“Meri mummy sab se acha khaana bena thi hain,” Shifa exclaimed with excitement as she took a huge bite of the mutton shalom ghost.
My mom makes the best food in the world.
Her comment elicited a collective laugh from everyone in the room. “Zaika-e-Nizamuddin”—a catering group consisting of 11 women that specializes in Nizamuddin cuisine—had just finished hosting their first ever pop-up restaurant in Delhi’s Nizamuddin Basti, an 800-year-old settlement, developed around the shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, a prominent 13th-century Sufi saint. The group members and event organizers all sat on the floor in a large circle, devouring the food that was not sold at the event. After a very intense week of planning and three hours of serving food in the Delhi sun, it was our time to celebrate the sold-out event.
This event was a proud moment for me and all the women I had worked with this past year as an AIF Clinton Fellow. During my fellowship, I supported the women’s livelihood component of the Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative. The initiative is a public-private partnership with the goal of revitalizing communities and preserving intangible cultural heritage. As such, I was involved in planning and implementing the first pop-up restaurant for Zaika-e-Nizamuddin – from supporting the team to hosting a test kitchen, to promoting the event on social media, to supporting recipe scaling, layout design, supply procurement, members’ training, and coordinating with other livelihood groups like Sair-e-Nizamuddin (a group of community members organizing cultural heritage walks) and Insha-e-Noor (a 60-member enterprise that creates handicraft goods) for the event.
For all of the members of Zaika-e-Nizamuddin, the pop-up event was the first time they had the opportunity to interact directly with the customers at their own kitchen. The group usually operates on a delivery model basis. It might have been a first for customers to see the women in their natural habitat, but it definitely was not for their children who were often in the kitchen when their moms were working.
In fact, Zaika-e-Nizamuddin’s kitchen is housed next to Insha-e-Noor’s production center. Members of both groups bring their toddlers to work with them or have their primary school-aged children come to meet them at work.
I had started developing my own relationships with the kids of Insha-e-Noor and Zaika-e-Nizamuddin. Drinking mango juice together, asking them what they learned in school, smirking as they asked (and eventually begged) for their mothers’ smartphones. Although it had become one of my favorite parts of the job, this was not always the case.
When I first started the fellowship, I was a bit taken back by the number of children in the kitchen and production center.
Is it safe? What if they fall or get hurt? Should we be working to set up a formal day care? Is this sustainable? – were some of the thoughts I had.
Though these thoughts made sense, I was forced to think more critically about the situation given my own personal background. After all, much like Shifa, I was a restaurant baby myself.
In 2001, my parents opened their own restaurant in Buffalo, NY. My parents could not afford, nor were they interested in, hiring a babysitter to take care of me. Instead, my seven-year-old self spent most of the time after school in the storage area of the restaurant on the second floor. I was away from the kitchen but my mom would frequently come upstairs to check on me and make sure I hadn’t managed to get myself in too much trouble with my three coloring books and one 11-inch TV with the VCR attached. At age 11, I started helping out in the kitchen by cutting onions or stacking clean dishes and by high school, I was a member of the front-end staff. I attribute all of my current and any future successes to my experience with the restaurant. Working in a fast-paced, challenging, and emotionally draining environment prepared me to handle less than ideal situations or unexpected changes in my professional life. More importantly, working alongside my parents and witnessing their sacrifice and commitment to our family has been the biggest motivator in my life.
Despite fondly looking at back at many childhood moments I spent at the restaurant, I am always a little reluctant to share these special memories. Growing up in the United States, the idea that the restaurant served as an alternative to childcare or a babysitter always elicited a strong and often harsh response.
“Oh honey, it’s so awful that you were forced to be in the storage room.”
“Your parents are so lucky that nothing ever happened to you; it’s just so unsafe.”
These interactions made me feel like my time spent at the restaurant was unideal and inappropriate childcare due to my parents’ financial status at the time.
The children of Zaika-e-Nizamuddin and Insha-e-Noor forced me to acknowledge my own Western bias on the matter. In the United States, the general notion of children in workplaces—particularly those with machinery—is unacceptable. Despite the fact that universal pre-K and childcare subsidies are not available to all families in the United States, many Americans object to the presence of a child in a work environment in the developing world. This leaves families who cannot afford private childcare with very few options.
The perception that workplaces are too dangerous to provide childcare spaces is inaccurate and forces limitations on working women in the developing world. Workplaces can be easily modified to accommodate children by creating a separate enclosed area. Mobile Creches, an NGO in India, specializes in creating low-cost childcare spaces next to construction sites where 30 percent of the workforce is female. To date, Mobile Creches has reached out to 650,000 children and runs 550 daycare centers. Even at my fellowship host organization, we have had a lot of success at my host organization by using expandable playpens in the kitchen.
More importantly, women working in the informal sector do not have the financial ability to afford daycare and cannot rely on other members of the household. Urbanization and migrant-based work have dismantled the extended family support structures. Even when extended family is geographically close, family members increasingly have less capacity to help with childcare. This is particularly true amongst the lowest socioeconomic levels where all family members need to engage in income generation activities.
Accommodating the needs of working mothers benefits the entire family well beyond financial gain. Research indicates that growing up with a working mom has numerous benefits for children. In a study of 50,000 adults in 25 countries, daughters of working mothers completed more years of education and were more likely to be employed and in supervisory roles and earned higher incomes. Admittedly, nearly all of the research of the effect of working mothers has been done in developed countries, and the limited research in the developing world is focused on the formal labor sector. It makes the case for exploring alternative forms of daycare even more pressing.
There are already so many barriers for low-income urban women to join the labor force including transportation, safety, and financial strain. It makes little sense to create another one by not allowing their children to accompany them. Though it is not a permanent solution, modifying a workspace to be safe for children can go a long way in encouraging more low-income women to gain dignified employment.
How else would Shifa come to learn that her mom is the best chef in the world?
A previous version of this article was originally published on 7/26/2018 on American India Foundation. AIF’s William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India builds the next generation of leaders committed to lasting change for underprivileged communities across India while strengthening the civil sector.
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To overcome global challenges, collective investments and groundwork are fundamental in advancing an equitable future across diverse communities. Sustainable development — a development that promotes growth through social, economic and environmental progress without compromising natural resources — is essential for human survival. At the young age of 21, Nirmala Ramprasad founded Green Dupatta, a sustainable development charity organization, and advocated for its importance through multiple pageant ambassadorships. As a philanthropic representative for the Indo Caribbean diaspora, her work showcases how individuals of any age have the ability to be changemakers for social advancement in areas such as environmental and agricultural protection and education.
In conversation with Ramprasad, the following answers have been edited for clarity and concision.
Growing up, did you resonate with your Indo Caribbean heritage? What ideals do you most connect with and want to pass on in creating positive change?
As a mixed-race person who grew up primarily within the Indo Caribbean community, I have always felt deeply connected to my culture and heritage. As a child I was fully immersed in all things Guyanese (I refused to wear anything but a lehenga to every school picture day). From a young age I was exposed to, and learned about, our music, food, political climate, history of indentureship and the importance of our cultural connection to India.
In regards to my nonprofit work, one of the most important lessons I take from my Indo Caribbean culture is the significance of ancestral knowledge and practices. One of the main tenets of my nonprofit work is sustainability and I have found that the most effective and practical sustainability practices can be found when we look back at the way our ancestors treated the land they lived on.
Although we are all changemakers in some way, I always advocate for community involvement in not only development, but also sustainability practices.
Can you describe what Green Dupatta is?
Green Dupatta is a sustainable development non-profit that I started when I was 21 and have since completed projects in Canada, Guyana, India and Trinidad. I work directly with project participants to co-create community-based spaces and programs that increase environmental awareness, food, water security and access to quality education through sustainable development models.
While most of Green Dupatta’s fundraising efforts take place in Canada, community projects are mainly done in Guyana and India.
In 2020, Ramprasad traveled to Guyana to work with locals in the town of Leonora. Together they replaced leaking zinc roofs, restored plumbing to old drains, re-poured concrete exteriors and repaved and repainted buildings to be used for yoga and meditation classes, affordable daycare and community gardens. To ensure donations are maximized, local contractors are always utilized. Green Dupatta aims to repair and reuse as many materials as possible. It does not dictate what the spaces should be used for, instead assists the community in having the agency select programming that benefits residents.
Across India, Ramprasad detailed Green Dupatta’s completion of seven projects in seven weeks in an eight-part YouTube docuseries. With partnership from JDS Public School in Varanasi, Green Dupatta constructed two sports facilities for student health, engaged in community outreach awareness campaigns on women’s empowerment and environmental conservation, aided in scholarship opportunities for students, helped create a community garden and provided the school with a system to harvest and irrigate water.
After this, they traveled to Devdaspur, a village with no clean water, to install a well with a shower enclosure, a water purification system and reservation tank, and a fenced enclosure food plantation. With their new ability to easily access clean water, people in Devdaspur showed an increase in social, economic and health outcomes. The community now had the resources to lower the percentage of water and hygiene-related illnesses, increase food and water independence, increase school attendance for children and increase productivity for adults, seeking work, without having to take time to filter or find clean water for their families.
Through successful sustainable development projects, resources are conserved and enhanced to empower communities to meet their needs, irrespective of their size or location. Like many sustainable development nonprofits, Green Dupatta’s international service delivery was significantly impacted by COVID-19 due to limitations with travel and in-person fundraising.
As a result, Ramprasad turned to her career as a special education teacher and utilized her knowledge to focus on a project that would directly help Toronto’s families and their schoolchildren.
Created as an emergency response to COVID-19 school shutdowns, Green Dupatta’s ‘Furnishing Minds’ project, “is based on a circular economy model in which slightly-used educational resources are redistributed to families in need.”
Since the program began in 2020, more than 1400 pounds of educational resources and curriculum-based materials have been redistributed within the Greater Toronto Area. Its success led to the project being formalized annually. Green Dupatta currently showcases free online guides to the Ontario curriculum, by grade level, for families looking for strategies to help their children’s academic growth and achievement.
Is Green Dupatta currently looking for more educators? How can people get involved?
I am always looking to expand my team! We are really lucky to have dedicated volunteers from a variety of different sectors and backgrounds. Nonprofit organizations can always use all the help they can get — we have general volunteers, event volunteers and sub-committee program volunteers. Anyone looking to get involved can directly message us on Instagram or our website.
What is your vision for Green Dupatta in the next five years?
In addition to co-creating new community projects and programs, I hope to continuously expand current Green Dupatta projects. With a larger team and additional funding, I would like to strengthen and scale our Furnishing Minds program, as well as increase our international presence, to fill needs and advocate for these communities. In order to build organizational capacity we are always looking to partner with like-minded individuals, businesses and other nonprofit organizations. In the past we were lucky to work with supportive organizations that provided valuable services, resources and expertise.
Outside of Green Dupatta and teaching, Ramprasad has a history of competing in pageants that reflect both her Indo Caribbean heritage and passion for service. She won the Miss West Indian Canadian pageant in 2015 and subsequently became the first Canadian representative at the Divali Nagar Queen Pageant in Trinidad and Tobago where she was awarded second runner-up. In 2020, she was invited to compete as Guyana’s representative in the Miss Face of Humanity Ambassador Search, an international event that showcases female changemakers from around the world. Ramprasad believes that competing in pageants offered, “a platform to educate others about my organization, and the importance of sustainable development as well as an opportunity to showcase myself as an individual capable and dedicated to carrying this torch.”
How was it representing Guyana on a global stage at the 2020 Miss Face of Humanity? What platform did you run on, and what message do you have for the next generation of Indo Caribbeans?
The Miss Face of Humanity competition was a unique experience for me as I was given the opportunity to represent both Guyana and the Green Dupatta Charitable Organization. I explored their intersection and looked at how my homeland and culture has impacted both my core values and philanthropic work.
Being part of a diasporic community is a uniquely beautiful, but also quite complex, place to be. All of our experiences are vastly different — some people feel deeply connected to their communities and some feel very far removed. Although there are many struggles that come from being once, or twice-removed, people are facing much different struggles in the places our ancestors called home.
My advice to the next generation of Indo Caribbeans is to remember that a diasporic community is very different from a local one. Although some of us may feel very connected to our communities and cultures as they are practiced abroad, we should make space to amplify the voices of our motherlands and remember to give back to places that have given us so much.
Ramprasad says juggling work and leading a nonprofit can be deeply taxing; often fielding criticism and making personal sacrifices. Nonetheless, she loves what she does and is eager to implement sustainable development practices around the world. Through these projects, communities are equipped with the techniques, tools and knowledge to uplift themselves. Ramprasad is forever grateful that she was drawn to a life of service and believes that it is of utmost importance to actively collaborate with communities in order to preserve the environment and improve the access to quality education.
To learn more about Green Dupatta, visit their website. You can follow Nirmala’s journey on Instagram @nrampsy.