In August 2010, Tasmiha Khan ’12 began Brighter Dawns, a charitable organization committed to improving health in the slums of Bangladesh. Over the past year and a half, the organization has seen great success, and Khan was recognized last month as DoSomething.org’s “11 Young Women to Look Out For.” Taking a break from a Brighter Dawns meeting and thesis writing, Khan sat down with The Argus to talk about how Brighter Dawns began and her vision of the group’s future.
The Argus: Where did you get the inspiration for Brighter Dawns?
Tasmiha Khan: It started as a family vacation to Bangladesh during the summer of 2010 during which my mom, my sister, and I visited my extended family. They’re in a pretty well-off area, but right nearby there are slums. Literally within eye shot you look outside and see a massive encampment of people living there in tin houses. It hadn’t occurred to me [until then] how people lived their lives. It is an accessible area, but I had never been because it’s very dangerous. I wanted to go.
A: How did you manage to go to the slums?
TK: For a long time my family said ‘Absolutely not, your life will be at stake there.’ But after much persistence, my aunt set me up with someone she knew who was a GNO, and I began an impromptu internship.
A: What was your internship like?
TK: It frustrated me because I couldn’t do much. I was basically holding diabetes screenings and health and nutrition seminars, but it wasn’t fulfilling to me because I was part of another group and doing what they told me to do—which is fine, but I felt like there were more pressing issues to be taken care of.
A: Why did you decide to start a separate organization?
TK: Before I left, this 15-or-16-year- old girl named Asma, who already had three children, invited me to go to her house. I went and it was really disheartening. There were about seven to eight people living in one area, and the only partition that they had was this piece of cloth. The open bathroom was right next to the kitchen, and there were flies on the pots and pans. It was not something that we, as Americans, would endorse.
A: Why did she bring you there?
TK:The home is a very private sphere, and when someone invites you in, it is considered to be very noble. So I really, really appreciated the fact that she did invite me. Then she took my hand and said, ‘I know people come and go, but you’re coming back right?’ And at that time, I had no plans to go back.
A: Did this girl change your mind?
TK: Well, before I didn’t think that I had made that much of a difference. But actually developing relationships with these women was really powerful, and I felt crippled in a sense until I did something. You read about these things in magazines or watch it on television, but it’s really so different when you’re there.
A: Did you begin Brighter Dawns upon your return home?
TK: It was created during August 2010. I pitched it to a couple of my friends and classmates, and, before you know it, Brighter Dawns was up and running. We got it incorporated, registered, and, as of March 21, we got it 501(c)(3)- approved from the IRS. I think being students is one of our biggest strengths. We have time and energy, and the resources that are available to us as United States citizens is more than enough to launch a movement.
A: Where is Brighter Dawns working?
TK: Right now we’re focusing on Khalispur, Bangladesh.
A: What exactly does Brighter Dawns focus on and how do you aim to accomplish your goals?
TK: We see what the community needs and address it accordingly. In that way we use a bottom-up approach. Our first project is providing access to safe sanitation. This means not just clean water, though we are providing wells, but also providing latrines, sanitary kits, and community workers who help to maintain the upkeep of these latrines and wells. They are in conjunction with the committee formed locally with the city corporation and also our partner NGO.
A: Does the group have plans to visit Bangladesh?
TK: It all depends on funding. Right now we’re planning to go this summer, but it’s contingent upon the funds we receive.
A: Who are your donors?
TK: A lot of it is exhausting our personal resources in terms of friends and family, and that’s how it started. It is because of many personal contributions that we can move forward and complete our first project.
A: Can you tell me about the recent awards you have received?
TK: I received the “11 Women To Look Out For” award from DoSomething.org by surprise this past March. I’m actually on the council with DoSomething and have been with them since 2007. They’ve been integral for me, and many of my officers come from there.
A: Has the group gotten any other press?
TK: I was in The Chicago Tribune this past September. There has been some other press since we began—for a full list check out our website. But honestly it’s not just me—it’s my team. It would not be functioning without my seven core members. I’m really grateful and blessed to be around the people I’m working with.
A: Since you’re a senior now, what do you see happening to Brighter Dawns in the future?
TK: Ideally I would love to do Brighter Dawns full time. However, I’m not sure if I could get funding for that. Currently I am in the middle of re-vamping my board, which funds a lot of our operation costs. That includes ticket costs, travel costs, everything from maintaining our website to hotels while we’re traveling. At the same time, I’ve thought I might want to advance myself [by pursuing further] degrees. I really fell in love with public health. That’s very related to Brighter Dawns, but it’s challenging to do both at the same time. I’m taking some time off and I’m really content with that decision. I just hope to see Brighter Dawns flourish.
A: Is Brighter Dawns hosting any events or fundraisers soon that we should look out for?
TK: Yes! We are hosting a 5k on the morning of April 14 at Long Lane Farm. Brighter Dawns is also currently participating in the Dell Social Innovation Competition for $50,000, so go online to vote for us.