More than 1 billion people (1 in 6 of us) live in an urban slum and this number is expected to double by the year 2030. That is enough to make anyone pessimistic. For one Ashoka Fellow, however, the future is in our hands—we control our own fates. “ Make the surroundings your product,” Amlan Ganguly implores. “Don’t become a product of your surroundings.”
For the past seventeen years Ganguly has been working to improve the lives of children in the more than 5,000 slums in Kolkata, the capital city of West Bengal, India. The city lacks sufficient infrastructure to accommodate the mass influx of rural poor who have steadily migrated to the city since the 1940s.
Ganguly looks to the youth of Kolkata as a ray of hope and optimism amidst devastating poverty: “If you want to start any type of change, start it with the children.”. He founded a community-based organization named Prayasam – meaning “their own endeavors” – with a focus on educating and empowering children to become confident changemakers. Using street theater, puppetry, and dance, Ganguly’s 11-year-old advocates-in-training have cut their neighborhoods' malaria and diarrhea rates in half and turned former garbage dumps into playing fields.
The story of Prayasam is now being told around the world in the documentary film The Revolutionary Optimists, which broadcasts Monday, June 17, on PBS. The film features Shikha, Salim, Kajal, and many other youth living in the slums of Kolkata on their quest to foster this new form of change. When they discover that their slum community is missing from Google Maps, they launch an effort to create a map of their neighborhood, carefully documenting streets, residents, and the people who call the slum home. They successfully used the map to lobby local leaders to install a much-needed water tap for residents.
Inspired filmmakers responded by creating a tech-based community mapping tool called Map Your World, which enables the children of Prayasam to multiply their impact. Using smart phones (ubiquitous in the slums of Kolkata) and Google Maps, the young changemakers collect and track data from their neighbors that they can use to address issues of concern in their community. Google has even joined in the effort by donating Android phones to schools and youth groups participating in Map Your World.
If you’re one of us working to change the world through innovation and disruptive ideas, let The Revolutionary Optimists be your visual guide. Learn from the children of Prayasam, who refuse to let the status quo dictate their fate, and from Ganguly, whose success resides in a resounding and contagious conviction that optimism is revolutionary.