What Is Your Superpower?

AFTER GRADUATING in 2014, Saurabh Agarwal from Harvard Kennedy School and his wife, Neelam Pol, from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the two returned to India, working for organizations such as the World Bank and UNICEF. But they became increasingly convinced that their best bet for creating real social change might come from sharing their transformational educational experiences. “Those HKS classes were so experiential in nature, we thought that if we could take those lessons to kids, they might have a chance to break the cycle of poverty and create a better future for themselves,” Agarwal says.

So they created Khel Planet Foundation, an educational nonprofit dedicated to teaching children life skills through games and activities. “So many of our classroom experiences guided us: Kessely Hong’s negotiation class, Ronald Heifetz’s leadership class, the art of communication from Tim McCarthy,” Agarwal explains. “And perhaps best for us, Marshall Ganz’s seminar on organizing.”

man holding out arms pretending to fly

Conducting workshops at schools throughout India, Agarwal began to see that children often learned best when they explored concepts in an entertaining way through play. But girls had fewer role models or none at all—not even fictional ones. He remembers one classroom exercise in which they talked about a girl who wanted to be an astronaut. “Boys in the class started laughing, saying, ‘Girls can’t even ride a bicycle properly; how will they become an astronaut?’” Agarwal recounts. “That was a big moment for us.”

If children often refer to superheroes and superpowers, perhaps having a female superhero of their own could encourage young girls to dream. The inspiration came in part from Bollywood, specifically from Dabangg, a popular film whose hero is strong and fights evil. Dabangg (or dabung, depending on how the Hindi word is transcribed) means “fearless.” Hence their creation: Dabung Girl, a cartoon character aimed at girls ages 8 to 11, who stars in comic books and an animation series.

man standing in front of white wall wearing black t-shirt

Boys in the class started laughing, saying, ‘Girls can’t even ride a bicycle properly; how will they become an astronaut?’ That was a big moment for us.

Saurabh Agarwal MPA 2014
Globe

Some of the stories touch on difficult subjects, such as child sexual abuse, and Agarwal is proud that his organization has formed strategic partnerships to navigate these topics sensitively. It partnered with Kailash Satyarthi, the Indian social reformer and Nobel Peace Prize recipient for his work on children’s rights, whose foundation helped put together a panel of survivors of childhood abuse to provide feedback. Agarwal says that although India has very good laws on child abuse, there is very little relevant literature for children from low-income communities. “If we can use adaptive leadership, as we learned from Heifetz, we can make sure more children are aware of the laws and how to use them,” he says.

The foundation also recently launched a series of Dabung Girl talks—similar to TED Talks—in which people seen as real-life heroes share their life lessons in five-minute videos. “We are trying to take on important issues and find our strategic partners help us take our story to more and more children,” Agarwal says. Next, he and his foundation plan to introduce SuperAvni, a rebellious next-generation superhero and social impact influencer who tackles the usual challenges of teenagers, ranging from bullying to broader issues such as the environment and gender inequality.

Images courtesy of  Saurabh Agarwal