I first learned the song “Change the World” on my eleventh birthday. I loved the song when I was a kid, but as I got older I was overtaken by cynicism and I grew to resent it. In my country there might be “sisters of every color”, but a lot of them couldn’t afford to be Girl Scouts. It might be that “In Girl Guiding we have so much to give/ To our sisters around the world who are struggling just to live,” but as far as I could see the best things we had to give to them were goofy songs and expensive cookies. Don’t get me wrong, I love Girl Scout cookies and I especially love Girl Scout songs, but I just didn’t see how we were changing the world with those things. Even so, Girl Scouting was a family to me, and I decided to expand that family by going to Sangam, the World Centre in India run by the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS). At Sangam, we sang “Change the World” all the time. More than that, we talked about changing the world all the time like it was a real thing! The idea that it is possible to change the world was my biggest source of culture shock when I came to Sangam. My co-workers were throwing around words like “Millennium Development Goals” and “advocacy”, and I was intimidated. I felt horribly pessimistic. “How will I ever be a proper Sangam Volunteer if I don’t even believe that I have the power to change things?” I asked myself. This is the story of how I came to love singing “Change the World” again.
Sangam is one of four (soon to be five) World Centres operated by WAGGGS. It is a place for Guides and Scouts from all over the world to come together, and its name means “coming together” in Sanskrit. Visiting Sangam is a way to meet and learn from Guides and Scouts from other countries and a way to discover India. As a four-month Sangam Volunteer, my role was to help run programmes that educate people about WAGGGS, Sangam, and India. To be a Sangam volunteer, you have to be 21 years of age, enthusiastic, and willing to work hard. We always joke that part of our contract is being willing to perform “other duties as required,” which could mean anything from taking creative photographs to sorting the books in the library to helping confused old ladies catch rickshaws. In every event we give our participants the chance to learn about WAGGGS and its themes and projects, discover the history and opportunities at Sangam, explore Indian culture, and visit one of our NGO Community Partners to find out how people are working to change things here in India.
While I was at Sangam, I had the opportunity to work on several different types of event. My first event, in November-December 2011 was a seminar about the HIV/AIDS epidemic around the world. Participants from eleven countries shared their experiences with each other, and on December 1st we joined a World AIDS Day march sponsored by Wake Up Pune, one of our Community Partners.
During the winter holidays, we ran an event called “Discover Your Potential”. Aimed at teenage girls, the programme tried to help participants find out about themselves and the change they want to be in the world. They worked on teaching and building improvement projects at various community partners, and the exposure to India obviously opened their minds a lot.
There were two “Essence of India” events during my time at Sangam. These were exactly what they sound like- trying to cram as much Indian culture, cuisine, and on-the-ground experience as possible into a few days. The first of these events we ran was for our future Tare, the international volunteers who stay at Sangam and work in the community. The second was for a group of ladies mostly from the United States, and we had fun comparing and contrasting India with home. At the second event, we celebrated Holi, the Indian festival of color.
I had the great fortune to visit Sangam during the WAGGGS centenary celebrations, and one of the events I helped with was even called “Celebrate Our Centenary”. It was during this event that we observed World Thinking Day, a Girl Scout/Guide holiday devoted to international understanding. The World Thinking Day 2012 theme is to promote environmental sustainability, and I contributed to this goal using my tested-and-true Girl Scout song knowledge from camp at home. I stood up in front of the 300 Indian Scouts and Guides who came to visit and sang to them “The alligator is my friend. He can be your friend too. I’d rather have him as my friend than cook him in a stew!” It was silly, but I like to think it got everyone thinking about the environment.
My last event at Sangam, like my first, was a seminar. This one was put on by the WAGGGS Leadership Development Programme, and was also about the environment. It was called “Young Women Leading for a Greener Future”, and as a volunteer I supported the planning team that put the event together.
One of the big projects I worked on as a volunteer was the WAGGGS consultation called “The World We Want for our Future.” To prepare for its delegation at Rio+ 20, WAGGGS asked young people what kind of world they would like to live in when they grow up and what positive changes we should be making to ensure that such a world is possible. In the consultation we asked young people to think about their future selves and how they would interact with the world. We educated about the MDGs and asked what else is important for our future that isn’t covered in the UN’s current goals. We asked if young people can see the climate changing and what they think we need to protect the most. I was able to run the consultation with Sangam residents and with the Nivedita Guides, the Indian Guiding unit that meets at Sangam. I also promoted the campaign both online and in person to various event guests in hopes that they would take the consultation home with them and run it with their own groups. It was exciting to work on a project that is definitely going to affect something BIG in the world. Not only was I contributing to something that will affect a UN conference, I was also educating people about environmental issues along the way.
At Sangam I was able to meet and befriend people from over fifty countries. It was a truly life-changing experience, and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to work there for four and a half months. If you want to visit Sangam, you can do so as an Event Participant, an Intern or Sangam Volunteer (like me), a Tare (volunteer in the community), or an Independent Guest. No matter how long or short your visit, I feel sure that you will love the trip and perhaps even feel as changed by it as I have. I am taking away from my experience a closer connection to WAGGGS and Girl Scouting, international friendships, job experience in the “real” world, and a less cynical outlook on life.
Before I came to Sangam my main experience of Girl Scouting was at summer camp. Sure, I might have been teaching people about important things in my own little corner of the world, but I didn’t really see how that fit into the big picture. Helping young women to develop leadership skills and teaching girls about their natural surroundings are definitely important, but I didn’t feel like I was changing the WORLD. It’s overwhelming to think about trying to change things at all, and even more overwhelming to think about changing things everywhere. Reading about the Millennium Development Goals and trying to imagine how to “promote gender equality and empower women” or “ensure environmental sustainability” everywhere is enough to intimidate anyone. What I didn’t realize is that when I train girls to become leaders or give people a greater understanding of and appreciation for the environment, I am changing the world. No one is asking that I create “The World We Want for our Future” by myself, just that I do my part and spread the word to others. Sangam has helped me realize what the song is really about- “In the Girl Scouts together, we change the world.”