Roshan Nair: Alternative Education and Rural Youth Leadership

Fellowship, Programs, Progress Reports

SEPT 15, 2008 – MAR 15, 2009

Roshan Nair, August 2008 Fellow
Adharshila Learning Center

dsc08355Background and Project Vision

Adharshila Shiksan Kendra(Adharshila Learning Centre-ALC) was founded by Amit and Jayashree Bhatnagar, who believe that true education:
•    Is community-minded, preapring the child to contribute to society
•    Is linked to tradtition, the land and livelihood as much as to academics
•    Prepares children to engage social issues and think of solutions to them
Classes are run democratically. Beyond the basics, students choose the topics they are interested in, and learn through a combination of books, activity-based learning, and consultation with the local community. Organic farming on the six-acre plot is compulsory for all students.

Sakad is located in Barwani district, a district which is majority Barela-an adivasi clan that traces its roots back to the Bhil tribes of Gujarat and Rajasthan. The communities here have not been traditionally linked to mainstream society. As revealed in a survey by my eigth grade social science class, as recently as forty years ago, there was no cash economy here. This means many children being educated are the first in their families not to be trained in a trade or farming, but the paucity of work opportunities leaves even educated youth looking for opportunities to migrate as wage labor.

Older rural youth believe themselves to be, in their own words, powerless. In my roles as teacher on campus, and rural youth facilitator, I hope to help youth see themselves ina broader perspective, and help them to think of solutions to reduce the exploitation of them and their communities in the future.

Project Goals and Future Plans

My project goals for the coming months involve older youth, both within and outside the school. The ‘graduating class’, the first batch of students at the eleven-year-old school to complete the twelfth standard board examination, are a group of intellectuals committed to action. They have collectively done everything from win a National Science Congress award for a report on the link between malnutrition and biodiversity loss to starting a rural theater troupe. I intend to structure a summer program for them to fully explore their interests. In addition, working in the villages of some older students home for the summer, I plan to start a network of discussion groups and local libraries, and make them sustainable by involving local youth. I will also use these months to finalize the alternative curricula in Math, English and social science I have been working on.

Project Implementation Progress and Future Plans

The nature of the days at Adharshila, defined by the interests of the students and the many visitors, have seen so much activity that cannot easily be categorized neatly as projects. I developed, along with Amitbhai and Jayadidi, a document on Adharshila’s educational philosophy to start an alliance of alternative schools that is now coming together. Singing Bareli songs about daal and unity, I collected three varieties from farmers from surrounding villages with the intention of starting a hand-processed daal and organic produce cooperative. After selling about forty kilos, we decided that the need was not for marginal price increases shared equally by farmers, but for a social unity that cooperative processing could not bring. This has become my focus going forward, working especially with older youth who have disconnected themselves from their land and traditions in the hopes of escape not soon forthcoming. My social science class wanted to know about the market, and a week-long discussion of the progression from hunter gatherers to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange ended in a survey of the surrounding villages which revealed the absence of a cash economy here as recently as forty years ago.

Working with Amitbhai, I continue to work on English and Math curricula that balanced alternative methods with practical requirements. Working with student teachers we discuss the nature of alternative education, and the impact of what we are doing here.

There are also ongoing projects-building a soak pit for the boys bathroom, organic farming every day, and weekly discussion with Ferozebhai, the shopkeeper in Chatli, two kilometers away, about the changes in the area over the last few years. I am allowed sev and eclairs without having to ask.

Detailed Goal-setting & Implementation Planning

Over the next few months, I intend to:
•    Finalize a summer training and discussion agenda for the graduating class of 2009 and make the necessary arrangements
•    Continue discussion with local rural youth, and convert questions into actions. Specifically, creating local libraries and education programs to address the sources of ‘powerlessness’ within the communities
•    Create a plan for summer discussion groups and detailed goals
•    Recruit rural youth for discussion groups
•    Finish out the academic year and complete development of academic training materials


Sakad has been an eye-opening experience for me. The perspective I have gained here has shifted the way I think of what development is. Meeting the many inspiring people and groups working in the area, I also see what is possible when people decide they want to better things for themselves. In the children I see what real social change looks half a generation before it happens. Every Wednesday evening the older students, between twelve and fifteen, get together and discuss a topic of their choosing from magazines and periodicals. There is something dumbfoundingly inspiring about listening to children half my age discussing everything from the sources of terrorism to the politics of water and electricity distributions with more clarity and purpose than most adults. My involvement with the local community has been deeply thought provoking. It has forced me to think differently simply because I realize how shallow my understandings of issues are. Babloo, and eighteen year old recently admitted at the local college, and I, organize regular discussions with most of the older youth in the area. After the initial formalities, the questions were pointed, and reflected the conflicts local youth see from rapid modernization. “Badwas (witch doctors) or doctors? Which are more reliable? Do they even have badwas in America?” “Why are we so powerless?” “Why are seeds so expensive, and why don’t we know how to use them?”

Answering these questions has been the best lesson in understanding one can hope to get.

Personal Growth

This year continually turns out to be so many beautiful, difficult, fundamentally life-altering experiences, but began simply as a way for me to understand India. I now know fully understanding India’s subtleties is the task of lifetimes, but I have started down that path with no intention of turning back. More surprisingly, I found who I could be as my thoughts crystallized into action, and continue to do so. Situations continue to reveal so much of myself to me that the very lens through which I see the world has been irreversibly altered. As for language, by complete immersion in Hindi and Bareli, the basic structure of my sentences, the way I construct situations, and slowly, the very way I think, have been shifted. I find that the information I gather in English, while being factually adequate, is incomplete until it has perspective in these languages. While still being far from fluent in Hindi, the fact that my Indian experience before this year has only been informed by Southern traditions, and my Malayalee heritage, has meant these languages and traditions have given me an understanding of a broader India, as well as a connection with adivasi traditions.

Along the way, I have learned and grown in the Indian tradition, learning orally and through work directly with elders and people wiser than me. There are no isms here, only understanding. This understanding would be impossible without a elemental shift in how life itself is lived. My exploration of the fringes of the framework of simple living have given me a perspective that is more than empathy. It is a deep personal connection to the broader questions that impact people every day, and a deep personal commitment to myself to right what can be righted. The coming months, I hope, will make concrete my ideas for how to merge the vivid life of experiencing, learning and doing that I have led here with a future irreversibly reimagined by it.

A note on Andhra Pradesh

It is impossible to count the turns on the roller coaster when you are on it. You simply cannot tell if its you moving in new ways, or if the tracks themselves have twisted. Yet, for now, I am able to make some conclusions about my project switch in mid-December.

I have never been one for deep principled action or pre-meditation. I have simply reacted. The idea of the Fellowship itself was a reaction- me rejecting what I saw as a definition of myself. Accepting the offer of the Fellowship was the scariest five seconds of my life. I decided a quick reaction would be the most painless.

But then, some months later, was something I didn’t expect-deeply passionate people. A Fellowship that believed in something. And here I was, without any real beliefs, with hollow reactions. It got me thinking about what I believed, if I did at all, but I let it rest at that. I had faith in further definition by reaction.

Soon after I arrived in Andhra Pradesh was a reaction I had never felt- that I am not this. That I fundamentally disagreed with what I saw; with myself, for this was what I had been for so many years. Perhaps it had never been so stark for me to see the impact of what I believed the world should look like played out before my eyes.  My experiences had led me thus far, but I realized I had never believed in them. I decided to make my stand, to try and react in a way that helped me learn what could be my own beliefs. I tried a tactic I had recently learned of- simplicity. Simple acts-picking up trash from public spaces and being told I shouldn’t do it because ‘I was of a good family and educated’, walking when an air conditioned bus was available, speaking to employees about leadership and social responsibility instead of process efficiency, helped me see what my own vision was, helped me hear my own voice.

There is a peculiar power in discovering what you cannot do, what reactions you cannot have, what you cannot say or accept because they are simply not a fundamental part of who you are. For me, always on every side of every argument, this was a profound realization. I’m not ready yet to print my manifesto of opinions, or to loudly scream my convictions, but I am alive knowing that I will be able to, that I will feel compelled to, soon.

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