Humans of Sweet Water...Meet Yash Kumbhat

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Yash joined Sweet Water Foundation as an intern during the summer of 2018 as part of Harvard University's Social Impact Fellows program. Originally from Kolkata, India, he is now a sophomore at Harvard College. During his summer at The Commons, Yash led tours, engaged in architecture and design projects, and learned farming techniques from SWF apprentices. He also brought his skills from his hometown to help SWF begin lighting up The Commons with solar energy. Now, Yash is back in Boston, trying to spread SWF’s practice of Regenerative Neighborhood Development across the city.

Read on to learn more about Yash…

Tell us about your background:
I am currently a sophomore at Harvard College, studying Social Studies and English. While I’m also interested in political science and government, I want to spend the majority of my time studying English literature and writing. I was born and raised in Kolkata, India and moved to the United States last August to start school. My sister is a senior at the University of Chicago and my brother is still in high school.

What was your role as a SWF Fellow?
Each year, the Social Innovation Collaborative, a student-run organization on campus, selects a group of Impact Fellows to send to different organizations and social enterprises across the world. I was selected to work with the Sweet Water Foundation, and came to Chicago on the 5th of July. When I first looked over the duties listed on my contract, I didn’t fully understand what the Sweet Water Foundation really was. Mostly, I thought I would be working on a farm.

Once I began to understand what Sweet Water Foundation really does, my internship took a very different turn. I learned the things you need to do in order to run a farm, but also, I began to understand and acquire carpentry skills, like learning how to build fractals. These are all things I’ve never done before, and so it was an incredibly interesting experience.

Then, I started working on some research about how places like SWF are addressing a very pertinent need within society. I began reading about the principles of urban planning, capitalism, and how the SWF recognizes and addresses these issues. The things I learned had a huge influence on what I want to study, at college and in the future.

What is your relationship with Sweet Water Foundation now that you’ve returned to Boston?
Right now, I’m working on a series of smaller projects that bring SWF’s practices to Boston. The first project I’m working on is an art installation that uses fractals as a framework to discuss decolonization and the need to reclaim land stolen from displaced and marginalized communities.

The other project aims to engage youth in the trades and carpentry. Emmanuel wants fractals to take over spaces in Boston. So, we’re teaching others about fractals in places like MIT and UMass Arts.  

Can you tell us about the solar project you worked on in India and what role it played in your internship at SWF?
When I was in India, I helped start a student-run nonprofit, Stopwatch, that was concerned with different environmental issues. Mostly, we focused on small projects like cleaning lakes and parks. Our biggest project was a modest rural electrification initiative. We installed a basic solar panel system onto the roofs of eight families in Piyali, a small village outside Kolkata. Each system powered 3 LED bulbs and a phone charger. Overall, I think it was a helpful project for the families we helped. But, there were problems with our approach that we identified later, post-installation. Rather than directly asking what each family wanted out of a project like this, we only assumed what they might need. A large number of the families would have preferred to have a fan instead of a light or phone charger, and because we didn’t do our due diligence first, this need was something we could not accommodate. Additionally, soon, a large number of our team members left for college soon after and left the community without a means to address maintenance issues. I do think the intention was well-founded, but the execution was flawed, and what I have learned since then is that it isn’t enough to just hand people things. It is far more important to engage communities in their growth and help supply them with the tools that will enable them to continue regenerating this growth without external assistance.Spending a summer at SWF has helped me understand that community work has to be regenerative, fully integrated, and to engage the people it is trying to help.

During your summer, you shared with the SWF team that you experienced “racialized fear” for the very first time and that it had an impact on you. What are your thoughts and reflections on racialized fear now?
Before I moved to the United States, the notion of racialized fear was alien to me. In India, most people look like me, and the relative lack of racial diversity creates a culture where fear is decorated with markers other than race. As I was preparing to leave for Chicago this summer, the stereotypes about the South Side began to come up; friends and family expressed concerns, and so forth. I was already aware of the media’s narrative of the neighborhood as violent, doomed, and a warzone. When I arrived, I felt a subconscious fear at every person of color that looked a certain way, and this experience was incredibly jarring. I spent time reminding myself of the nonsensical nature of such thoughts, and became increasingly cognizant of the impact that cultural products and media narratives have on influencing perception.

It is morally reprehensible to entertain the thought that someone is unsafe on Chicago’s South Side because population was colored. And it is important to remind yourself that, often, knee-jerk reactions like fear are not responding to accurate stimuli, but rather to perceptions created through popularized misinformation. No one is free of prejudice, and I think, to some degree, that everyone has thoughts that are unrepresentative of the truth. What is important is to acknowledge and challenge it.


What was the best part about being a SWF Fellow?
I learned how to build things such as fractals and I acquired a new way of looking at and thinking about the world in which we live. I think the thing I loved the most about my internship is the people with whom I worked. I’ve never lived in Chicago before and never worked on projects this steeped in a community. The projects I had previously worked on tended to work outside of communities and were not at the grassroots level. I worked with the people who are trying to help and make change. Emmanuel, as a mentor, always helped me and pointed at things I should look at, research, read, and learn from.

What is your favorite memory with Sweet Water Foundation?  
I cooked Indian food for everyone with the produce from the farm because I love cooking and, especially, love cooking for people who have never had Indian food before. It was a fun experience to make paneer for people who’ve never tried it before.


Can you share an interesting fact about you?
This summer was a summer of firsts for me. I did a lot of things for the first time. I lived by myself for the first time. I used a saw for the first time. I learned how to ride a bike. If I hadn’t come to Chicago, I would have missed out on a lot!


Do you plan to visit The Commons again?
Oh yeah! I will be back soon!

Courtney Hug