Don’t call them victims, these youth are slum changemakers

The polio-fighting, clean water advocating, girls’ rights empowered youth of “The Revolutionary Optimists” shatters everything we thought we knew about creating change. 

When Seattle-bred filmmakers Nicole Newman and Maren Grainger-Monsen set out to make a documentary about global health innovators, they never expected it would take the shape of 12-year-old Sikha and Salim advocating for themselves and their families in a Calcutta slum.

“The way they interact with adults, they’re able to show them they are doing things to improve the community that the adults have given up on,” Grainger-Monsen said. “I think it’s a really new model for how change can happen.”

The things adults had given up on included access to a clean drinking water tap, the nearest one a 2-hour walk away.

Led by their visionary attorney-turned-educator/activist Amlan Ganguly, the youth survey the neighborhood and create the first ever map of their community. It’s a powerful a tool they use to lobby their community leaders for water access.

Youth spread the world about polio vaccination day. (Photo courtesy of filmmakers)
Youth spread the world about polio vaccination day. (Photo courtesy of filmmakers)

But they don’t stop there. Sikha persuades her parents and neighbors that it’s ok for girls to play outside. Salim carries babies to polio vaccination centers. Priyanka inspires other youth through dance. Kajal, one of 9 million children brick workers, finds her voice through education.

To the credit of the invested filmmakers, you can see over the course of three and half years, the seemingly insurmountable problems facing these youth, start to change.

“The very first thing Amlan said was that he expected nothing less than working with us as partners,” Newman said, “Committed to the same cause or we weren’t going to be making the film.”

That partnership approach resulted in Map Your World, a digital platform that will allow youth around the world to start mapping their unmapped communities.

Salim points to the first map ever created of the neighborhood. (Photo courtesy of filmmakers)
Salim points to the first map ever created of the neighborhood. (Photo courtesy of filmmakers)

“It’s gratifying to have people who see the film really get it on a deep level. It’s a new way of thinking about poverty,” Grainger-Monsen said. “These are not victims that need to be helped. They are change agents. They deserve access to a good life.”

When you see the subtle exchange of looks between Ganguly and Priyanka, who weighs marrying young and Ganguly’s efforts to keep her in school, you begin to understand, the slow, heartbreaking, and substantial change that comes from Ganguly’s model.

It’s not about quick fixes for systemic problems. Revolutionary Optimists puts forth the idea that youth-led, technology-equipped change from within might just be a solution for the world’s most pressing crises.

The Revolutionary Optimists” opens today at the SIFF Film Center and runs through April 4th. The directors, Ganguly, Sihka and Salim will be in attendance for a Q&A on April 4th.  

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