Written by: Arielle Brousse 

Edited by: Ariel Schwartz & Ashton Yount

CSIS photography by: Kaveh Sadeghian

Videos and additional photography provided by Babita Patel

Babita Patel believes in paying attention to the way children see the world.

A humanitarian photographer and former commercial art director, Babita founded KIOO Project as a series of photography workshops. KIOO distributes cameras, gives young students basic lessons, and encourages them to take pictures of themselves and their neighborhoods.

She got the idea on a shoot outside of Port-au-Prince. After taking pictures of some local children, Babita watched one boy methodically point to every face on her display screen until he got to his own, giggling with glee. She realized that he probably didn’t own a mirror; this might have been the first time he was ever able to see himself.

Babita named the project KIOO after a Swahili word meaning “mirror.” Its workshops teach children not only how to reflect what they see, but how to represent their own self-image confidently during their most formative years.

“If you get to a child early on, you could change the rest of their life,” Babita says.

In 2012, Babita launched an Indiegogo campaign, soliciting friends and family to help her fly back to Haiti. Her aim was just to conduct a one-time workshop with 18 students from Respire Haiti, a NGO that runs a school for child slaves and domestic workers.

She could not have asked for a better first experience. Her host school was accommodating and supportive. And local artists were so impressed with the students’ raw talent at the wrap-up gallery show that they pledged to help develop a more permanent art program for the school.

Most importantly, the children were responsive. “I saw that I was beautiful,” said one girl after the self-portrait session. “It was something I had never seen before.”

Babita knew she was on to something bigger than a one-off class. “It doesn’t feel like we’re ending here,” she remembers thinking. “This is the beginning of it.”

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Within a year, she had raised $5,300 to travel to Kenya for a second workshop, which she hoped would be bigger and better. She partnered with NGO The Supply to work at one of their schools with 46 people—more than twice the size of the first workshop.

But while the children were just as receptive as those in Haiti, Babita’s team was not prepared for the level of work that came at the new scale. Miscommunication left the team frustrated and floundering, and by the end of the week, they were exhausted.

Babita saw that while she had a great idea, she needed to build the framework to help it stand on its own. So when she returned home in 2014, she was determined to find solutions.

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After Kenya, Babita was able to secure a pro bono session at the Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit consultancy. The consultant thought Babita had two options: remain as a one-off workshop provider, or scale fast by building strong international partnerships.

Babita knew she would be going for Option B; she wanted to reach as many kids as possible. So she dove in.

Much of Babita’s year in 2014 was spent in fact-finding mode: branding, talking with lawyers, and doing research at her library’s Foundation Center to help KIOO get off to a strong start.

Her old friend Soohyen was the one to tell her about the Center for Social Impact Strategy’s free online course in Social Entrepreneurship. Babita was intrigued by the possibility of being selected for the course-end Global Social Impact House (GSIH), so she agreed to enroll with Soohyen. And to their delight, upon completion of the course, they were both accepted to the Impact House in Vieques.

Babita had been to residencies and retreats like GSIH before, but she was not fully prepared for what she calls the “magic” of the experience.

The social entrepreneurship course had prepped Babita by helping her systematize the ideas about KIOO that she had been keeping in her brain. But GSIH helped her engage with those ideas in new ways.

For instance, Babita knew that there had been some internal miscommunication at KIOO, but Kristyn Stewart’s lesson in organizational and interpersonal dynamics helped Babita identify the root of the problems that she’d been having with her co-founder. “It helped me understand where our relationship was successful and not successful,” she says. Equipped with this new self-knowledge, she worked up the courage to have a difficult conversation with her co-founder upon her return—which, ultimately, resulted in the co-founder’s departure from KIOO.

Babita had been assembling a KIOO board in advance of GSIH, but Gray Garmon’s curriculum on design thinking especially gave her a methodology for leading the group in brainstorming ideas. Now, she doesn’t hold a meeting without using the tools she learned from Gray. “Last meeting, I didn’t bring Post-It Notes, and one board member called me out,” Babita laughs.

Babita had originally been motivated to attend GSIH knowing that it would be a peerless opportunity to meet changemakers from all over the world and possibly to lay the groundwork for potential KIOO partnerships.

And while she did learn quite a lot from her global cohort, Babita was also surprised at how quickly and easily she connected with the people on the teaching team. She regularly reaches out to Kristyn, Gray, and Cosmo Fujiyama, her unforeseen “American network”—and feels like she’ll always have their support and mentorship.

This past summer, Cosmo enlisted Babita to help organize the Social Impact House Alumni Festival, a gathering of Fellows from past Impact Houses. In the planning stages, Cosmo said something that would stick with Babita in future months: “I want the alumni to have ownership of this.”

Alumni Festival came and went, but Babita’s experience of the power of building an event from the ground up helped inform her latest KIOO undertaking—a workshop held this past November in India.

Better equipped than ever to set expectations for her host organization, her volunteers, and her team, Babita put together a version of the workshop that had an internal structure, but could be adapted based on the students’ pacing and interests. This one, Babita says, has been the best of all.

During the first week of the workshop at Shanti Bhavan School, Babita’s team taught ten girls basic photographic principles; and in the second week, the girls were tasked with teaching ten boys. The girls’ presentation skills were phenomenal on the first day, but the second day was more difficult; the team had a talk with them about what went wrong and how to change it, and by the third day, they were knocking it out of the park.

“It was almost like they needed a sophomore slump and then they got on the trajectory,” Babita says. “Which is what I feel we did as an organization.”

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For her part, Babita is thrilled with how things are going. She feels KIOO, too, is back on trajectory. The boys in the workshop got to see the girls’ value firsthand. She’s developing a post-workshop curriculum, sending assignments each month back to India, to ensure a more sustainable impact on the students.

KIOO Project has been getting traction, too. Upworthy featured a video of KIOO’s Kenya workshop this past October, amassing nearly 1.5 million views so far.

Perhaps most importantly, Babita was able to translate her connection with NGO She’s The First into a more sustainable, longer-term partnership. She’s The First will be helping Babita plan at least two more workshops in 2016, including one at home in New York.

Babita’s ideas are bigger than just holding more workshops. Ultimately, she wants to create an online platform where former KIOO students can share their photos and connect with each other.

She’s even got a wall full of Post-It Notes helping her visualize her goals.

“There’s a lot of work that still needs to be done,” she says.