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YouthActionNet Blog

University Connect at Georgetown

Anne Johnson | June 12, 2014
Anne Johnson, Georgetown MA Student

Sitting in front of my computer in early January, I was stumped. Paging through information on young social entrepreneurs who had applied to collaborate with my classmates and I at Georgetown through YouthActionNet’s University Connect program, I was awed by the accomplishments and passion of each YouthActionNet Fellow.  What could I, from my desk in Washington, D.C., possibly contribute to their teams? 

My earlier experiences, first studying anthropology in college and later working with development organizations in the US and overseas, had made me suspicious of outsiders parachuting in with “solutions” to contexts they don’t fully understand.  Yet the more I read about Kat-Katha, an organization founded by YouthActionNet Fellow Gitanjali Babbar in India, the more I was inspired to learn about their work and their team.

Kat-Katha, based in Delhi’s GB Road brothel district, aims to increase the life choices of sex workers and their children who live in the brothels. This mission appealed to me for several reasons including my background with gender and development, participation with anti-human trafficking projects in Central Asia, and personal experiences visiting my fiancé’s family in Delhi. And although I am not myself an entrepreneur, my awareness of the growing impacts of social enterprises worldwide                    Gitanjali Babbar, Founder of Kat-Katha compelled me to explore how I might collaborate
with or support social entrepreneurs in my own career.

While many global development graduate programs simply teach their students about development, the University Connect program offered an opportunity for my classmates and I to engage in hands-on consulting projects with youth-led social entrepreneurs working in the field. The enthusiasm my classmate Mary and I shared for Kat-Katha must have been evident—after we presented our findings from the needs assessment portion of the consulting experience, half of our class voiced interest in working with Kat-Katha for the later project development portion.

Working via Skype and by email, we learned about Kat-Katha’s locally-rooted vision, their limitations, and ways in which our Georgetown team’s technical skills could complement their growth priorities. Even as a team in DC, my classmates and I gleaned new knowledge from each others’ diverse skill sets, combining our professional and academic experiences as MBA and MA students from China, India, Nigeria, Taiwan and the US.

Through the consultancy, our team ultimately produced tools for Kat-Katha related to financial tracking and projections, fundraising, and monitoring and evaluation. Yet along the way, we also learned about the difficulties of balancing mission and commitment to community needs with building systems for organizational growth. At the close of the experience, when presenting to our classmates and answering questions about the project, we realized how much we had learned from Kat-Katha’s leaders about the nuanced navigation of concerns from the public, such as whether Kat-Katha’s non-judgmental, open approach toward both sex workers and brothel owners is “supporting prostitution.” When classmates asked similar questions, we found ourselves defending Kat-Katha’s approach to sex worker empowerment. We experienced a glimpse of the reality faced by Kat-Katha as they work continuously to convince society that their approach is working to build a safer, more empowered community on GB Road.

By the end of the semester, after observing the lessons learned and relationships built between my classmates and the other YouthActionNet Fellow teams we’d collaborated with, I became a believer. Programs like University Connect not only allow social entrepreneurs to utilize the technical skills of graduate students, but also enable graduate students like myself to gain crucial hands-on experience with social enterprises around the world. While we all will go forward to lead change in different ways, after learning from one another, we are each better prepared to make a difference.

Anne Johnson is a student at Georgetown University’s Global Human Development Program. Anne holds a BA in International Studies and Anthropology from Macalester College, and has also studied in China, Croatia, and the Netherlands.

To learn more about Gitanjali and Kat-Katha, read Sparking Change in India’s Largest Red Light District or watch Gitanjali's Change Series video.