The future is in safe hands: Inspired by the bonding, empathy between students from two ends of the world
When mHS took on the task of hosting a workshop in the slums of Delhi for a class of American students from the ACARA program at the University of Minnesota, we spent a lot of time worrying about how to do this without just landing inside a community like aliens and shooting questions at those who lived there. And so we partnered with a well-known NGO Katha, which runs a school in Bhumiheen Camp in Govindpuri near Kalkaji, New Delhi. Class 12 students from the Katha Khazana school took the lead in introducing 15 American students to their community. They took them home, helped them speak to shopkeepers and neighbors and relatives, showed them places they liked and places they would like to change. They also spoke of their aspirations, their lives, their dreams, their future, their joys and sorrows…
In the two-day workshop, we who were wearing the facilitator’s hat found that while we did need to step in to translate conversations related to the assignment the University students were doing, we had no need to intervene in the bonds that we being formed between the Katha kids and the American ones. By the end of the two-hour visit on Saturday, the tone of conversations was relaxed and informal. By the end of that first day, Facebook requests were flying around. By Day 2, they were sharing earphones and exchanging views on music, eating together, taking pictures together, body language had changed. Even the girls from the Katha school who were from conservative families (parents were calling every half hour to check on them) were mixing openly and clearly feeling very comfortable with the American students.
Undoubtedly, this is a different generation. With apparently so little in common (language, affluence, social background, family structures, exposure….), young people can connect effortlessly both in person as well as via social networks on a variety of common subjects like music, role models, aspirations, relationships…… In a flash, they can bridge an enormous gap, something that has never been possible before in the history of humankind; and technology helps them do this effectively and maintain that connection long after their time together. What’s more, they have no hesitations about taking that leap. Not all the bad news in the world-media screaming headlines about rapes, warnings from anxious parents and Embassy bulletins giving all sorts of travel advisories, nothing can deter young people from taking forward a connection once they deem in worth their attention.
What is equally striking is the enormous capacity for empathy. In these two days, we saw children who had never stepped outside the proverbial ‘West’ sit squeezed inside the matchbox-sized homes of their new friends genuinely trying to find out about how they live and what bothers them, We saw them walk over open sewers and across garbage dumps, ask the most sensitive questions in the nicest way and even walk into the filthiest toilets in the world without even wrinkling their noses! I actively tried to dissuade one particular student from doing that. He hadn’t been too well and I had just seen the appalling conditions in the community toilets. I genuinely thought he didn’t need to subject himself to that experience. But on he went. “If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me” he declared! Of course, those toilets are not good enough for the community and that’s a story for another post, but I was sufficiently impressed by his determination and genuine empathy with the people who lived in Bhumiheen Camp.
Observing the young people from Katha and University of Minnesotta during this two-day workshop filled me with a sense of hope. The future is in safe hands if the young can so effortlessly exhibit sensitivity and concern and genuinely find common ground with those unlike them. I am inspired, indeed infected, by the innocence, spontaneity and simplicity of the interactions i saw and resolve to bring more of these aspects into my life. A new, better way of doing things, perhaps.
There has been much banter on social networks, much outrage and genuine frustration, a lot of noise, a multitude of voices reacting to the Delhi gang rape. The incident is being seen as shameful, rightfully so; Dilliwalas are feeling ashamed and angry at having to feel so, people from other identities who reside in Dilli have felt a tad better shrugging and being patronizing about being from elsewhere. And so it goes on.
For many of us, the real point of frustration is that this incident will go off the radar and be relegated to the back of people’s minds. Yes, it will happen. Society and human memory are known to be fickle. However, there is a point to making a hue and cry about things. There is a point to signing petitions and participating in protest marches. For all of us who sit in the comfort of our homes, clicking ‘likes’ on FB and feeling frustrated that our genuine outrage will amount to naught, we should not feel so terrible.
First of all, speaking out and putting yourself out of your comfort zone to think about issues that are not immediately impacting you, but could, is a first step to engagement with social issues. In a new way, this sort of engagement spawns new tools for democracies to function. Strong voices emerge that pressurize authorities to take action. Whatever may be our opinion about the actions taken in the short term, the hue and cry has jolted the government into releasing some rules that could be the beginning of a system of checks and balances. Much more needs to be done and civil society is taking up these aspects vehemently. For instance, today’s reports suggest that schools should verify the drivers and staff for buses and otherwise and report and irregularities to the owners/contractors or police. In my children’s school, we recently had an incidence of drunken driving and made the same suggestion to the school. Clearly, preventive measures and checks to identify repeat offenders and remove malfunctioning individuals from positions of responsibility are one way ahead.
On a larger scale, pressure from civil society can lead to convictions and impact judges to change verdicts to harsher ones. The Jessica Lall case, for instance, set a precedent for influential offenders to be brought to book. In law, as I understand it, precedence is an important aspect. So if someone is given a harsher sentence for a rape for this case, it will pave the way for harsher sentences to be given in the future for similar cases. The point I am making is that every little step goes a long way. We need to believe in the power of our efforts, however small, to create change. We need to protect ourselves from cynical dismissal, we need to not give up the fight. Most vitally, while we continue with efforts that address symptomatic problems, we need to broaden our efforts to impact the root causes, which might appear complex but could generate better results over time. Hence, education and awareness, changes in the law and policy, stronger processes are all essential aspects that we can also contribute to. And should, even after this incident has been buried in public memory, to create better cities for us to live in.
I started the journey into social networking with the mandatory Orkut account ages ago, and then Facebook. These were purely a way to get back in touch with long lost friends. And to take online the conversations with the current friends circle that we cannot have face to face as our lives are too busy! Sharing photos, thoughts and experiences were a natural extension.
But things began to change when I started blogging. To promote by blog, I tentatively got myself a twitter handle. I remember asking Nupur how the hell this thing worked! I was rather at sea. And inside me somewhere, I had this notion that spending hours on social media was a retarded thing to do! Well, things have changed drastically in just a few months. I am very much that excited moron today! And proud to be one.
How did this happen, and why? For a person like me, who thinks a zillion thoughts a day, whose interests lie in many different directions and who yearns to share, listen, debate and interact, social media is nothing short of a blessing. By offsetting my blog with just two sites- Facebook and Twitter, I can achieve a mix of interactions that keep me invigorated, excited, curious about life and the world around me.
The real serious stuff that I feel strongly about goes on my blog. That is a form of self expression. The communication with my friends tends to happen directly or via FB. The fun stuff, posting pics of my kids, outings or travel, the conversations about daily events- all that good stuff is what FB is about for me. Yes, I do follow pages of social causes I identify with or organizations I find relevant, but that is a secondary activity and does not occupy much mindspace.
Twitter is where I assume my professional, intellectual (ha!) persona. It started with a deliberate positioning and I decided to follow media, organizations and individuals related to urbanism, planning and design. But over a period of time, it has changed to include a whole bunch of what I term ‘thinking, liberal’ people as well. I enjoy reading a wide range of opinions on diverse issues. I love the opportunity Twitter provides to get into a meaningful conversation or stay out of something you don’t agree with it. Or voice disagreement and dissent if that is required.
Occasionally, the boundaries between FB and Twitter do melt. Kids pics appear on Twitter via Instagram (another wonderful app). And links that I consider good for wider reading do get shared on FB, like the editorial by Ranjit Sabikhi I shared today morning.
On the whole, social networking helps me stay updated and connected, especially important for a flexi-worker like me. I work for a small organization and there are limited opportunities for physical networking as my children are young and I have chosen to spend time at home to be with them. With four standard windows open on the browser- Gmail, Twitter, Facebook and WordPress, I feel empowered and engaged. Loneliness and boredom keep away and that’s pretty much what constitutes happiness, for the most part.
Yes, I do find myself wondering if living a life via social networking will impact my real world relationships adversely. Up until now, the real and virtual worlds are complementing each other beautifully. But I am aware that there is a need for caution. When you get used to sharing too much, some private, intimate and vital aspects get short shrift, because they are unsharable. So yes, I do know I need to carve out a lion’s share of space in my mind for the real world experiences that must, ultimately, feed my world on the social networks!