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Building community through education

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Building community through education

KIRAN BIR SETHI is changing the experience of childhood in Indian cities through her education curriculum and initiatives to build healthy relationships between students and their communities. Here she is interviewed by KASHISH KALWANI.

Q: I’d like to begin by asking, “What book are you currently reading?” and “What book would you recommend children read?”

KBS: Well, the book I have at my bedside is The Bhagavad Gita for Daily Living by Eknath Easwaran. It’s something I keep dipping into. Just open any page and you’ll find some wisdom for that day.

What would I recommend to children? Again, it depends on which age group. Forget what I recommend – I definitely recommend that they read! I think the worlds that open, the way they can visualize and imagine, and the way they will develop empathy are outstanding.

I was always with books. My sister was also an avid reader and we had a fantastic library at home. The worlds that opened up sitting at home in a little corner were literally astounding. I could travel the world! And the way I was able to develop the ability to visualize is unparalleled. Of course, now we have cinema and videos, and while it is great, it is a very passive way to look at the world. With a book, we put the effort into imagining; it’s not just handed to us. It’s not like a pretty picture, or an art gallery. While reading, we put in the paints, the colors, and the spaces. It really activates our neurons. That’s the science behind it.

It’s wonderful if children read, or are read to, when they are very young, as part of a family’s traditions.

Q: Piggybacking off your mention of the Bhagavad Gita, who has been your biggest teacher and how did they impact your life?

KBS: When we are ready to learn, we learn from anybody. We learn from a butterfly, from Gandhiji, from a child, and from Nature. Everything can influence us. When we open up every morning and say, “I’m ready to learn,” we never know where those lessons will come from.

Having said that, there are certain places we keep going back to in order to get a dose of inspiration. For me, it started with my own family, who introduced me to the world, and how to engage with the world with empathy, kindness, integrity, and excellence.

Then, my biggest personal learning happened at the National Institute of Design (NID) as a designer. I would attribute my alma mater with figuring out, “Okay, so this is what learning really feels like.”

My husband, Geet Sethi, who is a nine-times World Billiards Champion, has taught me a lot about obsession and excellence, and how to stay grounded and understand failure and victory in such a deeply personal way.

Then, my children. My son introduced me to what it is to be a mother and what my purpose was. He made my passion find a purpose. My daughter is an incredible source of insight for me because she is a type 1 diabetic, and the way she lives her life is a constant source of learning for me. No matter what you are given, you can make it a gift and then anything is possible.

In terms of outer inspiration, Gandhi has been a massive influence in terms of stamina. Through it all he still had a sense of humor and compassion, and there was absolutely no animosity toward anyone. That’s a fabulous lesson to learn.

And then there is Nature. Whenever I have a bit of downtime, I sit outside. I am very lucky to have birds, trees and butterflies around in my ecosystem. It’s a beautiful source of renewal to see how the Earth always gives back, no matter what.

Q: That’s so true! We are in very uncertain times with Covid, and education spaces have shut down completely. Children are feeling uncertain without the safe space of school and friendships – the experience of a school life. What do you believe are the next steps for education? Is there some learning to be had from all of this?

KBS: Absolutely! I think Covid has unmasked the entire dysfunctional system of the world. We were always struggling. I don’t think anybody felt the education system was fantastic. There was always the sense that something was off. We kept delaying the urgency to look at it because, “Oh, maybe it happened in Africa, then in Asia, then in India.” We justified it by saying, “That’s your problem, not my problem.”

Suddenly it became everyone’s problem at the same time, with the same urgency, with the same inequity! Nobody could shy away from the fact that we were all in it together. Suddenly, everybody started waking up, as if this was a surprise. But it wasn’t. It was always dysfunctional.

Understanding ourselves and each other
takes time, space, dedication and intentionality.
If we have learnt anything from this,
it’s that the heart, ethics, elevation, reflection, kindness
and compassion will become the core curriculum.
Everything else will flow from that.

Therefore, there were those people who said, “Boss, this isn’t working,” who showed other possibilities. There were pockets, which I won’t call “alternative,” but the other options. There were other ways to look at education. They had been seen as, “That’s a good experiment, but you know we can’t do it at scale.”

Covid has shown us that if we don’t start with the heart, we’re not going anywhere. We have to move forward with heart. It’s the only place that is universal, perpetual, and will stand the test of time. If we don’t, and we only study the heart as co-curriculum, just for fun, we will lose the plot again. I think that’s why everybody has got worked up.

Understanding ourselves and each other takes time, space, dedication and intentionality. If we have learnt anything from this, it’s that the heart, ethics, elevation, reflection, kindness and compassion will become the core curriculum. Everything else will flow from that.

Q: I really love the fact that you use the heart as the guiding factor in going forward.

KBS: To fuel us!

Q: Yes. Even when we look at the World Health Organization’s reports about suicide and mental health issues, we see an increase for students below the age of fifteen. Girls as young as thirteen are dying by suicide. How do we address the root cause of this?

KBS: Well, there are no simple answers. There is a spiderweb of issues. Equity is not just about access, it’s also about intention.

For example, when Covid hit, there were a lot of calls for vaccines and everybody kept saying, “No, no, it’ll take at least three years for a vaccine to come up,” because that is what we were used to. Look what happened! In less than eight months, when we got our acts together and worked together, what happened? The point is, when economics was factored in, suddenly the world decided, “We have to do something!”

The pandemic of education has been there forever. Nobody has ever thought that collectively we have to work, because it was always somebody else’s problem. When we do come together, we will do dramatic, exceptional, outstanding things. We have never thought that education requires it. There has never been a collective will – for girls, for unreserved communities, for access, for training, for leadership – it’s all of that. A systemic change is needed, but if governments keep cutting education budgets, it gives an understanding of their priorities.

Education is by far the greatest national emergency and the greatest national opportunity. If we tackle it, then a nation’s entire citizenship goes up. You suddenly have informed, educated people giving back to the nation. Right now we don’t. So, there is no easy answer to, “Why are they dying by suicide? What can we do?” This is a much bigger spiderweb of issues.

Q: Let’s go back to the very beginning, your childhood. Tell us about your personal journey.

KBS: My journey is quite a collection of happenstances along the way. There was no real plan. I think that’s been my general flow. I don’t have five-year plans. I was very lucky to have an incredible upbringing. I didn’t know that gender mattered. I think that’s the greatest thing my parents gave me. I’m the youngest of three. I have a brother and an older sister, both exceptionally talented people, and none of us were brought up to think that we were a girl or a boy, and any of us needed something more. It was important not to have those rules in my head. If you’re not brought up to believe the rules, anything is possible. That’s the beauty.

When I went to NID, my view opened up so much more. My passion was ignited about the user-centered idea, with the user in mind. I had no plans to start a school. When I was in school, I thought I’d become a doctor.

When I became a mum, my passion found its purpose in figuring out, “This can’t be true! Children can’t be so incidental to the whole program!” There is a system that rewards them for being quiet and compliant. That offered me the opportunity to say, “There must be a better way.”

When I took my son out of school, it was not like, “I’m changing the education system.” It was just my child, my son’s life. I think that finally resulted in the Riverside School being what it is.

Q: Could you share with us your initiatives, “Design for Change” and “aProCh”?

KBS: aProCh started when a couple of my students from Grade 7 visited me and asked about my childhood. I told them about playing Gilli Danda and Dabba Ice-spice on the streets where I grew up, and they said, “We cannot go out in the streets, it’s too unsafe.” That prompted us to go to the city and say, “How can a city become friendly for children?” and aProCh started.

Design for Change happened in 2009 when we asked, “At Riverside, how do we take it further?” My friend was planning a really interesting idea called “Joy of Giving.” We were talking about a festival of giving in India, so I said, “What about children?” It was a series of opportunities and I was able to respond with design. I thought it would happen only in India, and then TED happened and it went global. A series of pathways opened up: “Okay, what is required? Let me see if I can respond.”

Q: I love the enthusiasm you are sharing with this. You’ve mentioned your parents and children. I have read about your children and the fantastic work they’re doing. Taking inspiration from both, what do you feel is important for nurturing and raising children?

KBS: Well, it’s not rocket science. I think it is to be a mother and not a smotherer. We don’t smother children, we mother them, and our role is very clear. Our role is to be on that journey with them as an ally, not as somebody who is forcing them to walk on a particular path.

I love what Kahlil Gibran says in his poem ‘On Children’ in The Prophet: They really aren’t ours. They are here to go to the world, and I have learned that it’s an interesting, passionate detachment. We can be passionate about the journey with our children, but can we still stay detached? It is a tough task for a parent, but that’s what I have learned.

I love what Kahlil Gibran says in his poem
‘On Children’ in The Prophet:
They really aren’t ours.
They are here to go to the world,
and I have learned that
it’s an interesting, passionate detachment.

My son and my daughter have taught me these lessons. While they’re there and we can reach out, we will find those directions ourselves. And we would love if they come with us on that. I’d rather be that parent who goes on those journeys than one who says, “No. Don’t do that.”

It’s really about learning who we are, not about who they are. I think parenting gave me the understanding that, “I thought I was this kind of person, but I’m so neurotic and sometimes I’m so painful!” It awakens stuff in us that we didn’t know existed and that awakening is why they’re children. It is not that we can teach them anything. I think we learn a lot.

Q: When you talked about attachment, it reminds me of the example of a flower blooming. If you truly love the flower, you’ll let it be rather than getting attached and needing to pluck it.

KBS: Again, none of it is rocket science. You can read a lot about it, but while you might intellectually know it all, putting it into practice is the hard part. I had to grow into becoming detached. It’s easier said than done. One thing I have definitely learned, which has served me well, is to listen and tell stories. Also, always have joy in the house. I think these are far greater ingredients to serve the heart than anything else.

Joyfully greet your children. Let their faces light up when they see you, because they’re picking up cues even unbeknownst to you.

What you teach is less important than what they’re observing. They’re learning what you’re not teaching them. They’re learning from your body language. They’re learning from the way you interact with each other. They’re learning from the way you talk to your friends. What you say is less important than what you do.

Children might not always listen to us, but they will always mimic us. Are we worth mimicking? What do we want them to mimic? They pick up ideas of ethics very early. They pick up all of it. They will pick up the way we talk to a waiter in a restaurant, or the way we talk about saving the Earth. So, all the messages we convey through our actions, our behavior, will determine what we stand for.

I tell parents, “The way you greet each other and give each other respect will determine the way your children will respect their own partners when they grow up. Take that very seriously.” I remember so many stories my father used to tell us at the dinner table. Nowadays there are no dinner table conversations. Everybody is on their phone, or an iPad is front of a child.

Q: That is unfortunate. I wonder how we can channel technology to help bring us closer, which it indeed has in these times. Even so, I personally have very mixed opinions of social media.

KBS: I am of the generation that didn’t grow up with all of this. I am a reluctant convert!

I have learned that we don’t have tomorrow,
we only have today.
Find a moment to be kind, to reach out,
to love a little bit more and more shamelessly.
Be abundant to Nature today, not tomorrow.

Q: The answer might be obvious, but I would still love to know what you feel is better, a degree or experience?

KBS: I don’t think it’s either/or. I think if you really make the most of your education, then get a degree and supplement it with experience, as that is a great marriage of the two. Had I not gone to NID and pursued the rigor of the program, I would have been a lesser-skilled practitioner. Of course, the degree alone doesn’t make it work. I had to then go into the world and build a portfolio of work, and that experience was also invaluable. Wherever both are possible, that’s the best.

Currently, there is a disregard for degrees. Degrees matter when they are quality education. But if we understand the rigor and value of disciplinary thinking, and supplement it with experience, it’s a great marriage.

There is value in putting your head down and writing pieces and getting feedback, even if you’re prodigiously talented. I would not discount the rigor of a disciplinary mind.

Q: Finally, is there any last message that you’d like to share with us?

KBS: I have learned that we don’t have tomorrow, we only have today. Find a moment to be kind, to reach out, to love a little bit more and more shamelessly. Be abundant to Nature today, not tomorrow.

Interviewed by KASHISH KALWANI.

Kiran Bir Sethi

Kiran Bir Sethi

Kiran is an Indian designer, educationist, education reformer, and social entrepreneur. She founded the award-winning Riverside School in Ahmedabad, along with aProCh to make our cities more child friendly, and Design for Change which is in more than 60 countries. Her most recent venture is the Riverside Learning Center which offers training program to empower... Read more


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