We Have Everything We Need Already: Community Control of Education

Photo: Manish Jain
Photo: Manish Jain
Shilpa Jain has served as a full-time “learning activist” with Shikshantar, an India-based people’s movement which aims to regenerate “living and learning communities” grounded in diverse cultures and languages, as opposed to a stultifying colonial-legacy education. Shilpa continues to be part of a movement to nurture different modes of learning, to reclaim and share knowledge that reflects community wisdom and values. What’s at stake is nothing less than who controls information and interpretation, what values are propagated, and what kind of society we end up with.

After her time at Shikshantar, Shilpa worked with Other Worlds, and she now serves as Executive Director of YES! in California, working with youth changemakers and organizers.

Shilpa Jain | Rajasthan, India and California, USA:

At Shikshantar, we are trying to support the shift from a money-dominant globalized culture to a more small-scale, relationship-focused culture.

My grandmother never went to school, she never knew how to read or write, and she was such a wise and brilliant woman. She was incredibly creative, could come up with songs and dances and games right on the spot. She had tons of practical knowledge on herbal remedies and healing practices, and she was the most environmentally conscious person I know. Nothing ever went to waste; she would always make something out of anything. For her, everything was connected, and all life was important, from the ants, to the dogs, to the cows, to human beings. Because of her, I started asking about and looking for more of that kind of grounded knowledge.

My activism has always been defined by what’s doable rather then what are we fighting against. What are the positive things we can create in the world, and how are they being created right now? I’m interested in supporting people where their passion is now, as well as trying to unearth their passions through a process of listening and dialogue. There are a thousand entry points to challenge this system and shape alternative possibilities.

Shikshantar means “transforming the way we live and learn.” It encourages individuals and communities to reclaim control over their own learning processes and through that, reclaim their heads, hands, and hearts. Shikshantar’s philosophy springs from the Gandhian principle of Swaraj, which refers to self-rule and radiance-of-the-self. It’s individual and community self-realization and contribution.

Shikshantar supports localization to bring economy, ecology, and education back home. It starts from the premise that we all already have the things we need for contributing to the well-being of our place, whether they’re monetary resources, in-kind materials, our time, our energy, or our home. When we bring these into the flow of sharing as a community, it can serve and support all of us. Believe it or not, but I do: we have everything we need already.

We also support people who want to look at possibilities for learning outside the monopoly of schools and colleges. All around our communities are an abundance of resources. They come in the form of artisans and artists, farmers and business people, home-makers and spiritual guides. Each brings wisdom, creativity, curiosity, imagination, skills, vision, and experience, which can be shared across generations.

For example, Shikshantar considers the entire city of Udaipur [Rajasthan] to be a “learning city.” Children, youth, adults, and elders are engaging in exchanges, community dialogues, unlearning workshops, local media, etc. They’re challenging the dominant model of urban living – with its consumption, waste, alienation, and pollution – and figuring out how to live differently.

I work a lot with families on creating different learning spaces in their neighborhoods, like workshops and festivals. We do all kinds of things: theater workshops, dance workshops, music, cooperative games. We make a lot of crafts with waste materials like coconut shells, rubber tire tubes, discarded paper, scraps of cloth. And we’re into natural and ecological city living – rooftop gardening, rainwater harvesting, solar cooking, bicycle blending. Artists, farmers, healers, and cooks offer their skills to public venues and interactions.

And we try to make a difference. For example, several folks got together to try and stop the use of plastic bags in places like vegetable markets and stores. We also went around to different hotels and did a “green leaf rating” survey to support more eco-friendly and culturally appropriate tourism in the city.

Another major part of my work with Shikshantar has been supporting a Walkout-Walkon Network. “Walkout” is a challenge to “dropout.” It captures the courage and humanity of those who have left a system that doesn’t serve them and instead are creating different paths. These paths include apprenticeships, travel, service opportunities, and entrepreneurship. But it’s not just about walking out of school or college. It’s also about walking out of dehumanizing careers or toxic products or negative relationships, and walking on to align your values with your practices. We even created a magazine that documents different walkout-walkon experiences of people, as well as great learning opportunities.

Shikshantar is busy launching a Swaraj Multi-versity, so that youth can bypass college and learn via real-world apprenticeships with a peer community. They’ll get practical skills ranging from filmmaking to cooking to composting to desktop publishing. The last part of the program gives them the opportunity to use their skills to start a business that’s locally rooted and environmentally conscious.

Part of the inspiration for my work comes from the idea that the larger system, the superstructure, only has as much hold on us as we continue to give it. The current prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile once told me that instead of thinking about destroying the system, I should think about renouncing it. That’s stuck with me. If we stop trying to fix or destroy the dominant system – and by that, I mean, violent, consumptive and inhumane institutions – and turn our attention to growing diverse points of light and power, we might find ourselves with the world we want to see.

Learning spaces and opportunities are all around us. It’s only our own blinders that are blocking us. The more we can take off those blinders and start to see people and places for their strength and beauty, the more we can really learn and connect. That way, too, we can heal a lot of damage that’s being done over many years and that’s still being done today. The more we can see and listen to each other, I think, the more there is hope.

To learn more about Shilpa Jain’s organization, Shikshantar: The Peoples’ Institute for Rethinking Education and Development, please see www.swaraj.org/shikshantar.

Inspired? Here are a few suggestions for getting involved!

  • Be a mentor to the next generation by befriending and spending time with neighborhood kids or your friends’ children. Share your work with them, invite them to see a documentary, visit a local farm, or just take a walk.
  • Find learning partners and potential teachers in your community. Look for more formal apprenticeship opportunities with artists, farmers, or business people. The NACT Sustainable Agriculture Project keeps a list of farming apprenticeships (www.attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/internships).
  • Since one size does not fit all, explore education alternatives to traditional schooling for you or your children. The Alternative Education Resource Organization’s website lists democratic schools in the US (www.educationrevolution.org/demschool.html). Don’t see the school you want near you? Check out AERO’s Start a School Program (www.educationrevolution.org/startschool.html).
  • Check out Passageworks (www.passageworks.org), Teachers 4 Social Justice (www.t4sj.org) and Teaching for Change (www.teachingforchange.org) to find resources and action items for both educators and parents wanting to build more just and caring schools.

And check out the following resources and organizations:

  • Shikshantar: the People’s Institute for Rethinking Education and Development, www.swaraj.org/shikshantar
  • Skillshare, www.skillshare.com
  • Rethinking Schools Online, www.rethinkingschools.org
  • Alianza para la Educacion Alternativa, www.alianzaeducacionalternativa.org
  • Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA), www.democraticeducation.org
  • Swaraj University, www.swarajuniversity.org
  • Institute for Humane Education, www.humaneeducation.org
  • M.K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule (Dodo Press, 2008)
  • Grace Llewellyn, The Teenage Liberation Handbook (Lowry House Publishers, 1998)
  • Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze, Walk Out Walk On: a Learning Journey into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now (Berret- Koehler Publisher, 2011)
  • Deborah Menkart, Alana D. Murray and Jenice L. View, Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching: a Resource Guide for K-12 Classrooms (Teaching for Change and the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, 2004)
  • John T Gatto, A Different Kind of Teacher (Berkeley Hill Books, 2001)
  • Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (Marion Boyars, 1973)
  • John Holt, Instead of Education (Penguin Books, 1976)
  • Myles Horton et al., The Long Haul: an Autobiography (Doubleday, 1990)