Working With Youth In Rural India Smashed My Belief That They Want An Urban Lifestyle

Posted on September 27, 2016

By Zubin Sharma:

For the past four years, I’ve been working closely with the rural youth in Kishanganj District, Bihar. (first with SEEKHO and then with Project Potential). Having grown up in a privileged family in the U.S., I came with many assumptions about what it is that people in the villages (where we work), would want, and perhaps, ‘should’ want.

That having your own room is always better than sharing a room and a bed better than a mat on the floor; that ‘modern schooling’ is necessarily good; that all companies should seek to brand themselves and scale up; that everyone should aspire to be a ‘global citizen,’ (hence, expected to know the names of all the countries in the world); that one should use a western toilet and toilet paper instead of a squat toilet and hand – these are all of the kinds of biases that I came with. And initially, it was these biases that I worked on. I gradually weaved new ideas on the basis of all the interactions I had.

Yet, four years out and hundreds of hours of interactions later, I realised that these assumptions were patently wrong. More specifically for we’re a people’s university that provides an open space for youth to live consciously and help find a balance between the self, community, and environment. We have no teachers, no exams, and no degrees. But we are an intellectual community committed to self-designed learning. The nature of our program has moved away from ‘developing’ the people to simply creating space for people to learn and grow, which has allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of the kinds of things that people care about.

Take Suraj, for example. Suraj is a ‘swayam seekhi’ (self-learner) with us in Project Potential, and he has been exploring alternative notions of education. In the last month and a half, he’s visited Shikshantar, a people’s movement which explores gift culture, jugaad thinking, and unlearning; Swaraj, which is another alternative university for the youth to reclaim their learning via self-designed learning and new perspectives; and Creativity Adda, which is an open learning platform and center for children in Delhi.

As an important part of our learning process involves internships and apprenticeships, Suraj is currently organising a Yatra, in which he’ll visit alternative learning spaces like Swatantrata Talim in Uttar Pradesh, Anand Niketan Democratic School in Bhopal, Adarshila Learning Centre in Badwani, M.P., and the homeschooler’s network in Pune, along with several other places. Given that Suraj realises that his journey and everything he plans to do will only be possible via the gifts and support of many people, he is crowdfunding the costs of his journey, and will be sharing consistent updates throughout.

All of these places are distinct, but while working in different contexts and with different age groups, what they all have in common is a commitment to a different kind of learning – one which allows children to mould their own learning, and one which focuses more on how learning interacts with our society and the environment.

Suraj’s vision is completely at odds with the majority of our modern institutions (as you’ll notice in the video beneath).  He isn’t aiming for a consumption-based lifestyle and he isn’t trying to indoctrinate children with a certain way of thinking either, the way our modern education system does. Instead, he’s simply trying to provide children with the space they need to explore, and his job is to simply help facilitate people, materials, and experiences that enrich their learning.

As a country, India has always embraced diversity, and yet, it feels like today, more than ever, that diversity is in danger. It’s not only the clamp-downs on freedom speech or association or the ideologically-driven vigilantism; it’s also the silent, but perhaps more dangerous and longer-lasting, monoculture brought in via socialisation in school and via popular media.

And yet, in spite of that, my experiences of living and working with young people like Suraj in rural India has shown me that there are plenty of people who are resisting the fragmented, destructive vision that’s being sold to them, and instead, are opting to create something that makes sense for the earth in their own cultural context. That’s what real courage and leadership look like – balancing resistance of a status quo you don’t believe in with the creation of new alternatives in the face of opposition.

Image source: Brent Stirton/ Getty Images
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