Opening doors, creating pathways

Chintan Girish Modi

Career/education, family, friends and leisure are typically the four important spaces in a young person’s life. Pravah, with support from ComMutiny – The Youth Collective and Oxfam-India, has developed the concept of ‘the 5th space’, which enriches relationships in the other four spaces by nourishing the capacities of young people to understand and define their connection to the world and to take effective and responsible action. The 5th Space believes that self transformation is the first step towards creating change in our relationships and in society. Over the last two issues of Teacher Plus, we have been featuring stories of people and organizations making a difference in education by engaging with youth through processes at the heart of the 5th Space formulation. Here is the third one in the series. This month the focus is on Ravi Gulati.

“When I was a child, I used to think ‘What is the purpose of life? Why do we do the work we do?’ These were questions that remained inside me, as there was no place to express them. I think it is important to articulate these questions. You might find other people feeling the same way. You will probably feel different but you do not have to be alone,” says Ravi Gulati whose home in Delhi at 13 Khan Market is also a safe haven for local youth from low-income backgrounds to formulate, share, and discuss their questions.

They are all part of Manzil, a non-profit organization that serves primarily the children of housemaids, cooks, electricians, barbers, drivers, and servants living in one-room tenements in this otherwise affluent neighbourhood of Delhi. Manzil provides a community and resources for these curious young people to learn, teach, engage in various forms of creative expression, and look at the world they are part of in new, exciting ways.

Ravi is careful about not using the word ‘underprivileged’ to describe the young people in the Manzil community. He says, “There are many dimensions of privilege. You can be privileged in one dimension but underprivileged from another. Getting a hot meal when you come home and growing up in a loving family are also dimensions of privilege, but we focus too much on a singular dimension. There are two archetypes of children in this country – those who form part of the workforce as child labour, and those who face tremendous pressure to succeed in school examinations. The childhood of both has been stolen by the adult world.”

In its journey of over a decade and a half, Manzil has consciously sought to cultivate a non-hierarchical culture of learning, wherein ‘learner’ and ‘teacher’ are not fixed identities but interchangeable roles. “If an organization places a value on something, it should be valued across the board. For example, at Manzil, we value punctuality because we think it is important to respect other people’s time. This holds for adults as well as children. Otherwise, children learn that there are two different sets of rules for children and adults,” says Ravi.

In true 5th Space style, this approach respects the energies, ideas, and capabilities of young people instead of viewing them only as individuals who need to be taught, trained, and disciplined. Classes are offered (after school hours) in mathematics, conversational English, computer skills, music, painting, dance, and theatre. These are open to change, in accordance with the needs and interests of the young people Manzil serves. They also have opportunities to meet and interact with a variety of individuals doing different kinds of things, whether they are volunteers or interns associated with Manzil or guests invited by Ravi to share their journeys and experiences.

Ravi remarks, “For us, learning is important, certification isn’t. The person who comes out from Manzil is a lifelong learner, not a learned person. We expose children to many things here but we bring them as offerings. Learning is unique to each person. There is no need to create an artificial construct.”

He is critical of the current education system which places a premium on rote learning and accumulating paper qualifications without equipping young people with the knowledge, attitudes, and skills required to live responsibly and work with other human beings in society, or to even secure jobs that diplomas and degrees are assumed to guarantee. As a departure from this system, Manzil encourages independent thinking, peer learning, taking initiative, and looking for solutions.

In addition to questioning the world around, it required rigorous self-questioning for Ravi, a Master in Business Administration from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, to come to this understanding of learning. It also took a lot of travel, conversations, and openness to new ideas. It helped to have a an inspiring teacher like Prof. Anil Gupta, Executive Vice Chair of the National Innovation Foundation, during his years at the IIM, and a dedicated mother who volunteered at learning centres for children with special needs for over 30 years.

In fact, the Manzil centre at Khan Market has a predecessor in Kotla Mubarakpur, a neighbourhood in the heart of Delhi, where Ravi’s mother opened a learning centre (also called Manzil) in 1996 to serve young children with learning disabilities. Ravi’s elder sister Sonia, who is the bright welcoming presence at the Khan Market centre, has multiple handicaps. Thanks to her, Ravi’s mother had the opportunity to volunteer at different special schools. Ravi says, “My mother received a lot of unconditional love from those children. And she was really good with the parents, especially those with questions like ‘Why me?’ and ‘Why my child?’ She wanted to start a school but also liked the idea of this learning centre. ‘Big’ or ‘small’ does not matter to her. Working directly with people does.”

The same can be said of Ravi, in whom you see none of the restlessness that is associated with planning, micro-managing, resource allocation, grant-writing, fundraising and the like – the staple of non-profit organizations. There are no employees here, so no salaries need to be paid. His home is the space they use, so no rents need to be paid either. Those who offer their services do so in a voluntary spirit. Also, there is no pressure for Ravi to be at the steering wheel. Since it is a community, people who are part of it feel responsible to the collective and are mindful about how they can contribute instead of caring only about what they can receive. This is what Ravi calls ‘education for responsibility’. He hopes that when these young people grow up and venture out, they continue to carry this seed of responsibility in their hearts and find it in themselves to not only enrich their own being but also serve their families, neighbourhoods, communities, and other collectives they are part of.

The author wrote this as part of a Media Projects Fellowship awarded by ComMutiny in collaboration with the Youth and Civil Society Initiative of Sir Ratan Tata Trust and DKA-Austria. He can be reached at chintan.backups@gmail.com. To know more about the 5th Space, visit www.facebook.com/5thSpace.