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Geeta Mehta

Asia Initiatives — New York, New York

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Photo by Stephen Voss

Financial capital is usually the only resource that’s considered when it comes to relieving world poverty. But social capital — the connections, networks and relationships among people — are the glue that hold these communities together. I tap into social capital’s power with my organization, Asia Initiatives. We serve around 25,000 people directly in the United States, India, Kenya and Taiwan each year. ​​

The problem I’m trying to solve​

Poverty rages rampant among large swaths of the population in South and Southeast Asia, Africa, and even wealthy countries like the United States. But oftentimes, the people who are closest to the problems are the ones closest to the solutions. Asia Initiatives wants to bring all generations in a community together to work toward shared goals, such as the crises of climate change, growing inequity and loneliness. We especially focus on women and girls, as they often have less access to education, jobs and ownership of property such as farmland. We do this through something called SoCCs (social capital credits). People in a community can earn them if they work together for social good acts, like planting trees, tutoring young children or caring for older people. They can then “spend” their SoCCs on education, healthcare and other ways to enhance their lives. ​

The moment that sparked my passion

​I was inspired by the work of M.S. Swaminathan. He’s a world-renowned agricultural expert and humanist. I met him in 1999, and he encouraged me to visit impoverished neighborhoods in India. I saw the transformative work his foundation was doing in these villages. I clearly remember one village we visited in the Indian state of Odisha. I met these amazing women who sat confidently in a meeting talking to us about development plans. I later learned that when the project first started, these same women covered their heads, looked down at the ground and never spoke to anyone. Yet now, they had sparkle in their eyes, and their daughters viewed them as role models. At that moment, I resolved that I would start an organization that would be pro-poor, pro-women and pro-environment.

What I wish other people knew

When you empower women, you empower their families and their community. It’s a direct and cost-effective way to lift a village out of poverty. We start every project with what we call the SoCCratic Dialogues. During this time, we practice deep listening as people in the community tell us about their needs and aspirations. We then use their help to create SoCC Earning and Redeeming menus. For example, we may tell women that if they go out and plant 100 trees, they will get 10 SoCCs in their account. Once they have 50, they can redeem them for certain essential needs, such as education or health care — for example, money for college for their child. This allows us to accomplish large community projects without large amounts of money. It also helps bring these women together and gives them a sense of dignity and accomplishment.

Why my approach is unique​

Most nonprofit organizations simply give away money. If they want to educate 100 girls in an impoverished area, for example, they’ll donate $10,000 to that community, and say, “Go ahead and educate girls.” We don’t do that. We have the community earn $10,000 through SoCCs. The value of that money will double or triple, because those girls and their families are helping their village so that they can earn their education.

People don’t value what comes free. They value what they’ve tried to get. Here’s an example: something that we call a cascade of learning. Through SoCCs, we have an 18-year-old mentor a 15-year-old, who mentors a 12-year-old, who mentors a 9-year-old. We also have a cascade of upscaling. Let’s say we teach 500 women a new smart way to grow rice, which requires less water to get more crop. These women then teach 1,000 women this method, who then teach another 2,000. These effects aren’t just isolated. They spread around. ​​

Advice to others who want to make a difference​

Don’t wait. I believe every single human being has social capital to communicate with their community. It doesn’t matter if you’re old, young, someone who has never gone to school or someone who has retired with two PhDs. The world right now is in a position where it needs all the social capital it can get activated to use to solve social problems. Just look at how our environment is being depleted and growing social and economic inequality. Now is the time to come forward and find an organization devoted to improving the world. Enjoy it and get energy from it: It allows you to be a part of humanity, which is such a beautiful thing.

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