Wisdom of slum children and how it changed me

I met people whom I would never have met in the regular course of my life.

 |  5-minute read |   08-09-2015
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Picture this. The light turns red and you come to a grinding halt. Suddenly the mental image of an open tap gushing water and water flowing across the bathroom pops up. You know no one is at home and you have already gone a long way towards your other destination. What do you do? Turn back? Or keep going?

What if this was the office where you work? Does your answer change? Would you turn back?

Chances are that you might have answered "yes" to the first and "no" to the second. Why? If you notice, when it comes to common spaces we tend to believe that we don't have to do it because someone else will. After all, there are so many people, someone will see it and take on the responsibility. Right?


Why should it be someone else and not me? Is it not critical for me to take ownership of common spaces? In a country where the quality of governance has often come under the scanner, this question is the key. Governance after all starts with a belief that my circle of concern is big enough to include areas which are common and that I have the attitude, skill and behaviour to be able to influence them as well.

For me volunteering is a critical platform through which the youth can realise how we are interdependent and learn to take informed stances and act on them.

With the demographic dividend looming large, there is a sudden focus on the 563 million between the ages of 10-35 years. Imagine if there is a generation of people who do not have this ownership for common spaces. What will it mean for India and its governance?

Every time I raise this point the responding argument starts with "You know today's youth... what can you do..." It is, however, high time adults realise that the examples that we are setting do not really demonstrate ownership for common spaces. We also do not "give" the youth the legitimacy to go beyond the four circles of family, friends (who are like us), some sanctioned leisure or cultural activities and work-related education.

Any time spent on areas other than these generally come under scrutiny, disapproval and a barrage of questions. I remember that as a young person, when I started spending time with kids in a nearby basti, I was constantly being asked "but why are you wasting time? You are intelligent you can get a good job, earn and then do all this samaaj sewa". I had no answer, but I found that the saying "It looks good on the CV" seemed to have some temporary acceptance and, in rare cases, approval.

So then, where is the space for a young person's identity formation? Where do we take into consideration the scientific fact that the human mind is still developing and hotwired to take risks? They, therefore, want to try everything themselves and not be told what to do or not to do. Combine these and you get a person who wants to try new experiences, meet new people, and try their hand at action, with a natural proclivity towards taking risks.

What they need are, therefore, what we call fifth spaces: safe spaces to meet people across borders of caste, class, religion, gender etc, where they can take action and experiment while having a safety net which helps them learn from their mistakes, where they can discover the difference between asking questions to unveil the connections rather than simply questioning. Where they can learn deep self-awareness and its tools, how to build strong relationships, while taking action in the real world. After all, it is only when I interact with the larger world, will there be new experiences, and if I have the skills and tools to reflect on them, I can draw out learning for myself and once again expand my circle of action and, therefore, concern. Experiential learning and volunteering are, therefore, critical to this process.

Developing volunteering opportunities where the youth can engage with the transformation of the world while transforming themselves is critical to good governance. It is only through this process that I will discover the interdependence, the need to take informed stances and the skills to do the same.

My experience with the kids in the basti changed me. I met people whom I would never have met in the regular course of my life. In some cases, I was extremely suspicious, even fearful of them.

Stories of "Yeh bastiwalley sab chori kartein hai" were very easy to come by. For the first time, however, I realised that perhaps another story existed. My notions and ideas of what I could or could not do was stretched. From discovering that I could make sense of Maths to discovering how an entire event could be organised and partnerships built. With that I found my perceptions of myself change and from being afraid of the real world I started looking at it with curiosity and wonder. This coincided with my shift from school to college, and I found that unlike before, I looked forward to the prospect of new people and making new friends. It gave me confidence. There was nothing that I could not do.

This helped me expand my world. Street theatre, staying in villages, eating with people across classes and castes from the same plate; everything became a part of my existence, and so issues became people and not just headlines, and empathy instead of sympathy became a need. I understood that the self does not exist without the other.

Good governance cannot happen when we only look out for our own selves from within our own cocooned worlds. Fifth spaces are therefore the need of the hour. The young people across different identities are already asking for these spaces. In a series of national consultations with adolescents and young people across the country, two clear overarching tasks came through. To be seen as equal stakeholders and then to be given the space to lead with opportunities to make mistakes.

It is time that all of us recognise that if we want good governance, then creating these spaces where the youth can develop empathy and ownership for common spaces and the ability to take and act on informed stances is non-negotiable. As Aristotle said, "To be a good human being you have to be an active citizen but it need not be the other way round".


Neha Buch Neha Buch @nehabuch

The writer is CEO of Pravah, a non-profit organisation based in New Delhi working to impact issues of social justice through youth citizenship action.

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