Building Empathy, Building Relationships

Contributed by: Jackson Walker
Dated: 16th October, 2017

As we started to fan into the entrance area to the riverfront, we were immediately approached by masses of children, wares in hand: “Bhaiyya, didi, mera saamaan le dijiye” they cried, thrusting the balloons and popcorn they were selling towards us. One small boy, Anil, who was dressed in green, took my hand. Together, we took his balloons and began to sell, as he pointed out potential customers and I made the sales pitch. We not only made more sales than Anil usually would alone but also bonded as we worked together.

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Such was the start of Project KHEL’s “Hawker for a Day” event in honour of Daan Utsav, India’s week-long giving holiday. While the stated aims of the event were to a) give a break to the hawkers and try to give them a very profitable day in return by selling more of their goods for a higher price and; b) gain empathy for their work by stepping into their shoes and facing the rejection they face every day, the feelings that bloomed from this experience couldn’t be summed up in just those two goals. Our collective takeaways were much deeper than those. Because though both of those goals were achieved, they were just the broad statements that encompassed a host of feelings that accompanied the experience.

Indeed, one of my most important reflections was the way in which we became partners with the kids. The idea was to give the kids the evening off to play while we made their sales but ultimately we needed them just like they needed us. Their sales intuition and presence during sales pitches made our messages more impactful, while our selling took the burden off of the children alone and allowed Project KHEL staff and volunteers to talk about Daan Utsav and articulate the benefit of donations to the children. We became part of a symbiotic relationship, needing each other to do the best we could.

This sort of relationship built trust and filled the event with joy. This showed at the end of the event, when one of our volunteers led the children in songs, filling the night air with joy and laughter. It was this moment that made our work feel worth it: finally seeing these kids be kids. Children who minutes earlier were hauling around bags of popcorn their own size were now singing and shouting and acting just as they should – as youngsters. As the volunteers ate rolls with them, we all laughed together and shared just how much fun they’d had with Project KHEL that night. The volunteers concurred, and I left there with a distinct feeling that everyone had gotten way more from the event than they expected.

As we debriefed, volunteers shared the complicated feelings that arose from being rejected by people, the small joy of a successful pitch and the camaraderie that grew from sharing this feeling with the kids. I had not expected to be so impacted by every attempted sale, but those occurrences deepened the empathy I felt with the daily experiences of the children.

The kids also found excitement in the experience. In giving us her thoughts about the event on camera, one little girl, Asha, expressed joy at having gotten to play and eat with us. She told us to come back again soon to sell with her and said she couldn’t wait for us to come back to see her. I cannot wait to go back myself as it is these small moments that make me feel confident in the work Project KHEL is doing. Even if I cannot be here for next year’s event, I am already excited for those who will be.

This event made me think about why we work and how we do that work. The event was extremely challenging for me from dealing with rejection (though I had been forewarned), strategizing how best to phrase our pitches to make sales, working to make sure the logistics for the event were done correctly and fighting off sleepiness at 8 pm. And yet, all of these tasks are much easier than the task the children face every day, of hawking for their livelihood. But the relative ease of our task did not mean that we took it easy; rather we still worked hard to make this event happen for the kids anyways. This is one unique aspect of Project KHEL of have seen in my first month here, how centred the work of the organization is around our beneficiaries.

Even after all the children had gone home with more money than they had ever earned in a day and all the volunteers had gone home smiles on their faces, the full-time team was called to office to debrief with the senior people who were still on their way back from another event out of the city (a 500km roundtrip drive that day). In spite of the tiredness all around I was amazed to see how they all engaged each other. I’ve already seen that decisions are made at every meeting, with regards to every session and every event, which keep children the focus of our work. If a decision would be not beneficial to the children, we don’t make it. Entire systems of feedback and criticism exist in the structure of the organization to make sure this happens, and it was great to see it in action that night. Every more so, it felt amazing to know that the children recognized and appreciated the efforts so many Project KHEL staff and volunteers poured into this event.