Project Potential: Empowering Communities to Sustainable Living

Each month, The Rootwise Hub supports and celebrates a social change organization that is disrupting, making history right now, and paving the way for a more inclusive future. 

This month, we recognize Project Potential, an organization embarking on a journey of bringing sustainable rural development to more people in rural India. Guided by their eArth philosophy, the organization seeks to regenerate our earth with a movement of self-empowered community leaders who want to create change and lead sustainable development in rural India.  “It’s all about using local, available resources to help the community achieve their self-defined goals,” says University of Pennsylvania graduate and founder Zubin Sharma. Led by an inherent belief in each person’s capabilities, connection to the whole, and the power of the human spirit, Project Potential inspires people to contribute to the betterment of their own communities. What sets Project Potential apart is that they believe in what people are truly capable of, and they won’t stop working until everyone in their communities has an opportunity to lead.

The Path to Collective Well-Being

Through Sharma’s first NGO addressing sustainable rural development in India, SEEKHO,  the leadership at Project Potential understood that to develop an effective strategy and collective culture, they needed to ask the right questions. “We don’t ask them (villagers) about their problems. We ask them to suggest solutions, and based on their feedback, we devise a plan and work with them to help them reach where they want. This is about building participative leadership,” said Sharma. On an early trip to Bihar, India,  Sharma asked the community, “what are our shared goals for the future?” and the answer was education. Over the course of seven years, they’ve been able to provide education to nearly 2,000 children and families. 

The hallmark of exceptional leadership is the ability to adapt and evolve: to be open to the emergence of new information and new opportunity. When Project Potential’s community conversations revealed the impediments to quality education were not just about access but also about systemic challenges like poverty, hunger, and inadequate healthcare, they adapted. They seek to meet the needs and potential of the leaders they support, mentor, and develop. They respect the talents of the rising rural community leaders and aim to empower them to face challenges by creating an atmosphere in which they can experiment towards their own solutions.

Devotion to the Service of Others

The organization has gradually broadened its efforts and is currently working in 30 villages across the adjacent districts of Kishanganj, Araria and Supaul in northern Bihar. To actualize their movement, they founded three community-driven programs: eArth Kala Manch (art and theater), eArth Nirmaan (construction and habitat), and eArth PaathShala.  eArth Paathshala’s goal is to improve the quality of education in the villages it serves by combining access to top pedagogy, tools, and methods from all over the world and community-driven efforts. Since its founding, they’ve developed reading camps with over 5000 children and a teacher changemaker network that supports over 75,000 students.  They’ve also implemented their vision by establishing a model of sustainable living that borrows from local ecologists, cross-disciplinary research, and an internal team of social organizers, craftspeople, farmers, designers, architects, and engineers. 

In addition to the programs, Project Potential created a space to model sustainable living in daily life and for everyone to explore self-awareness, community involvement, and environmental sustainability. Nestled between West Bengal, Nepal, and Bangladesh, with close proximity to Sikkim, Bhutan, Project Potential built its eArthshala campus. At the campus, they provide a space for young people in rural communities to explore their interests and find meaningful employment. The team does this by simply being present in the community and giving youth opportunities to learn more about what excites or challenges them.

The COVID Impact

Despite being one of the world’s largest economies, the poverty rate in India rose by more than 5 percent and over 134 million residents live in poverty. The inequality in India has only been exacerbated by the pandemic, revealing the numerous ways people are vulnerable. At the height of the pandemic, India’s infrastructure and healthcare system crumbled under the pressure of the increased demand. India was experiencing record infection rates, topping over 400,000 cases in one day. With massive shortages of oxygen, medicines, and ambulances, patients had to wait in long lines for beds in hospitals’ intensive care units. After a second wave of the virus decimated the country, international aid efforts ramped up to support the collapsing system. But, as with most healthcare solutions, India’s most vulnerable populations in rural communities have been largely overlooked.

Project Potential’s home base of Bihar, India is home to a large number of India’s poor people. The city has seen poverty rates increase steadily over the last decade with the greatest rise in poverty between 2017-18 to almost 51%. Residents are struggling with Illiteracy, unemployment, famines, and malnutrition are some of the root causes of poverty in India. The COVID-19 has increased the socio-economic vulnerabilities in these rural villages and already-limited access to services and funding has been devastatingly strained.  Recognizing the need, Project Potential developed a coordinated response to provide food and sanitary essentials to the poorest families in the communities where they work. Since its inception, Project Potential’s COVID-19 Relief has received just over $20,000 in donations. (You can learn more and donate to their project here.)

Project Potential models the vision we hope to achieve: “a community and family built on super strong values and 110% committed to its people.” The team at Project Potential serves as facilitators of local leadership and rural community transformation. Rather than top-down decision-making in rural development, Project Potential is committed to creating shared purpose and voice, to building trust, and to driving results based on local priorities. People at all levels are energized to contribute. By elevating community members’ strengths, talents, and preferences and by connecting to deeply to themselves, a powerful sense of shared ownership for the whole endeavor has emerged. Project Potential recognizes the capability to produce great change is inside all of us, waiting to be accessed and released. “There are 700,000 villages in India, each of which has a changemaker. So we’re going to find and empower a nation of changemakers, who will ensure that these villages, and India, survive and thrive.”

To learn more about Project Potential, visit their website, Project Potential. You can also follow updates from the organization via their blog on Medium and on their Instagram @projectpotential.

Support Project Potential!

This month, we are grateful to announce that The Rootwise Hub will be supporting Project Potential with a portion of our profits. We invite you if you are willing and able to join us in showing your support.

The Road to Collective Leadership

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged us, changed us, eroded and brought new life to how we live and lead. Our daily lives, from managing our health, working from home, to simple activities like dining out, all underwent rapid change. As we navigate these changes, we’ve also entered this moment of reckoning with long-standing racial and economic inequities, environmental disaster, and political polarization. And, we discovered that while we may not know what is next, we can be certain the models of the past will not suffice as we’re reimagining our future.

The Trouble with Traditional Models of Leadership

Many of us would like to think these past two years have been an anomaly, but we’re not so sure. With technological advancements, automation, and growing global systems interconnectedness, the conditions for accelerated change have been here for years. The pandemic has simply revealed the inefficiencies and suffering created by our outdated systems and models of leadership.  Traditional leadership models reinforced hierarchical power structures that led to spaces that were less likely to have diverse influences.  Power concentrated at the top of leadership, based on title and status, doesn’t foster collaboration based on our own unique strengths and shared knowledge.  This type of leadership fails us in social change.  We need room for transparency and mutual accountability — to allow trust and creativity to flourish.

We need a new form of leadership, better suited to build our collective future.

We need to consider the ways we can:

  • Move beyond control and comply models of leadershipWhat kind of controlling and complying has been habituated in our bodies, minds, hearts, and systems?
  • Embrace a relational journey of leadership where we don’t try to lead aloneWhat narratives about heroic single leaders have captured our hearts while also erasing all the complexity, collaboration, and failures necessary for change?
  • Acknowledge that healing mattersWhat needs to be lifted up, reckoned with, healed so that we may pursue the transformation that the world needs from us?

Collective leadership is a group of people coming together through intentional and liberatory relationships and processes to co-create results in their shared desired area of impact.

Collective Leadership – The Way Forward

There are so many ways that the world is nudging all of us, particularly those in social change spaces, towards collective leadership practices. We are being called on to re-envision our relationships to each other, to work, to power, and to systems. Our new reality led to real conversations about the potential for deeper and sustained collaboration. We’re finding that teams and organizations find success based on their level of collaborative practices, collective development and dedication to self-reflection, transformation, and growth. This is such an important message to pay attention to, and yet, many leaders are struggling to figure out what this call means in their day-to-day choices and actions. It can be hard to create the conditions by which a group of people can individually and collectively live into their vision for the world and their full potential as human beings. 

Co-facilitated by Eliza Ramos of Circles International and Perry Dougherty of Rootwise Leadership, the Collective Leadership Certificate program offers an opportunity to explore how to create the ideal environment for your team to flourish, utilizing an embodied approach that leverages the wisdom of the group. It is designed to help social change leaders improve results by empowering people to trust and rely on each other and take responsibility for outcomes that one leader cannot address on their own. The transformational executive coaching & training experience applies cutting edge leadership customized to fit your needs.

Explore pathways to:

  • Achieve wider impact with your team
  • Lead & inspire others consistently
  • Distribute authority & decisions
  • Become more aware of self & systems
  • Enable diversity, equity, and inclusion
  • Cultivate accountability and trust
  • Engage in more satisfying collaboration

In the program, we unpack the essential skills to develop in this way and to create the conditions for collective leadership to thrive. Those skills include layers of listening, conflict transformation & essential conversations, contextual power analysis, compassion & boundaries. Practicing these skills cultivates an environment that empowers people to trust their own judgment and knowledge, align with their core values, and commit to a shared vision. 

Knowing the challenges social change leaders face, we invite folks to examine the beliefs and assumptions that guide their leadership, explore pathways to more grounded ways of engaging groups of individuals in leading together. The program deepens participants’ awareness of themselves, the larger system they are a part of and of their impact on others. Our cohorts are intentionally crafted so leaders may look to others with the hope that doing so will change how they see themselves, opening ourselves to new ideas, solutions and to explore our limits and potential. It’s an opportunity to practice and participate with care and attention and in community that feels responsible for each other. 

At every level, we want to encourage people to take responsibility for leadership whenever possible. This program is not just for seasoned change makers looking to open themselves up to new ways of leading but it is also for emerging leaders, teams, and anyone inspired to lead collectively in their role. The world needs more people who are equipped to co-create the collective leadership practices and structures that will meet the needs of our time. Join us in creating the conditions for you and your colleagues to stay connected through shared learning, power, and change.

Apply to join us today!

Applications are open for the 2022 cohort of the Collective Leadership Certificate Program until November 15, 2021.

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