Seeds of Change

Singaporean Gouri Mirpuri advocates social causes, from youth empowerment to environmental sustainability, that leave a lasting impact on people’s lives.

Singaporean Gouri Mirpuri advocates social causes, from youth empowerment to environmental sustainability, that leave a lasting impact on people’s lives.

BY WONG SHER MAINE
PHOTOS GOURI MIRPURI
 

W

hen Nurkholis was found battered, bruised and living on the streets, he had more tattoos than teeth. He had lost the latter racing on motorbikes for illegal betting syndicates, while subsisting on a diet of drugs and alcohol. Luckily, people from a non-profit organisation found him and took him to Cianjur, about a one-and-a-half hour’s drive from Jakarta, to a social enterprise called The Learning Farm.

There, young people aged 14 to 25 go through a 100-day or 200-day residential programme to learn life skills as well as organic farming and entrepreneurship. Nurkholis, 24, stayed at the farm for several months, planting, packaging and distributing organic vegetables. Learning a new set of skills in marketing and management made all the difference, and he graduated from the programme with the confidence to rebuild his life. Today, he lives in Bali, is a husband and father, and helps other schools to start organic farms in Indonesia.

Singaporean Gouri Mirpuri co-founded The Learning Farm in 2005 to transform the lives of Indonesian street children. As she shares the story about Nurkholis’ transformation, she muses: “Seeing even a single life altered on The Learning Farm – that is pure joy. It does not have to be earth-shattering stuff.”

Mirpuri, who is married to Singapore’s Ambassador to the United States, Ashok Kumar Mirpuri, champions an impressive list of social causes. She is particularly passionate about The Learning Farm, calling it the best thing she ever did as it combines two of her passions – environmental sustainability and youth empowerment. To date, The Learning Farm counts more than 600 alumni who have graduated from its programmes. Most have found employment in farming, waste management and the service industry, while others have gone back to school. Only about 5 per cent are unemployed.

Mirpuri is also co-founder of The Hub Singapore, the first co-work communal space for social entrepreneurs in Asia, which offers its members mentoring and networking opportunities, workshops, and space for rent. In addition, she founded Connected for Good, a global network that helps to connect social ventures in specific areas.

“I believe in doing ‘upstream’ work, things that change people forever, not just change lives for a few minutes or a few hours,” she says. “I am not about giving medicine for diabetes, but helping people to eat right. I am not about distributing life vests, but teaching people how to swim; not feeding the poor, but getting them to grow their own food.”
 

“Iʼve always been inspired by civil movements and fascinated by the power of individuals in small communities to change big things.”


Social entrepreneur Gouri Mirpuri


YOUNG ADVOCATE

The desire to make a difference started young. “I’ve always been inspired by civil movements and fascinated by the power of individuals in small communities to change big things. Even as a schoolgirl I recall gathering forces to fight perceived injustices – rabble-rousing with a cause,” she says.

She even sees an echo of her Singaporean childhood in the farming that takes place at The Learning Farm. “I’ve always been passionate about growing stuff, which is unusual for an urban kid. I used to grow beans on soggy cotton wool, grow herbs on window sills and watch Little House on the Prairie religiously.”

She continues to be involved in The Learning Farm and visits at least twice a year. She also works closely with its staff and board members to realise its vision for expansion. Humanitarian organisation Singapore Red Cross is funding a new farmhouse, and she is helping to come up with an updated curriculum. She says: “We will be increasing the number of youth gradually, as programme funding comes in, with the final intention to double our impact.

“There is what they call a ‘benang merah’ or ‘red thread’ which goes through all of my life’s work: helping people to make a better world. All of the work that I do, in this everexpanding space of social innovation, is part of the benang merah.”

 


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