Sangita Patel (Class of 2003): Working at the grassroots

Patel poses with students at a Plan-supported school in Sierra Leone (2009)

Discovering Development

When 12-year-old Sangita Patel travelled to Gujarat, India for the first time she was surprised at the level of poverty she witnessed. She found it hard to connect how her family lived now in Canada with this village where they had come from. She was also intrigued by the efforts of her uncle and others to improve village life through community-led development programs that focused on health and food security.

Fast-forward six years and Patel was graduating from high school. “Guidance counsellors didn’t know where to fit me – I had to seek out a different experience. I found the IDS program online by fluke, and it was the only university program that really spoke to me,” says Patel.

At UTSC Patel found what she describes as an intimate program with great depth. She met others with a global interest accompanied by a desire to develop a critical perspective of what they saw going on around them. She recalls the importance of those other students in preparing her for her IDS co-op placement: “I really appreciated the sharing between the cohorts – people who were just leaving and people who were just coming back. It was real, grounded, practical and honest.”

Patel majored in Anthropology, but now sees the value taking courses in many different disciplines. “I didn’t appreciate the environmental science aspects of the program at that point,” says Patel. “But I’ve used it all now in my current role – like the environmental impact assessment and soil erosion control.”

Learning to ask the right questions

For her IDS Co-op placement, Patel returned to India – this time to Bangalore as a Gender Support Officer with Plan Canada. Plan wanted to know how gender sensitive and child friendly their income generating cooperatives were, and they entrusted Patel with the task. Together with the community, Patel developed a way to measure their impact, asking women and children if these programs were a help or a burden.

For her thesis, Patel looked closely at how micro-finance associations change women’s lives, asking whether they led to empowerment. Her findings were unexpected – it was the process of organizing themselves into associations, rather than the loans they received that had the most impact on empowerment.

Reflecting on her time in the co-op program, Patel says, “It gave me the ability to ask really good questions.” Her questions don’t always reveal the truth, but she also developed the tools to deal with that: “What I gained was a willingness to engage with something that’s not black and white. I learned how to negotiate the greyness of this sector,” says Patel.

Patel with students at a Plan-supported school in Sierra Leone (2009)

Patel with students at a Plan-supported school in Sierra Leone (2009)

A critical perspective

With a Master’s in the Political Economy of Development from the University of Toronto in hand, Patel returned to work at Plan Canada where she had completed her IDS Co-op placement. As Senior Program Manager, Patel has switched her focus from South Asia to development work in East and West Africa.

Patel still relies on the lessons she learned in the classroom and on placement. “The critical perspective and deeper analysis that comes from the IDS program helps you pause and think about the wider complexities. On the co-op placement especially I spent a lot of time in rural communities working at a very grassroots level. That’s a really rare experience that has been so helpful to me throughout my career,” she says.

Profile written by Kate Jongbloed (Class of 2008)