Dharavi Rocks and Other Partnerships

ACORN International

Mumbai The road to organizational sustainability seems marked sometimes by the s2881962776_b43d9d4aa0ignposts of successful partnerships saying “go” and difficult ones saying “danger – warning!”  Talking with Vinod Shetty, director of ACORN India’s programs in Mumbai, which arguably has more experiences with partnerships of all varieties than any other ACORN International operation is always an exhilarating journey through the euphoria of possibilities ahead and the potholes of near misses behind us.

I’m wearing a t-shirt as I write this from one of our best partnerships, which has been the evolving relationship between ACORN India’s Dharavi Project among the ragpickers and – of all things – the Blue Frog jazz and supper club in Mumbai.  The t-shirt itself is good evidence of how such sharing works with Dharavi Rocks in big letters on the front with the Blue Frog symbol on the left and then on the back and the walking rag picker symbol on the back with ACORN India underneath.  Over the last year, every other month this has meant a “concert” or musical “workshop” in Dharavi and as frequently an invitation to the Blue Frog for some of our members where they also get to eat and sing.  Everybody’s interests are met.  The Blue Frog finds the visiting artists excited to participate and to get a better feeling of the “real” India and the notion of making a difference, and our members get a taste of the world outside of Dharavi and sometimes some real benefits in the mega-slum itself as well.  It’s easy to imagine this partnership growing.  Perhaps we could recycle all of the bottles and goods  they roll through at the Blue Frog, giving more work and better livelihood for some of our members?  Perhaps the Blue Frog starts making some contributions to our office and recycling center in Dharavi as well?  Who knows, but good things are coming here.

The American School has also been another success story in so many ways in another odd fellow pairing of this posh private school for Indian and foreign students.  Our rag pickers have done recycling programs for the students and invited them out to fairs in Dharavi where they have participated and volunteered.  Our members pick up recycling items from the school every week.  One of the teachers in a labor of love has now worked for almost two years to pull together a book on Dharavi with various writers whose sales will benefit ACORN India and the Dharavi Project (more on that in the future!).  The school has a director of volunteer programs (probably not the exact title) who is actually convening a coming meeting with all of the organizations like ourselves that the America School works with to make sure both parties are getting full value from the relationship.  We’ll be there!

Sometimes it’s simply harder.  I had traveled over with great hopes of finding that our waste pickers could collect carpet for InterfaceFLOR and this very “green” company’s work of making carpet  tiles from such recycled carpet.  This still might work, but given the heat and dust, tiles and terrazzo type flooring is common everywhere here that can be wiped down throughout the day rather than vacuumed.  Could we put enough volume together to make it work?  I will fly home with that as an open question.

And, sometimes it is lesson of ships moving in the night with good intentions going awry, which seems to have been the summary of our folks experience with Artefacturing, a project of artists, planners, and other, largely Americans, we worked with recently in Dharavi.   The visitors may have been happy, but our people had more fixed feelings.  Lack of care and security meant stuff was stolen, including school supplies from our recycling center that our members had been safeguarding.  Pictures in “art” mosaics made little sense to our members including them in some cases but also folks who had bitterly opposed the organization in the same tableau.  All of it became sort of a “rip and run” with less than a great taste remaining from the experience.  We never know, something good might still come of it all in the future.  We’re nothing if not cockeyed optimists, but when they didn’t even respect our hosting and good services enough to credit us in most of the press, even the ever charitable Vinod Shetty had trouble not admitting to being a bit miffed.

Would we do it again?  Sure, but differently!  We cannot achieve sustainability without partnerships and alliances, but we would be less than effective as organizers if we didn’t try to learn from all of these experiences how to model the good ones and modify the ones that left more scrapes and bruises than smiles and cheers.