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Celebration of Service

Inspiration from afar gives hope to underprivileged children

Two employees from IBM in Kolkata, India talk about their successful computer literacy program

In 2006, Arindam Bhattacharyya took a leave of absence from his job as a technical solution manager for IBM in Kolkata, to teach in the remote Himalayan region of Ladakh. He came back resolved to help connect young people in Kolkata with the skills and passion of his IBM peers.

Arindam’s experience led to what today is a computer literacy program (CLP) that has been going strong for five years—the longest continuously running social outreach initiative by IBM in Kolkata. Guided by a core team and enabled by more than 700 volunteers who have contributed over 25,000 hours working with local non-governmental organizations (NGOs), hundreds of underprivileged children and teens have learned the basic skills they need to enter a modern, technology-based workforce, and improve their life condition.

We spoke to Arindam Bhattacharyya, and Shemanti Sen, an original core team member for CLP, about their experience.

Tell me how you and the team developed the idea of the CLP

Arindam: The seed of CLP lies in my Ladakh experience, where I was a volunteer teacher for nine months. I thought about how I could take that experience and do something to help children in Kolkata get professional skills that also allowed IBM people to share their knowledge.

I thought of my experience of interacting with kids who come from marginalized backgrounds. And, within the IBM environment, sitting here in Kolkata, how can we do some kind of a give back. I mean it's not possible for everyone to take a six month or a nine month leave of absence from work and go teach in a school.

We had a few brain storming sessions and we explored quite a few ideas–doing something out of IBM, as well as inside. A lot of brainstorming happened and there was a core group: several other people who invested a lot of energy and effort.

We also launched discussion with several NGOs to get their input.

Shemanti, you’ve been involved from the beginning?

Shemanti: Yes, I have been here through all six phases, and we will shortly launch our seventh CLP. It got started in 2006, and I was fascinated with the idea. There have been several important people who have been core to this program. Among them are Sourav Debnath, Lakshmi Kundu, Neha Somani, Payal Kejriwal, and Sambuddha Biswas. It’s been a team effort.

What is the goal of CLP, and who is the audience?

Arindam: Very simply speaking the goal is to bring down the digital divide. I would say that the computer has been the stepping stone to success and economic liberation.

So through this program we want these young people to know they can all be part of this revolution. Interacting with IBM volunteers helps build the young people’s confidence. First of all we want to impart skills—the computer skills and the soft skills like communications, negotiation skills, and presentation skills. That’s a bit of a hidden agenda in every session: build their communication and soft skills and inspire confidence. So they can try to take control of their economic status.

Shemanti: The audience is underprivileged children in Kolkata. We actually divide the program into two age groups. One is from ages 8 or 9 to about 12. And then we have another group from 13 to 20 years old. Obviously the two groups have different needs.

For young children we may be giving them their first introduction to a computer. For older teens, the modules could be designed for getting a job, like how to use the Internet in one’s life, or a more detailed session on Microsoft Excel.

We have done some sessions on how to make a movie, or about graphics, because that is one of their career options going forward. We do brainstorming before each CLP phase trying to consider what we can add to make some difference to their life.

So, it’s more than computer literacy. What would you say was the most challenging part of getting started?

Arindam: I think the biggest challenge is us; the volunteers need to work hard to understand and appreciate the things through the eyes of the children.

Some of the young people come from a very difficult background. For example, they are the children of sex workers, or some are orphans. And their world view is very, very different.

I would say the biggest thing that you need to do is break that barrier between yourself and the person that you are trying to help out. And our volunteers are excellent at this.

At first the children start by addressing us as sir and madam, and then within two or three weeks they started addressing us like brothers and sisters, or uncles and aunts.

It sounds like CLP’s success is also about having excellent volunteers and facilitators. True?

Arindam: Absolutely. This started with a vision and the fact that it is a meaningful vision is demonstrated by the fact that people like Shemanti and others have been here since day one. The terrific support of our managers and IBM’s Corporate Community Relations team has also been vital.

We always get a set of volunteers who are ready to give and go that extra mile. It takes a lot of effort and energy to actually help make a session happen, but we never lack those people. This program wouldn't happen if we didn't have 100 to 150 IBM volunteers who are ready to come on Saturdays to teach.

We hold, what we call, handshaking sessions, so everyone from week to week, from phase to phase, understands the mission and feels very strongly connected to it. Returning facilitators share general knowledge about CLP, as well as specific knowledge about children or unique situations, with new facilitators so there is great consistency in front of children and to our NGO partners.

Shemanti: I think that is one of the primary reasons we have sustained the program for so long. When we go to the NGOs they say that they are eager to work with us and start the next phase of CLP.

Every time, we have volunteers from previous phases give lots of inspiring stories. They like to be a part of this program again and again. We can be successful because our volunteer base extends from year to year. What an extremely satisfying moment for all of us.

Arindam: In the beginning of CLP it took five or six days for the volunteer slots to fill up. The last time we sent out the invitation email ‘CLP is open for enrollment, enroll yourself as facilitators’… it took 4 hours for 240 spots to get filled. There is a huge sense of kinship now with this program.

Do you have any favorite success stories from the program?

Arindam: I remember there was a girl who joined us in one of the early CLP phases and she could hardly speak. I mean, she didn't have the confidence. She was intelligent and smart, but she couldn't speak.

That girl is now an IBM employee and she ascribes that fact to the Computer Literacy Program. For me, that was the culmination of all our efforts.

Shemanti: Two years back, we organized a session that was called Bring Back CLP in which we had all of the students who were there in the beginning phases come back and spend a day with us. No presentations, just going back to our memories.

I remembered lots of them, and now some are quite established in their own right. Some are working and some who are continuing to work with IBM right now. When I heard them speaking, to see their confidence, that light within them…it makes us very happy.

Every phase we discover at least a few children who are little, little wonders of this world. It’s enormously satisfying to see them develop as people.

Arindam: One of my other favorite successes is when we had CLP students meet with an IBM Corporate Service Corps (CSC) team that was in India working with other NGO’s.

Yes, we do expand the children’s horizon when they meet Indian professionals from IBM, but then to also meet an IBM team from different countries and cultures and to interact with them was something very unique…for both the foreign IBM people and the children.

What happened in the end is something that we hadn't planned and that actually kind of demonstrated how successful this cultural interchange was. The children presented a dance which captured different dance forms from parts of India. The IBM CSC team, some of whom were fairly senior, was so impressed with the dance that they asked the students to teach it to them. So the children actually taught the CSC volunteers…and they all danced together.

That was something that none of us could have planned and none of us could have imagined it would happen that way. It was really awesome.

IBM is marking its centennial year with a worldwide celebration of volunteer service. Throughout 2011, IBM invites everyone to join our global community of employees, retirees, families and friends as we support the communities where we work, live and learn together.