Mentor Mondays with Baiju Balan

Reap Benefit’s team of mentors are a diverse group of individuals bound together by a firm belief in the power of teaching young people to flex their civic muscle. In this instalment of Mentor Mondays we catch up with mentor Baiju Balan.

Baiju Balan takes a session for young Solve Ninjas.

An early desire to serve society

Even when he was in high school student in Kasargod, Kerala, Baiju Balan knew that he wanted to work in the not-for-profit sector.

“I was part of the N.S.S from grade 8 and had spent four years working in the community on various initiatives. By the time I reached Grade 12 I had a strong sense that I wanted to do something which served society. So I decided to do a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work in Kannur.”

Baiju says that while his family was supportive of his choice, some of his teachers expressed concern.

“I am quite introverted, so some teachers felt social work would not be suitable for me. They said I would have to talk to people in the community, government officials and other stakeholders and convince them of initiatives. They felt that that was something I would struggle with.”

Baiju admits that it was difficult initially, but with the help of classmates and professors in college, he was able to strike the right balance.

“Our Head of Department of Social Work was particularly encouraging. He used to ask me, How can we make you more comfortable? How can you interact more with your peers? And he used to have a check in with all the students.”

The winding road to Reap Benefit

After completing his Masters in Social Entrepreneurship Baiju worked in a call centre — a stint he says was invaluable as it helped with his English speaking skills, and talking to strangers — and then joined Pratham Infotech in Delhi.

“We would go to affordable private schools, set up computer labs and train facilitators. I had never seen such tiny schools before operating out of a corner of a building with such limited access to technology. It was insightful for me to see how education system in urban cities differs from place to place.”

It was at this time that Baiju saw Reap Benefit’s call for mentors.

“When I was invited to the interview, I got an email saying don’t wear formals, come in something comfortable, because you’ll be doing a lot of hands on work! I found that intriguing as most interview calls ask you wear something formal and here was an organization asking me to wear whatever I like, and be comfortable!”

Baiju joined the team in 2019 as a mentor and since then has worked with 20 classes of grade 6,7 and 8 students in both private and government schools.

Bumpy beginnings

Baiju ruefully recalls his first session.

“It was a total disaster! Nothing went properly and nobody understood anything. Thankfully, Gauthamraj Elango was watching the session and he gave me quick feedback as I was walking in the corridor to the next class, where I was able to incorporate his advice and carry it off!”

Baiju remembers being very nervous in the beginning. “I used to think I come from a background of State syllabus, and was a kid who didn’t speak very good English. But that wasn’t the case at all. I soon came to realise that Reap Benefit mentors have a special respect in the schools because the students love our sessions so much.”

Baiju also says the help of program managers Rizwan and Gauthamraj who were supportive and gave feedback was crucial to his growth.

“Rizwan is a very hands on person! I remember how he used to build toilets in government schools with students, and would just get down on his knees, roll up his sleevs and start working. That’s something I learned how to do from him — become involved in problem solving, and do hands on work. Gauthamraj is a very strategic person. He will anticipate problems that may arise and always have a plan B in place. I’ve learned that from him!”

Stand out Solve Ninjas

Baiju has met numerous inspiring Solve Ninjas in the past year. He remembers his interactions with a student at a government school in MGR Nagar, Chennai in particular.

“The school was on a very narrow lane and vehicles would zoom down it at high speeds which was hazardous to the safety of the students. When I went in for the session, one of the students Pratyangara Devi said she wanted to work on this issue as she had been injured by a vehicle once on the way to school. She didn’t want that to happen to others and wanted to post a policeman on the street or ask the government to expand the road. She found the correct authority and called and reported the problem to them.”

What’s your 21st century skill superpower?

Baiju believes the 21st century skill he possesses is empathy. “During sessions I try to make sure that everybody in my class is feeling comfortable because I know how it feels to not understand what’s happening in the class from my early days in my Masters program. So I always try to reach out to all the students and check in.”

This has become especially important during the pandemic, when sessions moved online.

“I don’t insist everyone keeps their cameras on as no everybody is comfortable with that. So I always do mood checks, where I ask everyone to type their mood in the chat box. And that to some extent gives us an understanding of the general mood of the class. I also do quick surveys in the chat box with one question with a yes or no answer.”

Learning new skills on the job is important too and after joining Reap Benefit, Baiju feels he has developed data orientation as a skill.

“Before, I didn’t take decisions based on data and I didn’t even know how to collect data or how to use it in making decisions. After joining Read Benefit that’s changed as the organisation is very data oriented. Now I think, how can I collect data and use that to justify my solution or use it to take decisions?”

Public problem solving in a pandemic

Baiju recalls one of the Solve Ninjas, Selva who rallied together a small army of friends who would clean public places during the lockdown.

“A lot of leaves had fallen down on the terrace of the temple and in the anganwadi compound and it was completely dirty. So he and his friends would just go there, clean it up, and leave the place. When I asked him if he had taken any pictures of the clean up, he said it hadn’t even occurred to him. They were just doing this work because they felt public places were supposed to be clean. I was just amazed by the humility of the students. I’ve seen people doing charity work with a full camera crew recording, and here is a 12 year old who’s cleaning up every single day and doesn’t even think of bringing a camera along with him. So I told him see, I want to inspire other Solve Ninjas. So please take photographs so I can do that.”

Before and after the clean up Selva and his friends did.

Pay it forward

As our mentors gear up for a new academic year and new online sessions, Baiju is busy conducting training sessions for his peers.

“I took a session on mentor guidance to help mentors understand themselves and their strengths better. We had research in place about what mentor attributes Solve Ninjas found important. So we had a list of attributes from the students on one side, and in the session we asked mentors to brainstorm and write down the attributes they believed they had. We then created a framework mentors could use to keep a check on these attributes.”

Baiju says he’s looking forward to a new year of sessions, coming up with exciting formats for Solve Ninjas and helping them on their public problem solving journey. We have to admit, we’re looking forward to all these things too!

Engaging youngsters in solving local environmental problems with data and solutions #energy #waste #water #sanitation