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Creating positive change: Dr Priya Virmani (PhD 2007)

Priya set up Paint Our World to help children who have experienced trauma

17 December 2014

Dr Priya Virmani (PhD 2007) spent four years in Bristol, studying a PhD in Media Economics and Globalisation. In 2013, she set up a charity, Paint Our World, to empower underserved children in India.

I chose to undertake my PhD at Bristol because of its excellent reputation for multidisciplinary research. Being able to work with colleagues across other departments was exactly what I was looking for, and it was particularly apt for my area of study: issues of media, globalisation and economics. I had great supervision and went on to form the first research group for PhD students in my department.

In 2007, I entered the New Enterprise Competition with a business plan for organic beauty products. Organic beauty products weren’t big at the time, and my idea combined ethical practices with social enterprise. I wanted to empower marginalised communities in developing countries.

Winning the competition was a phenomenal experience. Some very distinguished members of industry were on the judging panel, and to have them as mentors at different stages of the competition was amazing. I went on to compete at both a regional and national level; to the best of my knowledge I was the first woman of Asian origin to progress that far.

I was a member of the University’s Media Board; the editor of Helicon (a creative arts magazine started by English students) and did a lot of voluntary work through the Students’ Union. I supported high-risk psychiatric patients at the erstwhile Barrow Hospital, and worked with children from dysfunctional homes. I have beautiful memories of interacting with so many different people, and every experience enriched me. I was later awarded the Honorary Lifetime Membership of the Students’ Union for an outstanding and exceptional contribution to student life, student development and self-development, and the Student Ambassador Award.

My time in Bristol was probably one of the happiest times of my life. I erred, but most importantly, learnt from my mistakes in a supportive environment such that I learnt to fly. I learnt how to be independent, how to nurture ideas and take a stand for them, and how to find my place in the world.

Power of the pen

I’m now a political and economic analyst, and write for publications like The Guardian and the New Statesman. Bristol’s influence is clear in my writing. I had so many great conversations as a student with my peers, seniors and academics, and my sense of enquiry derives from having been exposed to multidisciplinary approaches to topical issues while at university.

Typically, when I’m writing, I only have about 1,000 words to make my point. That can be a challenge, especially for someone from an academic background. But it can also make my copy more powerful, compelling and accessible.

I write about politics and economics and causes I campaign against like the dowry system, female infanticide and misogyny in India. A lady once told me that my article gave her the courage to stand up to abuse from her in-laws, and the experience had changed her life. That made me realise my writing can make a measurable difference.

I’ve always known I wanted to work with marginalised children. I met Mother Teresa when I was growing up, and used to play with some of the children living in the orphanages during school holidays. I also knew I wanted to do something with the concept of empowerment. I believe in the adage ‘give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.’

Paint our world

In 2009, I visited Sonagachi, the notorious red light district in Kolkata. It was the worst area I’ve ever visited – very unfriendly and scary. The children I met were suffering from abandonment, rejection and low self-esteem. Using art, I started working with them in small groups.

At the time, I was still working in the UK but travelling to India a couple of times a year to work with the children. I received feedback that the children I was working with had started to engage more at school, and their cognitive and social skills had improved. I realised that, the children were feeling better about themselves and the moment you feel better about yourself, your interaction with the world changes.

I saved money so I could set up a charity: Paint Our World. I’ve not come across another charity in India that empowers children emotionally through activity therapies, and now other NGOs are calling on us to provide our workshops for children who aren’t responding to traditional forms of therapy. Conventional counselling doesn’t work; children need imaginary, fun activities so they don’t consciously realise they are processing trauma. The work happens on a subliminal level.

The challenges have been, and continue to be, both enormous and at times overwhelming. It is no cakewalk trying to work at a grassroots level in India especially for a young, articulate woman who has spent over 15 years in the UK. Even establishing best practice is an uphill task; child health and safety measures are still alien to many.

Raising funds is vital, but to make the project sustainable, I also have to get people on board who understand the project. I want to involve people all around the world, whether they’re from Glasgow, Osaka or Addis Ababa. I want them to engage with Paint Our World. This way they can learn about another culture from the children’s viewpoint while being role models for the children.

I believe working with people from other cultures and countries helps build bridges. It might not make for a perfect world, but I’d settle for one where understanding is encouraged and prioritised.

A child at Paint Our World once asked me: ‘S­­ometimes nice people like you see me and move away, why?’ Through Paint Our World’s work I see an India that addresses her question, and a shift in mindset. This is a crucial building block to positive change that will allow more equality of opportunity in India.

Further information

To find out more about Priya's charity, please visit the Paint Our World website. You can also watch Priya talk more about empowering disadvantaged children in her TEDx IIT Delhi talk, and see photos of the children's artwork in these articles on thequint.com and kolkatacurry.com.