Kitne chulhon pe baithe ho? – Speaker Series Vol. 1

Stepping into the development sector is a conscious decision many make. But it’s the experience that leads us to where we are that’s worth recalling, sharing and inspiring with. In the first part of our Speaker Series, Mr. Maneesh Pandey, one of the founding members of Gramin Shiksha Kendra (GSK) narrates his story of joining a movement to transform education and serve the society.  

My entire childhood was spent in a public sector colony of Bihar. It was one of those localities where one would have to wait for months to get a light bulb changed. But unlike the uncertainties involved in changing a bulb, one thing was certain – every child, after completing class 12, would either pursue a career in Medicine or Engineering.

So accepting the fact that my community wasn’t going to think highly of me and facing the truth that IIT wasn’t my cup of tea, I set foot into an institution that changed my life forever – Banaras Hindu University (BHU).

If one needs to understand this country better, I’d say, join BHU. My introduction to politics happened at this campus. Back then, people studying at BHU represented myriad parts of the country. It’s safe to say that as culturally diverse and vast BHU was, it was the epicenter of Indian politics. It was where studies took a backseat when politics was in play.

The energy grasps hold of you too. Looking at whatever was happening around me, I, like many others wanted to join politics. But for a young man from a middle-class family, the pressure was far too much to be motivated enough and take the leap.

I remember what the President of the party I wished to join back then told me – “Agar aapki vichar dhara aapko aapke parivaar se door rakhti hai, toh aapke vichaar dhaara mein kuch samasya hai” (If your ideologies keep you away from your family, then there’s something wrong in those ideologies.)

This simple yet profound thought had a deep impact on me. I was advised to be a good democrat, a good citizen and work for society rather than dedicating my life to mainstream politics.

Before I formally entered the education space, I first worked on a Government of Rajasthan project – ARAVALI. This was a Government-Non-government organizations’ collaborative.

To give you a background to this, in 1999, Rajasthan had a very progressive government which engaged immensely with NGOs. Through ARAVALI, I was working with an organization in Jodhpur which catered to the Dalit mining laborers.

Politics wasn’t far from me here either. During the course of my stint, I realized the irony in what we were doing in the name of social work. We were working against the policies set by the government and yet were being funded by the government itself. This led to a feeling of alienation from my work. It just wasn’t the right fit.

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Mr. Maneesh Pandey, during a session on Systemic Thinking

Bodh Shiksha Samiti became my first point of rendezvous with education. This was 18 years ago. I met Yogen Ji, (Yogendra Bhushan, Founder, and Director of the organization) while I was working with the previous organization in Rajasthan. As part of the collaborative, I came across a few organizations that were working in the education space, Bodh being one of them.

To be honest, I wasn’t sold at the idea of improving education even after spending a week listening to such an inspirational man.

When I told him this, he said, “Shiksha ke baare mein samajhna hai toh pehle apni shiksha aur bachpan ke baare mein vichaar karo.” (To understand the state of education, first reflect on your own education and childhood).

Paying heed to his words, when I embarked on this reflective journey, I realized how much I disliked my school days, irrespective of how much I enjoyed with my friends. The classroom wasn’t my favorite place. The teachers weren’t my favorite people. I would hide from them on the back bench.

What still come back to me as bad memories are the times I failed in a subject or two when I was in class 9. I learned through various dialogues that this wasn’t just MY fear. Why, then do we fear school so much? What gives education the potential to instill this fear in us? In the lookout for these answers, I finally got into the education sector.

I got in with a dream – a dream to build a school where students don’t think of me the way I thought or still think of my teachers. Getting into the development sector was always the plan but education was not.

In 2003, Gramin Shiksha Kendra opened like a door for me to join a movement to transform education. The organization was already registered in 1995-96, but it was still on the drawing board. Everything had to start from scratch, which is how I was included in the Board of the organization and served as the Executive Director throughout the 13 years of my stint.

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The working of this organization and the impact it had is something that’s been covered a lot. What’s interesting and to some extent a little disappointing to point out is that there’s been such an upheaval in interest when it comes to working on the field, in the grassroots.

I remember being one among 15 people in my circle who pursued this and went onto work with organizations in rural areas. Of this, not many stuck on for longer than 4 or 5 years. This was because of several reasons – low-income growth, pressures of families etc.

Tum kitne chulhon pe baithke khaate ho? (In how many homes have you sat at the hearth and eaten?)This question would determine an individual’s connection to the community he was working with. It’s simple because in a village household, only members of the family would sit at the hearth and eat. This is what drove me straight into the sector – to connect with those people and become a member of their community, their families. 

After 15 years, Gramin Shiksha Kendra and the Uday Resource Schools are well known. We were able to achieve this while instilling qualities of good schools, relationship with the community, between teachers and students etc. while validating this by showing our stakeholders how the future for their children would look.  I am very proud to say that we have managed to achieve this to an extent. Today, one can easily differentiate between a GSK child and another.

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What’s remarkable is how the community has formed the organization. The school teachers who belong to this small community are taking this vision forward. It shows that education transformation can happen and at Sawai Madhopur, it’s happening. It’s reassuring to think that if it took us 15 years in the first school to bring about change at this scale, it would take only 7-8 years in the next school.

Today, if the youth wants to start a GSK of their own, it would be a million times easier than it was in 2003. What would determine the success of it, though, is the amount of time and energy the youth is willing to dedicate to this. Funding and mentorship wouldn’t be the concerns at all. I remember the time when we were setting up the organization, a lot of the funding agencies were shutting down.

If there was one thing I’d go back and work on at Sawai Madhopur, it would be to replicate the Uday School model across Government-run schools too. This would include building community engagement or classroom processes. Some of these couldn’t take shape during my 13 years spent at the organization, and not many were able to do it either. Scaling the model on a national level – it’s difficult, but I believe it can be done!

Image Credits: Gramin Shiksha Kendra

About Mantra4Change Speaker Series: 

At Mantra, we have constantly believed in the power of building a positive narrative around education. As we move ahead in this journey to achieve systemic education transformation, there are a number of stories and experiences that continue to inspire and excite us about the work we do every day. The Speaker Series is a small effort to bring these stories to the fore and read what veterans and experts in this area have to share about their journey through education transformation.

In his next, read what Mr. Maneesh Pandey has to say about a relatively new and interesting topic – Twin Leadership. 

 

 

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