Summer Centered: Courtney Ahmed ’18 Supports Empowered Youth in Kolkata
The philosophy major is interning with Prayasam to advocate for child rights and health education in India’s third-most populous metropolitan area.
In a densely populated region like Bengal, which includes the country of Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal, collecting public health data and dispensing health education is essential. This summer, Courtney Ahmed ’18 is helping to execute this task in a revolutionary way. With funding from the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship, Ahmed is working for Prayasam, an organization in the city of Kolkata that empowers youth to collect health data and speak up and raise health awareness in their own communities.
Prayasam, which means “their own endeavors,” works on a wide array of wellness issues, including women’s empowerment, hygiene, child marriage, and illiteracy. But unlike most other organizations, the agents of this work are the young people from the communities most affected by these issues, namely Kolkata’s slums. Through films, dances, posters, and other media, Kolkata’s youth are empowered to speak up about the issues that they find relevant to their own lives and to enact change in their own communities.
“Prayasam started off as this idea that children can change their own environment if they are only shown how,” said Ahmed, a philosophy major and chemistry minor on a pre-med track. “It is said that ‘age is just a number.’ At Prayasam, that is truly the belief and it is evinced over and over, through the youth’s confidence and wisdom.”
Ahmed is getting a first-hand look at Prayasam’s ethos in action. As an intern, she is helping Prayasam’s communications efforts by writing blog posts, compiling and analyzing data, and reporting from the field on the organization’s work. Earlier this month, she traveled a couple hundred miles north to the region of Maldah, where Prayasam is supporting a girls’ empowerment platform in 150 schools run by students who speak out against child marriage and advocate for social, educational, and biological wellness in their schools and larger communities.
“I am constantly surrounded by people younger than me who have done more than I could even imagine, from dramatically improving their community’s child vaccination rates, to directing short films with incredible finesse and deeply relevant meaning,” she said. “Simply put, I am starstruck most of the time.”
In addition to learning new perspectives on mentoring and public health, outside of work Ahmed is enjoying Kolkata’s offerings in language and cuisine. She had previously traveled twice before to Bangladesh, her father’s home country, which made Kolkata familiar to her due to its shared Bengali heritage. As she puts down her silverware to eat rice, curry, and lentils with her right hand, as is custom, she enjoys laughing, living, and learning with fellow employees at the Prayasam offices.
“It’s like being a part of a huge, laughing family that also will call you out if you don’t wash your own dishes when you’re done,” she said. “I’ve made friends with my coworkers who are my age, a little above my age, and older than me who have so much wisdom to offer. It’s so much fun joking around and learning Bengali from them.”
Ahmed’s position will last until the end of July. In the fall, she will return to Haverford as a senior with a new perspective on how to further public health initiatives from the ground up. She will also bring with her a new perspective on her major.
“Philosophy pertains to everything under the sun. Especially, I’ve found, when you’re developing a case for empowerment in the face of great poverty and systemic oppression,” she said. “Philosophy equals mindset.”
-Michael Weber ‘19
“Summer Centered” is a series exploring our students’ Center-funded summer work.