BY NAINTARA RAJAN
Lisa Heydlauff has a beautiful voice. It is a musical blend of accents—British, Canadian, and a hint of Indian. With an airy laugh she explains casually, “I decided to come to India because I wanted to lead an unpredictable life. One where you didn’t know what was going to happen, and had to sort of believe in possibility. I didn’t plan to be here for fourteen years!” She speaks to me from her office in Kailash Colony, New Delhi, a generally residential neighborhood only a short walk from the hip M Block Market of Greater Kailash, and a convenient stop on the surprisingly swanky and modern Metro system. Yet as cutting-edge as New Delhi may seem, it is culturally worlds away from London or New York. And therein lies the true remarkability of Heydlauff’s story: Her incredible courage. She gave up her western life to travel to unknown country, turning the cloudy dream of helping children into a concrete organization that is changing the world.
In fact, the ambiguity of “western” fits Heydlauff perfectly. Born in the UK to American parents, Heydlauff left to attend boarding school in Canada at the age of fourteen, and remained there for college. She refuses to identify with any particular nationality, insisting that it is complicated, and “I’m a fusion.” Nevertheless, the story of how she gave up her western life and moved to India to work with children began in a fairly simple manner: With a book.
Going to School in India is Heydlauff’s meticulously constructed children’s book containing glossy page after page of popping colors and brilliantly honest photos and stories depicting how all sorts of children in India attend school despite the odds against them. The stories include those of children who go to school in the dark and study by the light of kerosene lamps because they cannot during the day. The books were distributed through government schools, turned into short films, and played as radio programs. Heydlauff’s message was simple: Inspire children to go to school. The book was incredibly successful, and in 2001 she founded Going to School (GTS), a non-governmental organization that uses the media to promote education among India’s poorest children and young adults.
When I first stepped inside Heydlauff’s office in 2009, I was a naïve sophomore in high school coming to interview for a summer internship; GTS was certainly nothing like what I expected the flagship of a successful NGO to look like. The walls are painted bright red, violet, and striped blue and white. An idea mural of sorts is tacked to one side, bits of paper of all shapes and sizes. Framed powerful photographs and pages from the original Going to School book are arranged as well. The atmosphere is light and artsy, handwritten notes float breezily from the air conditioner; before you can even utter ek glass pani chahye, Jeevan Ji, a man in charge of “office well-being”, has filled your cup with water. And though children aren’t often present, the place gives off an airy, child-friendly aura.
Indeed, Heydlauff’s initial interest in media and writing can be traced back to her early childhood in England. “My mother brought children’s stories back from America every year in giant suitcases, just beautifully designed children’s books,” she reveals. “And that was probably it. I think in the end we had around ten thousand books, and I thought I’d just really like to be a writer. Though,” she adds, “how I started to do this is a different line of expression.”
In 1997, still fascinated by the idea of using media, Heydlauff began working for an experimental school in the United Kingdom where she was teacher to 16 six-year-olds. While other teachers adopted the standard approach to History, teaching Ancient Greece and Rome from dusty textbooks, Heydlauff took a different path. Her approach was ambitious and vivid; she attempted to bring Indian culture to life for her students through the Lonely Planet travel guide. She taught them about the Pushkar camel fair, and ventured out to the Indian neighborhood of Southall to buy saris and sweets. Heydlauff was able bring the sights, sounds, and smells of Indian culture to her six year olds, so much that one student, Oliver , asked for her personal knowledge of “What is it like to go to school in India?” Fascinated by the question, Heydlauff promised if she ever went to India she would find out. Six months later, inspired in part by Oliver, she left for New Delhi.
“Why India?” I ask, pointing out that Africa and South America are also exotic places where education standards are poor. I couldn’t quite understand what about India entranced her so much and persuaded her to fly 5460 miles away from home. The answer, it turns out, is simple. “I’m an English and American mix, I didn’t really fit in anywhere. It was only my friends from India who understood that, they would say ’That’s fine! In India chaos is fine, not knowing what you are is fine.’” And it was true, she found. In India “it’s easier to side with someone who is just ‘foreign’ than one who is American or British.” Finally, being a fusion was an advantage.
In 1998, Heydlauff booked a flight and left for India. She knew no Hindi, had almost no contacts, and had never set food on the continent before. Kavita Parmar, founder of IOU Project, recalls Heydlauff arriving in India with “her head full of dreams”. Heydlauff herself is modest, insisting, “it was stupid, not brave. I look back on it and think, I was crazy.” Though a spontaneous move like still Heydlauff’s seems shocking today, it was borderline scandalous when she did it. Her father threatened never to speak to her again, enforcing a ‘if you need anything, don’t call’ policy. It simply wasn’t done, and certainly not by single women. “For a young girl to move to India alone,” continues Parmar, “with no network to help and build a ground breaking project that GTS has become today is a story I share with young people I meet as an example of incredible generosity of spirit and the Bravura to dream big.”
A desire to help and effect change has allowed Heydlauff to take root in what was once utterly foreign soil. When discussing her life in India she explains, “I feel at home here. I understand not everything [about the culture], but I understand some things. And I think it’s like being anywhere, if you’re a part of it you engage and you make decisions, you make things better. Wherever you are in life you have to be committed to engage.”
Today, Lisa is finding new ways to engage through GTS’s most successful and innovative project to date, “Be! an entrepreneur.” In Lisa’s words “what do you do if you don’t have heroes for the time you are in? Do you wait for the real story, or do you look at using media to inspire new heroes to come forward?” That, in essence, is the idea behind Be!: Using fictional books and movies to reach out to the poorest young adults and inspire them to find a problem in their community and make a change by developing a business to address it. The success of the project is unparalleled. The movies were seen by over 100 million people, and thousands of young adults called in to offer their ideas for small businesses. Be! has chosen to fund and follow 25 for three years, and plans to tell their stories.
Heydlauff is adamant “Be! is the way to go” and suggests in the future, GTS plans to expand this model to other countries around the world. Dilip Advani, a New York based businessman, assists Lisa with the Be! fund. “Lisa has a very engaging personality,” he explains. “She’s so totally absorbed by what she does. Her work is so atypical of NGO work, her standards are high when compared with corporate India and unmatched among NGOs.” He admits being struck by the creativity and novelty of Be!, detailing how it goes much further than micro lending. “This is five lakhs to individuals without credit history who have a desire to do something to improve their communities, but don’t have the resources. It’s just innovative on so many different levels.”
Heydlauff has now been in India for 14 years, ten years of which she has lived in a flat ten minutes from her office, working day and night to help the poorest children in India, many of whom she has almost nothing in common with and will never know. Heydlauff’s unmistakable passion comes through in even a two-minute conversation. As Parmar adds, “her incredible sense of aesthetic pushes everyone around her not only to do a good job, but to do it beautifully,” the heavily awarded and gorgeously designed GTS books are a testament to that.
And yet, what is most striking is her incredible bravery as a woman growing up with western ideas and customs transitioning suddenly into the chaos and culture that is India. She speaks to this, saying, “each day you live here is extremely challenging and fun. But it can also be very difficult and very sad, and the unpredictability of it is hard,” she adds, acknowledging for the first time the hardships she faces as a result of her life-altering decision. She pauses, and suddenly I feel what it is that makes Heydlauff different, the passion that propelled her to actually take the leap instead of simply talking about it. I sense what eventually persuaded her father to let her go, what allowed everyone from UNICEF to Advani to believe in her enough so as to let GTS become a reality. “In the end,” she says finally, “you have to choose what you want and what you believe in. You have to fight for what you want to keep.”
Naintara Rajan ‘15 is in Branford College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.