A vibrant international partnership expanding English language capacity supports the rights of women, transgender people, and the disabled across India.
By Michael Gallant
“The course helped me learn new words in English and gave me a better understanding of how to learn good speaking skills, be it with customers or family,” says Thripthi Shetty, a transgender woman entrepreneur based in Kerala. Photo courtesy The Gender Park
The objective of language courses may seem simple—to help people brush up on a valuable foreign language—but often the impact runs much deeper. Language courses can provide rich and diverse learning programs that are powerful tools for supporting equal rights across gender, inclusion and access for the disabled, and respect for people of any background.
One example is the Virtual English Language Fellow (VELF) program that teaches English to transgender women entrepreneurs, empowering them to be stronger business people. Thripthi Shetty, a transgender woman entrepreneur based in Kerala, first discovered the Regional Englisgh Language Office (RELO) through information shared within her community, and completed a course called “Pitch Perfect – An Online Business English Communication Course” in July 2021.
“I chose to participate in the course to improve my communication skills with customers, as well as for the growth of my business ahead,” she says, referring to her small company Thripthi Handicrafts, through which she makes and sells beautiful earrings, necklaces and other accessories. “The course was designed for transgender entrepreneurs and was very useful.”
Many entrepreneurs struggle with the complexities of English grammar, Shetty describes, and the course focuses on empowering its students through stronger grammatical skills and real-world practice. “The course helped me learn new words in English and gave me a better understanding of how to learn good speaking skills, be it with customers or family,” she says.
Shetty encourages fellow transgender entrepreneurs to believe in their own potential, and to both give and seek support from communities and organizations like RELO. “Transgender persons are just like any other individual, who carry lots of dreams and aspirations, and wish to attain success,” she says. “People will welcome and support the products made by transgender persons. The greatest motivation for a transgender person is the support given by people.”
RELO offers VELF programs that support other in-need communities as well; a recent Mumbai-based VELF program focused on empowering workers dedicated to women’s issues, for example. Jyoti Goyal, a program manager for the Red Dot Foundation, discovered the program via a colleague and was excited to participate.
She describes the program as a multi-week course that taught both about gender inequality and the English language. “It has helped me to further the organization’s mission, as I used the knowlege from the program in my work,” she says, referring to Red Dot’s mission to collect reports of sexual harassment and engage youth in creating safe public spaces around India.
Mahesh Billu, an outreach coordinator for the Sanmaan Project which battles child poverty, was also a participant. “When I came to know about this program, I thought it would be very theoretical and grammar-based,” he says. Billu was surprised to discover a greater focus on activities, reading and vocabulary building. An article on gender inequality, for example, helped students learn new words and improve their pronunciation. “We were also shown different videos, like TED Talks, which helped us better understand gender inequality,” he says.
For Billu, the results were striking. “I never, ever talked in English with my colleagues, but after working with the VELF, I started speaking in English with them, and they helped me too,” he says.
Beyond its Virtual English Language Fellowships, RELO’s initiatives also include a series of innovative Access Programs, which offer English education and other resources to a variety of communities in need. Antara Sarma worked as a coordinator for the English Access Microscholarship Program in Guwahati, Assam, which empowered teenagers and young adults with disabilities.
The program taught English in unconventional ways, Sarma describes, which “helped to shape and build their personalities and create future leaders.” In 2019, students celebrated World Environment Day by making and distributing ecofriendly bags at a nearby market. For Women’s History Month in March 2020, students performed street plays in public and distributed badges and bookmarks supporting themes of women’s equality and empowerment. “The students took it on themselves to bring out the concept of gender equality and break taboos over gender roles,” Sarma says. Students even attended poetry writing sessions, which resulted in the creation of their own anthology of original, English-language works.
Sarma was thrilled with the Access Program’s success. “It has been extremely inspiring and uplifting to see the transformation in the personalities of the graduating students at the end of the program,” she says. “That the timid, shy, introverted students who started out in 2018 are now confident young individuals poised to take up opportunities, and ready to advocate for important issues in public forums—that indicates the level of change that the program has brought about.”
Sarma describes RELO’s Access Programs as innovative, one-of-a-kind initiatives that allow students to learn in ways rarely provided by standard curricula. “It focused on building learners’ language skills while improving their social skills and leadership qualities,” she says. “It ignited an awareness about public issues, and helped them think of solutions to the problems as well.”
RELO uses innovative strategies and materials to both teach students English and address issues of equity and human rights. The comic book “Priya and the Lost Girls” and its corresponding lesson plan address issues of human trafficking while helping students improve English vocabulary and comprehension. Photo courtesy Rattapallax
To learn more about RELO’s initiatives and offerings, or to get involved yourself—visit bit.ly/RELO_India
Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.