for others? We know our own problems, and we also know the solution. In 2009, I organized a national workshop to talk about what we should do. About 40 people from the 12 states attended, from rickshaw pullers to politicians. Then we established the Movement for Scavenger Community, an NGO that empowers India’s sanitation workers through education.
In January 2012, we established the first community resource center in my hometown. We now have five centers in five cities. With the help of my mentor Eric Martin of Adaptive Change Advisors, I also established a fellowship program called Fellows for Equality for my community centers. It involves a one-year training program where people gain confidence in leadership skills, then lead the center as a trained senior fellow.
Thanks to a nomination by my friend Malathy, I’m now part of the McCain Institute’s Next Generation Leaders fellowship program. I’m currently spending 10 months in the United States with the fellowship. The seven other leaders from seven countries have come to feel like family.
After the fellowship is over, I plan to pass on the same skills to my Fellows for Equality in the community centers, who are working with people in the scavenger community.
My mission is to bring international-level leadership skills to the classroom. It’s like a chain reaction of leadership.”