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The Strengths Project

Overcoming Challenges, Maximising Unrealised Strengths

Posted by: Avirupa Bhaduri & Alex Linley

 

This month Avirupa shares some of her personal insights about how she has been using her own strengths and strengthspotting skills to help her through the challenging time of moving house and getting everything organised. Everything worked out well in the end when she looked to maximise her unrealised strengths and draw on the strengths of the Shiriti Women’s Sewing Co-operative to help her…

 

“February started with an exceptionally hectic schedule, personally. I have recently shifted home and there are a million things that needed attention and tons of new things that needed to be adjusted to. This proved to be a major stressor, and was seriously affecting my relations with my family. So I decided to sit down and try to apply Realise2 to see if I can turn this into a positive experience.

 

I know I like adventure, I am creative, I have empathic connection. My weakness is order, lack of planfulness, being low on detail. Next, instead of learned behaviour I tried to focus on my unrealised strengths in this context. I asked my daughter what she misses most about me these days.

 

Back came the reply “You always smiled hugged and kissed me every time after you scolded me for my mistakes, and you soon forgot all about it, when anything went wrong! Now you are always angry and complaining.” Bounceback was instantly on my mind. I hugged and kissed her for that!

 

I asked my husband next. He surprised me by saying I am less thankful and optimistic these days, which is unusual of me. He also said something interesting, he said “You know you are creative but do you know that you are a great manager, you know how to get things done by people and you know exactly who is best for what.” Drive and connector that’s me!!! It brought a smile to my face.

 

Armed with this illumination, I took it on me to start small to improve my life for myself and my family. I had a long conversation with my husband about the good things of this decision, about sharing chores and making work done systematically. He is a time optimiser and super-great in order, so he agreed to complement me in this regard. My optimism was once more restored.

 

I had a number of pending odd jobs, that was weighing down on me, one of which was making curtains for our new home. Suddenly I thought why not give it to Mousumi & Sharmila, instead of a tailor shop. It will be a win-win situation for both of us!

 

Next week at Shiriti I came with my bundle of fabric, and my friends happily lapped up the opportunity. We had a hearty chatter about my new home, their cheerful curiosity got transmitted to me, and soon I found myself talking happily about my plans for the time ahead. The week after, my curtains were ready, on time and looking lovely.

 

I paid them their wages after much argument on the due amount. They charged ridiculously low. I used my “strict teacher” voice to persuade them to take what is rightful and fair. As I walked back home with my curtain packet in hand, my heart was full of content and hope for the days to come, and I was thankful for the knowledge of strengths which had helped me see this.”

 

 

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The Strengths Project: Strengthening Tea Plantation Workers in Alipurduar, West Bengal

Posted by: Alex Linley & Avirupa Bhaduri

 

In her first post of 2013, Avirupa updates us on the New Year celebrations in Kolkata, while also recognising how the horrendous rape in Delhi, which had made the international news, also had its own reverberations in Kolkata.

 

Avirupa then goes on to share her experiences of working with tea planters, enabling them to realise more of their strengths and apply these to the pressing challenge of getting better medical provision for their work. To see how she did this, read on…

 

“A New Year is ushered with celebration in Kolkata. Park Street, the erstwhile posh commercial hub of the Raj, retains it’s charm even now, each year it is decorated with fairy lights, people throng the road at midnight, cars honk loudly, drunk party crowds erupt with celebration, confetti, cheer, greetings and the like.

 

This year though the mood was less cheerful, a couple of week earlier a girl in Delhi was brutally raped, and left to die, following which the youth of India took the capital by siege demanding justice, safety for women. The repercussions were felt in Kolkata too. People were scared to venture late at night.

 

In fact, the Delhi rape case had made a mark at every sphere of life, I was surprised to see the concern in Mousumi, Arpita and Sharmila. Mousumi expressed deep anxiety, since she was the mother of a 9 year old girl. Women and safety was all we could talk in the 1st week’s meeting of the New Year. I was interested to know their take on the safety of women in Shiriti. The answer came as a surprise.

 

Although Shiriti is a slum, alcoholism, petty politics, clashes between groups were not uncommon, in fact, when I visited Shiriti as an outsider in the initial days, I felt uneasy. However the women said they still felt safe within the community than outside, even though the vices exist, and they make sure to reach home by evening. They knew that they would not be assaulted by local boys, rather they said it was more unsafe for young boys, as the chance of being involved in drug, alchohol, gang war is more likely.

 

I found the answer pretty intriguing, wondering where their strength of faith came from; perhaps a sense of community, a social safety net was active.

 

Next week I was scheduled to leave for Alipurduar, for the last of the leadership workshops. The NGO project was to wrap up by this month. They’ll resume their good work once the project renewal is sanctioned. As I boarded the train I felt a little sad, as I was getting attached to the workshops. Anyway the train left Howrah station at 10p.m. It was to reach Alipurduar, the eastern border district of West Bengal by noon.

 

Our session was to begin from 2p.m. on the 1st day. We woke up at 8a.m. to find the train stalled at Maldah, a station which we were supposed to cross at 4a.m. Finally the train left Maldah at 9a.m. We were much tensed as the delegates would reach the venue from several places; the whole time during our journey was spent on co-ordination, battling a terrible mobile network problem.

 

I was delighted to find the strengths of Detail and Efficacy in my colleague, who managed to keep the organiser abreast of our situation and all the time assuring of a great workshop, whenever we reached them. We reached Alipurduar at 6p.m. A car was waiting at the station; we drove for 20min after which we reached the forest checkpost of Buxa Tiger reserve. Our venue was inside the Tiger Reserve, at No. 28 Forest Basti.

 

We had to take special permission from the ranger as entry was restricted after 6p.m. I was tensed as the car sped through the only motor-able road inside pitch dark forest, all the while the boy who was our escort kept telling stories of how he, and his friends and family have encountered herds of wild elephants, and sometimes even tigers!

 

Anyway we reached a clearing amidst the forest braving the jungle and I felt relieved to see lights and hear human voices. As we got down we saw 30 delegates sitting and waiting for us in the cold. There was electricity, but due to low voltage we could hardly see each other’s faces. The organiser held a small ceremony to felicitate us with locally made shawls.

 

We had to start immediately, so I began with the concept of introduction by strength. I briefly explained what strength is and introduced myself with my strengths, and asked my colleagues to do so, followed by the delegates.

 

The delegates this time were all tea plantation workers from local tea estates. They are a unique community, their problems and even their ethnicity is different from all other under-privileged people that I have worked so far. The hill people have traditionally been considered “other” by the majority of Bengalis’ and vice versa. So a lot of time was spent in breaking the ice.

 

It was late and we were tired after the journey but as night progressed we found ourselves in conversation, over a lot of issues. There were a big group of youth, who were quite enthusiastic about accepting new ideas. They were most responsive when I talked about strengths. Then I talked to them how in other workshops people initially skeptic about the idea have later realised the strength of strengths.

 

I thought of implementing what worked best last time, i.e. staging a skit performance, to mock tackle a real issue (unavailability of medical facility in the tea gardens) by banking on group strengths. This time also 4 groups were created, given time to discuss and form a strengths bank, following which they will stage a plausible solution to convince the managers/owners to give them their rightful medical provision.

 

This worked wonderfully well, each group tried their best and it was heart-warming to watch their pent up anger frustration being given a voice, with logic, earnestness and resilience. After the performance spontaneous animated discussions followed which continued till dinner was announced and spilled over.

 

A number of young men and women came up and asked about Capp and my role. It was then that I once again found the conviction to spread the message of strength, seeing how it impacts and changes the lives of all people.”

 

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The Strengths Project, Kolkata, India – December 2012 Update – Part 2

Posted by: Alex Linley & Avirupa Bhaduri

 

In part 1 of this blog, Avirupa told us about her journey to Baghmundi and some context of the area and the workshops that were being delivered. In this part 2, she shares with us her experiences of strengthspotting and strengths building with the villagers, doing so through the famous Indian folk tale of Panta Buri. Read on to see how she did it…

 

“The next day, the session begins early. The delegates have by now got to know each other and there is a sense of camaraderie. Mine was the 2nd session of the day. I began by introducing me and my strengths. I then asked the other speakers, who are now familiar with strength ideas, having been present in the past two sessions, to introduce themselves and their strengths.

 

Thereafter, I started talking about the benefits of realising strengths in us and others. Silent blank faces stared back at me as usual, but this time I was not disheartened, braced by the achievement of past experience.

 

I decided to try another approach. I talked about our bias with weakness, how that has become the only yard stick for judging improvement. I said “What if we turn the table and start thinking differently? We ordinary people can do wonders by acknowledging the extraordinary in us, our strengths!” I proposed to illustrate my point with the simple folk tale of Panta Buri.

 

In this story an old woman is helped by a motly crew of ordinary sub-humans- viz. a knife, a crocodile, a blob of cowdung, and a “bael” (an indegenous fruit). They come together to outwit and capture a thief who was habituallly stealing the “buri”s (old woman’s) “panta”.

 

I told this age-old tale from the strength perspective, to demonstrate how ordinary beings can become powerful if they utilize their strengths judiciously to the fullest potential, and better still, as a team of complementary partners. This story telling session worked wonders and the group became responsive for the first time, adding anecdotes and versions of the story, all of which had the common theme of realising and managing strengths.

 

Once the ball started rolling, then like all previous sessions, the participants came up with their own strengths stories. A young boy told the story how he had once taken an injured friend to the hospital by cycling fast through the hills. A girl stood up and talked about her ambition to become an athlete, and proudly narrated the story of her persual of dreams and the various medals that she had won.

 

We repeated the workshop from the last sessions of making teams and talking about each other’s strengths. This time, we introduced an element of theatre and gave a practical problem, and asked the delegates to act out a solution based on using the strengths of fellow team members.

 

This worked wonderfully and most of the teams had a fair amount of participation. After each team’s performance, we were asked to rate them. Each performace was followed by fervent and spontaneous discussions. We had a difficult time to conclude the session, and after much deliberation, tea break was announced.

 

While watching lively chats and conversations among the men and women, even during the break, I realized that we have probably made yet another community converts to the strengths mantra!”

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The Strengths Project, Kolkata, India – December 2012 Update – Part 1

Posted by: Alex Linley & Avirupa Bhaduri

 

In the December report from Shiriti slum in Kolkata, India (which we will post in two parts – this is Part 1), Avirupa describes Christmas in Kolkata, and sets the scene for another strengths-based community development workshop that she developed in Baghmundi, a town in Purulia, one of the poorest districts of West Bengal. As Avirupa reports:

 

“December, the last month of the year, and a month of festivities. Although Christmas is essentially a Christian religious ceremony, we in India have somehow internalized it, in true spirit of our fabled “synthetic culture”. To most Indians, especially for Bengalis, it is a holiday which has curiuosly become associated with cake eating. Winter in the subcontinent is fairly warm, the average temperature lies between 13 to 15 degrees.

 

When I went to Shiriti on 6th December I met only Sharmila, the mothers were busy preparing their children for terminal exam. We spoke for a while and I told Sharmila that I’ll take the last week off for annual holiday. She was happy for me and asked me to call her before coming next week, so that she will inform the others about the time.

 

It so happened that I got invited for taking another leadership workshop by the same NGO, apparently propelled by the success of the previous ones. I was very happy to be part of yet another enriching experience, so readily agreed. But this time the workshop was to be held at Baghmundi, a remote village at the heart of Purulia district in West Bengal. The workshop schedule is for two days and we have to travel by train for a night. I had to therefore cancel the next week’s meeting at Shiriti.

 

So, on 12th December I boarded the train from Howrah station along with representatives of the NGO. Next day early morning we reached Borabhum, the nearest railway station to Baghmundi. A jeep was waiting for us at the station, and we started our onward journey. The road from the station was suprisingly great, largely devoid of potholes and bumpy ride, which is common in almost all roads including the highways of West Bengal.

 

On hearing me complement, the local representative proudly announced that this road was in fact built by a Japanese construction company, thus the quality assurance. So after about half an hour, we reached the main market area of Baghmundi, from there we took a left turn and as expected the road became non-existent. We continued with our journey through what seemed like village courtyards, the jeep manouvering with supernatural dextrousness amidst mud, washclothes, children playing, and mounds of paddy kept for drying in the sun.

 

After this adventure we arrived at a big iron gate. A perfectly urban looking three storied pucca (made of brick) with a lovely garden front. This was such an exceptional sight that the city girl in me almost gasped in wonder. I eventually learned that this building was built and manintained by the Lions Club and acts as a social community centre and a place for convention of various social service activities, both government and non-government organizations. We weare served a cup of steaming hot tea while we waited for the delegates to arrive from nearby villages across the hills, as well as from the adjoining district of Bankura.

 

A little backstory of the area would be helpful here. Purulia and Bankura are two of the poorest districts of West Bengal. The soil in these regions is not as fertile as the rest of the state, the rivers are seasonal, i.e., they flood in monsoon and dry up in summer and winter. The majority of the population is composed of tribal peoples, one of the most marginalized communities in our country. Their language is Santhali and even when they speak Bengali, their dialect is quite unique.

 

In recent times these areas have been riddled by Maoist insurgencies, which allegedly is a fallout of the lack of development initiative taken by the government. As a result, there is a heavy police and military presence in the area, and the common people are the worst sufferers.

 

In this context, we were poised to hold the workshop to empower the villagers with positive life skills. The first day’s workshop started late as the delegates, many of whom cycled miles crossing the hills to the venue, arrived close to noon. On humanitarian grounds, after a brief introductory session, the lunch break was announced. Post-lunch, one of the key speakers takes an exhaustive session on “awareness of laws and  rights”. It’s winter, so it gets dark early and there’s not enough provision of electricity, thus we concluded the day.”

 

On day two, we’ll learn more about Avirupa’s strengths session with the delegates. This follows in Part 2 of this blog…

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Update from The Strengths Project, Kolkata, India – November 2012

Posted by: Avirupa Bhaduri & Alex Linley

 

For the last three years Capp has sponsored strengths-based community building in the Shiriti slum in Kolkata, India, through our charitable activity, The Strengths Project.

 

Our Strengths Consultant who leads this work, Avirupa Bhaduri, this month brings us her experiences of strengthspotting with a range of disadvantaged people in Kolkata. These include the women of the Shiriti Women’s Sewing Co-operative, and a diverse group from the squatter colony beside the railway tracks in Park Circus Station, Kolkata.

 

Avirupa’s blog powerfully demonstrates how strengths can be identified in all of us, whatever our circumstances. She also shows how these strengths can in turn help us to ovecome difficulties and work towards what we want to achieve in life. This is the purpose of The Strengths Project.

 

When you read the stories from the women of Shiriti and the squatter colony of Park Circus Station, below, you will see why Capp is so proud to support this work of developing strengths in underprivileged communities.

 

As Avirupa reports:

 

“November is the month that marks the last of the religious festivals in Kolkata. In the first week we met at Shiriti, but the turn out was poor, with only Sharmila giving me company, as the other women were busy with preparation of Lakshmi Puja. We decided to drop the meeting for the next week as it was the week of Kali Puja, bhai pho(n)ta.

 

When we met the week after, I talked about my Hasnabad experience with Mousumi & Sharmila. They were very interested about the session. Sharmila, the ever curious, had a lot of queries; What did I perceive about the session’s success, how different were they from their group, whether they responded well, how about their problems? Were they any similar to Shiriti?

 

Mousumi asked whether I have talked about the Shiriti group to the women of Hasnabad. I had to admit that I didn’t, I should have. Then the three of us generally talked about our lives, our role as women of the house, the differences and similarity of our experience as women, and during the course of conversation we realised that as women we are less encouraged to appreciate our own strengths.

 

That got me thinking and I asked them to think of certain core strengths that are specific to women as caregivers. Immediately Resilience, Compassion etc. came to the forefront, plus there was one more strength that they both tried to explain, which is unique to women, it is the art of “shongshar kora” (managing household) Which, I considered, comes through a combination of strengths like Judgement (satisfying the varied needs of every member of the household by organizing the right thing at the right time), Order (keeping every thing in order in the house), Relationship Deepener and Unconditionality.

 

Mousumi pointed out that there’s one more special strength, an ability that a poor housewife has, to make do with minimum resource to maximize satisfaction of all. However, it’s debatable about the extent to which this is learned behaviour or strength, but that was too complicated, so we parted with a smile, saying that as women we are the pillar of strength for our families.

 

The next two weeks were Jagadhatri Puja and Muharram, so by mutual consent we thought it’s practical to meet in the month of December.

 

Meanwhile due to the success of the 1st session, I was asked to take 3 more Leadership Training workshop with diverse groups of marginalized community in the months of November and December.

 

The first one was with a squatter colony beside railway tracks in Park Circus Station, Kolkata. It was a mixed group, comprising of elderly men, women and young people. Their socio-economic status was also mixed, some were rag pickers, some worked as domestic help, some as “ayaah” at local health clinics, some young people were studying in local free high schools, some of the men were van or rickshaw pullers, and there was one man who is a veteran social worker. In terms of language spoken they were also varied, a majority spoke hindi, so I conducted my session in a mix of hindi and bangla.

 

In the previous session they talked about their problems and vented their frustration against Govt. and social agencies, exploitation by powerful people, people in power. The mood was thus very negative and tense.

 

So, this time I chose to begin with a hopeful song, Hum Honge kamiyab (hindi version of We shall overcome), which found a lot of takers. Then I asked if they really believe that power or khomota lies externally, in the hands of “others”. They answered “yes” in unison. Then I asked them to look within, and try to see if there are any “khomota” present in themselves.

 

As expected the response was silence and hushed murmer, then I gradually introduced the subject of strengths and talked about how inevitably we are born with one or other, and that it’s a gift, a tool, even a weapon with which they can better their struggle to fight for their rights.

 

I talked about my strengths of Empathic Connection, Rapport Builder and Narrator and how these strengths have come into play when I have designed this workshop to empower them to realize their own strengths. I asked a colleague from the NGO (who was present in the earlier session and knew about strengths and their use) to talk about his strengths and how that has helped him to achieve his goals in life.

 

Then I asked the participants to think about at least one strength that they possess. I added that in order to do so they need to use strengthspotting tips,(from Alex’s top 10 strengthspotting tips) like “be authentic, think of your childhood memories, the things you always loved doing as a child, and the things that you are best at, the things you do naturally”.

 

The first responses came from young people, a boy spoke first and said he is very good at communication and can make friends easily (Rapport Builder). Another boy said he likes to make people smile, he is good at cracking jokes, and the group laughed and agreed (Humour).

 

A girl said she likes to take responsibility and has always been the one in her family who has been responsible (Personal Responsibility). A woman said she never loses hope even in spite of abject poverty and believes in the benevolent power of God and believes that all wrongs will be righted one day (Optimism).

 

With that hopeful note I now asked  the group to sit together in three smaller sub-groups, and interact with each other, and find out one strength of their group members, and the group which will have the most members talking about each other’s strengths will be the winner. After 20 mins of discussion we held a demonstration where each group made a smallish performance of talking about each others strengths.

 

In most groups there were 3 to 4 people who were most vocal, but the opportunity to come up in front of an audience to talk about what they like doing sparked a lot of positive energy in the group. I was happy to see smiles, excited chatter and shining eyes replacing the anger, frowns, disappointment and boredom from before.

 

Time was up, so I decided to conclude the session by talking about my observation and reiterated once again that the power of strengths is such that it can bring in positive force within us and if we can utilize our strength to the fullest potential and wisely and better still complement with the strengths of others, it can help in chalking out a road map to fight for our rights.”

 

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Update from The Strengths Project, Kolkata, India – October 2012

Posted by: Avirupa Bhaduri & Alex Linley

 

This month Avirupa provides us with an update on the outcomes from the Sewing Exhibition, as well as sharing her experiences of using strengths and strengthspotting in leadership development training with a group of rural Muslim women in Hasnabad, located 4 hours from Kolkata. This was on behalf of another NGO, partered by Action Aid.

 

On reading Avirupa’s blog I was struck once again by how the issue of gender preconceptions about leadership are prevalent. See below – and also see how Rabindranath Tagore, the poet of Kolkata and the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, describes the importance of strengths in one of his songs…

 

“October is the month of festivities for India, especially for Bengal, and more specifically for Kolkata. Durga Puja the greatest hindu religious festival takes place around October. Although the days are calculated by Bengali calendar, most of the times it falls in October. Durga Puja is closely followed by Eid, Lakshmi Puja, Muharram, and finally Kali puja & Diwali. So the fiesta lasts till mid November.

 

This is the time when people try to buy new clothes for children, give gifts to friends & family and spend much of their income for related activities. The main puja is for 6 days, but preparations are a month long, even more.

 

So when we met in the first week of October, it was pretty much decided that we will get to meet again only after Kali puja. However we thought of giving ourselves a little bonus. The women suggested that the remuneration for volunteering in the exhibition will be Rs.50 per day, per person plus conveyance.

 

It seemed only fair enough, so Arpita was awarded with Rs. 150, for being present on all 3 days, and Mousumi and Sharmila Rs. 100 each. This money was deducted from our total sale worth around Rs. 1100. The women vowed to prepare for next year much in advance.

 

Meanwhile unexpectedly I found quite a new opportunity. A friend of mine recommended my name for a project of another NGO partnered by Action Aid. The objective of the programme is to make the marginalized community realise their basic human rights, by capacity building through competent trainers.

 

My session was on Leadership training, and the target audience was a group of muslim women from the suburb. Naturally I was quite excited with the idea. I boarded a local train and reached Hasnabad, a small township, 4 hrs from Kolkata, at noon.

 

I met with about 25 women, who had come from villages near Hasnabad. They were very different from the women of Shiriti group. The first visible difference was that all of them were veiled, as is common for rural muslim women. For some, coming to Hasnabad was the biggest step they have taken outside their village, without being accompanied by men.

 

I began with an ice breaker, by asking them to think of a leader, and then announced that by magic I knew that most of them have thought about someone who 1. Is a man 2. lives in a big city, far away and 3. that he is most likely to be a political leader.

 

Then I subverted their preconceived notion of leadership by giving the example of their community leader, Afsa, a girl in her mid-twenties, herself a co-worker of the NGO and who is from the same village as them, and one who has been instrumental in bringing them to the workshop.

 

The earlier session was a lecture on the relationship of power and marginalisation, so I referred to that and then started talking about strengths. Incidentally strength and power have similar words in Bengali, shakti, khomota. The idea was to make them realise their own strengths and use them to their benefit, to change power equation.

 

The task was harder than I imagined. I started with the strengths story of Ashok Shah (from The Strengths Book), with a slight twist. I made Shah a factory worker, who lost his job, to make them relate to him. They listened with rapt attention and reacted positively to the perceived happy ending.

 

Then I started a strengths spotting exercise. Here again the biggest hurdle was to make them speak about their own strengths. I think the phenomenon may be cultural, because people, (the more marginalized, the worse), often find the idea of talking about one’s own strengths contradicting with ideals of humility.

 

It takes a lot of coaxing to get it out from them, as a matter of fact I had to explain as many as 10 strengths from the CAPP inventory, and talk at length about all of my own strengths before I could build enough confidence in them to spot even one in themselves.

 

Also I emphasised the fact that strength is inherent in all of us, that we are all born with one or other strength/s. Then I tried to shift the focus from self to others. This worked much better, women giggled and started to talk about the strengths of their friends, who in turn giggled even more and complimented back by strengths spotting for the appreciators.

 

One woman said she has strength of competitiveness, and can make 100 bidis (small local cheap cigars) in 15 minutes, more than anyone in her neighbourhood. She has even given a demonstration in front of Govt. Officials in the local municipal township office, in order to obtain a Govt. Aid for health insurance.

 

A woman said that to be present in this training workshop away from home without men is a proof of her strength of adventure. A group of women pointed out to an elderly woman, and said she has wonderful strength of counselling, and is very compassionate.

 

Another smart widow stood up and said that she is full of drive, as a proof she cited the example that she always attends social welfare workshops and conference, and once have even travelled to Siliguri (a town in north Bengal, which is about 20 hours journey by train from Hasnabad).

 

We then talked about collective strength and how powerful tool it can be, and roughly introduced the idea of the Realise2 quadrant model, to describe how it can be used to the fullest advantage.

 

The session ended in song of Rabindranath Tagore mukto karo bhoy, apona majhe shakti dhoro, nijere koro joy” (break free from the shackles of fear, realise your own strength to be a winner) wherein some of the women joined me.

 

I ended the session by asking them to make a promise, to be alert about their own strengths, look out for strengths in others, and to make strengths part of their vocabulary.

 

The group looked visibly happy and hopeful and cheered me in chorus to assure me that they will keep their promise.”

 

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The Strengths Project, Kolkata, India – Update – September 2012

Posted by: Aviurpa Bhaduri & Alex Linley

 

In September’s update from Avirupa, she shares with us the success of the exhibition sale in which the Women’s Sewing Co-operative of Shiriti slum participated, together with their review of what went well and what lessons they can learn and apply for the future.

 

If you’re not familiar with the background of Capp’s work through The Strengths Project with the women of Shiriti slum in Kolkata, follow this link to read more of the history of what we have been doing.

 

Here is Avirupa’s update about the success of the exhibition sale, and what the Women’s Sewing Co-operative were working on in September:

 

“The month of September began with a flurry of activities. We were all gearing up for the exhibition which was due to be held for 3 days on 10th, 11th & 12th September. All days being weekdays we had to plan out a schedule which ensured that at least one member of the group was present at the venue from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m.

 

Predictably the most initiative was taken by the three most active members of our group, viz. Sharmila, Mousumi & Arpita. But while Mousumi & Sharmila said they could only manage half a shift per day, Arpita surprised us all by declaring that she will be present everyday from start to finish, and she was confident that in her absence, her husband, who is supportive of her work with TSP, will take care of house chores. We were busy putting tags and readying our assortment of clothes.

 

On 10th I got my car and we set off for the venue, the women wore their finest clothes and looked radiant and proud. Smiling faces rarely betrayed the underlying anticipation we all felt. Once in the venue, we quickly located our table. As mentioned earlier, due to budget constraint, we had to share a table with a cousin of mine. Nevertheless we were happy to set up shop and soon were ready to do business.

 

There were quite a number of enthusiastic visitors and shoppers. This is quite an intimate but well known exhibition organized by a reputed Govt. aided social welfare organization, held in the premises of one the oldest women empowerment organizations of Kolkata.

 

The publicity for the event is mainly by word of mouth and old loyalists look forward to this occasion to stock up on their Durga Puja shopping. The official ribbon cutting ceremony was performed by a local celebrity, Papiya Adhikari. She visited every stall paused to admire our display. Sharmila, Arpita & Mousumi were delighted to pose for a photo with her.

 

Our table was quite busy on all days. All our petticoats were sold out by Day 2. Sensing the popularity of our product, Arpita proposed that we hike our price by Rs.20. In fact we had the cheapest price among all the stalls.

 

Arpita lived up to her promise by coming on time on all 3 days and staying till closing time, taking care to keep track of our bills and neatly folding and rearranging the garments everyday. Sharmila & Mousumi gave her company on alternate days. Mousumi even got her daughter with her on Day 3. By the end of the exhibition we had sold products worth Rs. 1105. This was indeed a considerable achievement for us. On the last day we decided to take the next week off and assemble on 27th.

 

On 27th there was full house and we started discussing what went right and what could have improved. A lot of things we felt were working in our favour, like price, the quality of the fabric, handmade tag, etc. That fact that we competed with other more veteran stall owners and did brisk business spoke a lot about our collective spirit.

 

We were happy to receive such recognition in a somewhat open market without any advertisement, that too participating for the first time. The factors which could be improved included our lack of planning, we decided to tackle that with what we learnt from this experience.

 

Our untapped potential turned out to be Arpita, who was not a great contributor in terms of making clothes, but proved to be an excellent sales person. She was ready with a quick smile and her
customary quips which were very effective to catch the attention of a hurried customer and converting intent into a confirmed sell. We felt we needed to explore her talent and strength for this more in all future ventures.

 

Our weakness was the poor quality of finish, since most of the garments were made by novices. Also our lack of knowledge about the kind of products that would sell well, contributed to the weakness factor. This could easily be tackled since we knew now by designing small embroidered items like table covers, baby clothes, about which there was a clear demand, plus petticoats, our prized item needed to made in larger quantities.

 

All in all, by the end of the meeting we were indeed very happy and were already looking forward to the next exhibition.”

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Update from The Strengths Project, Kolkata, India – August 2012

Posted by: Avirupa Bhaduri & Alex Linley

 

This month Avirupa brings us updates for how the weather has been affecting the people of Shiriti slum in the month of August, combined with the excitement of preparing for the annual exhibition, where the Shiriti Women’s Sewing Co-operative will showcase their products:

 

“Erratic weather finally took it’s toll in August. Inconsistent rain, high humidity and hot sun coupled with the dirt accumulation in our city resulted in a number of tropical diseases transmitted by mosquito, the most threatening being dengue fever. It has affected more that thousands, with the official death count at 5. It is serious enough to be considered as epidemic.

 

The mood at Shiriti is sombre, the women are worried about their children. I bring a ray of good news; the annual exhibition of a reputed Govt. aided women and child welfare organisation was scheduled for 3 days in September, 10th to 12th. I had asked one of my aunts, who is a freelance social worker, to book us a table. However the cost of one full table came to Rs.1500, but we have only Rs. 800 in our common fund. So I thought of inviting a cousin to share half a table to sell home-made snacks. That brought down our investment cost to Rs. 750.

 

Smiling faces greet me and we soon get busy discussing what needs to be done to spruce up our humble collection. Robert had donated some fancy ribbons, buttons and sequins which were lying idle all these while. Mousumi had the bright idea of using them to make our batch of baby pinafores look pretty. The petticoats were our prized items, but even they need to be washed and ironed, as they have become dusty and lost the sheen of newness.

 

In the second week, we were delighted to see Sharmila back resplendent with vermillion and “shankha-pola” (a pair of white and red bangles, traditional symbols of hindu married woman) she happily joined our planing process offering valuable suggestions off and on. The women took home the entire collection in parts, each making an entry in the register for the number of clothes that she would be responsible for. The plan was to share the load of washing, so that each woman will be comfortable washing a few clothes with their own laundry.

 

The next week Mousumi was ready with her chore but none of the others could complete. So we decided to give one more week for washing following which the primping work would start. On 23rd August all but Arpita were ready with freshly washed and ironed clothes, so we sat down to decide on design ideas. The cut and fit of most of the clothes were fine, we left it to Sharmila to put the lace on baby suits. The energy and excitement was palpable, finally our much awaited exhibition looked like a reality.

 

In the last week we gathered together to finalize who will share which responsibility especially about time, since someone from our group need to be present at the venue at all time during the work hours for 3 days. This was cause for much debate, and it remained unresolved, but we were confident that we will somehow find a workable solution in the end.”   

 

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Update from The Strengths Project, Kolkata, India – July 2012

Posted by: Avirupa Bhaduri & Alex Linley

 

As regular readers of The Capp Blog will know, for a number of years through our charitable arm, The Strengths Project, Capp has supported the establishment and running of a Women’s Sewing Co-operative in Shiriti slum, Kolkata, India. The Women’s Sewing Co-operative was formed through strengthspotting and identifying the women’s strengths, then harnessing these strengths to improve their life circumstances. The project is supported by Avirupa Bhaduri, Capp’s consultant in Kolkata.

 

In her update for the month of July, Avirupa tells us about the impact of the lack of rain in the monsoon season, together with the implications for the Women’s Sewing Co-operative of both a price rise in the cost of a reel of cotton and the impact of the upcoming wedding for one of the senior members of the Co-operative…

 

“July is officially height of monsoon, but this year the south west monsoon winds have been very unpredictable. There was hardly any rain in June and if the first week of July was any indication, then India is about to face serious crisis in terms of rainfall. We were discussing the impact of so less rain for crops, in our first meeting. It is interesting to note that somehow, although Sharmila, Mousumi, Shyama, Arpita and others have lived all their lives in the slums of the city, they seem inexorably drawn towards village.

 

The discussion turned to the steep price hike that has hit us hard in recent times. We were discussing how a reel of thread which six months back cost Rs.3 have become dearer by Rs.2. Therefore the women agreed that it is imperative that we scout for work now, as we will be able to offer cheap labour cost, and it will be a relief for the women if they can add a little extra money to support their family income. We promised each other that we will each think about a strategy for getting work by the next week’s meeting.

 

But on 12th a surprise awaited me. As I approached the group Sharmila shyly announced that the date of her wedding was finalized for 29th. All of us congratulated her; she was indeed the best of the group; sincere, hard working, talented and efficient. I was apprehensive about what it will mean for our group, whether she will be able to be part of us after marriage. But Sharmila confidently assured that her husband lives in the same community, which means she won’t migrate to a different part of the city. She also said that she had known the boy for a long time, he is very supportive of her every endeavor, and in fact always encourages her about being part of The Strengths Project. I felt happy at the pride she feels about her role with TSP. We only discussed Sharmila & her marriage in that meeting.

 

The next Thursday Sharmila was busy with pre-wedding preparation so she was absent. The rest of us discussed the possibility of generation of work, but the only idea that kept recurring was to have an exhibition…somehow. The boys of the local club have not summoned us, so the pressure to garner money for donation was not there immediately. But all of us really wanted to showcase our work to the world. Sensing their strong desire, I once again resolved to do something, however small, about the exhibition. Our meeting for the following week was adjourned for the occasion of Sharmila’s wedding. It gave me some time to explore options and speculate about how to arrange the elusive exhibition.”

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Update from The Strengths Project, Kolkata, India – June 2012

Posted by: Avirupa Bhaduri & Alex Linley

 

In her post for the month of June, Avirupa shares with us the long-awaited arrival of the monsoon season, although this also brings with it its own challenges. Further, the changing political situation in Kolkata is having its own impact on Shiriti slum and the activities of the Women’s Sewing Co-operative:

 

“Monsoon finally arrived in the second week of June much to the relief of one and all. Every weather though brings forth its share of tribulation. Rain is welcome in our country, since prehistoric times, as ours is a primarily agriculture based civilization. In villages in fact the first day of rain is celebrated through rituals. But in urban shanties, the romanticism of rain is but a distant memory.

 

Shiriti, for example, gets water logged if rain lasts for days. Filth, animal waste, overflowing garbage, plastic packets, all clog the open drains, clothes refuse to dry, children fall sick, and water gets contaminated. Water-borne diseases are very common during this season.

 

But our month started on a high note as all of us were quite upbeat about the successful completion of the costumes in the 1st meeting of June. On the second week Sharmila informed that she had inquired about the price of covers for sewing machine. The local carpenter has given an estimate of about Rs.300 per machine. This seemed a lot of money for our paltry fund. The collective decision was to start with two and then make the rest one by one, subject to availability of funds.

 

The next week however turned out to be difficult. A new problem has cropped up. As we approached the club, a local youth came over and wanted to talk to me. I was surprised as I haven’t met him before. He introduced himself as Tinku, member of the new club committee. He asked me to meet them, to discuss the status of our sewing group. He sounded self-assured, even to the point of being arrogant, and I had a feeling he wanted some kind of monthly donation for the club, if we wish to continue with our activity in the club premises.

 

I immediately called Babunda, our ally and friend, the erstwhile chairman of the club committee. He informed that apparently the old brigade has been asked to leave in the last committee meeting. This change of guards was anticipated, following the state elections. The old members were veterans, all supporters of the communist party, which was in power. The new members are relatively young boys, eager to assume position of authority, owing allegiance to Trinamul Congress, the party in power now, in the state.

 

I told him that the boys hinted at donation, or rent, as they liked to put it, for keeping the sewing machines in the club, and for the women to assemble on Thursdays. He advised that selected members of our sewing group should accompany me when they call for the meeting and explain that the sewing project is for the benefit of their own sisters and mothers. We then called for an urgent meeting the next week to talk about the impending issue.

 

Sharmila, Mousumi and Arpita all wanted to be present when the boys called us. They added that if it seem unlikely that they become convinced that it’s for their family’s interest and relent, then we should offer a small amount as rent, which we will then try to generate each month through work, as a compulsion. This would be the eustress we need to get work.

 

We were all happy to garner some positive targets from a negative situation. With this encouraging parting promise we concluded the month, with hopes high for the future.”         

 

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