"I want my son to join the navy and my daughter will not get married until she first makes something of herself. I have started seeing dreams for my children's future, I didn’t before, but now I have many dreams for them"
– Shindewadi Parent
Change is a strange and wonderful thing. It gently sets in with a subtlety that belies its power. It starts with a stir that is felt in an air of new words, new ideas and new thoughts. One can witness this change before their very eyes inside one of Akanksha’s communities. The impoverished communities, colloquially referred to as slum areas, are where our students come from.
The Akanksha Foundation runs 15 schools between Mumbai and Pune, in partnership with the government. The systemic educational impact Akanksha seeks to make, by staying within the public school system, would be transformational and empowering for children from low-income communities. To this end, our focus does not stay only within the walls of a school but travels all the way back to the community where our students come from. Akanksha looks at the school and community together as a whole social organisation.
The social workers of Akanksha work on developing and maintaining this relationship with the communities. Parental involvement is a crucial element. Parents are encouraged to become active in schools, become members of committees and made to attend workshops and classes held especially for them. This way, the community has a powerful voice in the management of the school and thereby in the nurturing of their own children. The impact of this relationship has been enriching and indeed transformational for both, community and foundation.
In many cases the parents will say that when they were first approached by recruiters from Akanksha, they were weary of a BMC school. There was a definite preference shown for private schools. Once the children from the Gautam Nagar Community (Dadar East) started to attend the Shindewadi School, back home, parents started to notice things. "She speaks English so well". "He has become so much more confident." "They come home, throw their bags down and sit to study straight away." "They love to study, they want to study." These words were a common refrain among the Gautam Nagar parents.
The residents of Gautam Nagar first lived in buildings that had to eventually be demolished as they were no longer safe. The residents were given homes in the north of the city. By this point however, the community had developed a keen interest in the education of their children. Deeply moved by what they were seeing in their children, the community opted to stay on in the same area, setting up houses within little containers, nearby to the school.
This way of living poses many problems but the parents are encouraged when their children come home and share what they learn in school. The children, on their part, are eager to share new ideas about everything from science to ethics. Of all the ideas that were brought back home, the importance of education took precedence over everything else. As we spoke to the parents of this community we were heartened to see the fire and clear focus to do anything and everything to enable this education for their children. Guided by their own children and aided by the social workers, the community began to look at and question itself.
This was a community that was prone to many acts of violence. The children would have seen their parents shout and swear and beat each other.
"Now when I feel my temper rising, I simply step out and walk until I feel it settle down again. My children would scold me when I said abusive words and now I make a point not to swear in front of them", one father told us. His attempt to reform himself is based in his first concern to educate his children. "Now if I do at all fight with my wife and she threatens to go away, I tell her straight away to leave the children here. I don’t want anything to stop them from going to school".
While ideally, fighting should be at a minimum, the adults of the community have taken it upon themselves to ensure that their disputes do not affect the children.
As a community, Gautam Nagar is nearly 4,000 strong and has formed its own internal government, which they refer to as the panchayat, made up of 12 members. All 12 members are Akanksha parents. With growing awareness about the importance of education, the Panchayat resolved to tackle domestic violence head on – and they did, supported by the social worker. It seems that the most important argument they could make to dissuade couples from fighting was to point out how it would affect their child in school with the worst outcome being that the child would be forced to miss school altogether. The social worker noted there were indeed hardly any cases of such fights being reported anymore, as the whole community came together in their attempt to live peacefully – for the children.
The children truly seem to be at the heart of the change taking place in their homes and their passion to learn and grow is inspiring. We encountered another case of a fighting family in another community that split the family apart into two. The daughter however, flatly refused to leave her school and go anywhere. So she was left behind and her brother was taken away. Perhaps at that point, her brother was too young for such determination. Nonetheless two years later he convinced his family to return to Mumbai so that he could go back to attending the Akanksha School. Alas, he seemed to have suffered in his growth and development so that his re-accommodation into an Akanksha school became a tricky matter.
As the mother tells us of the difference she sees in confidence, learning and general happiness between the two children, the boy walks into the house. He has returned from the school he is currently attending. The air becomes uncomfortable and her speech halting. The little boy drops his gaze to the floor. Clearly this matter is very tender in this family, although they have learnt a valuable lesson in letting fights get out of hand.
The parents of these communities have become a strong support to Akanksha’s mission to empower children. It is not easy to challenge deeply engrained mindsets, but these parents are fired with a passion for their children's education and if it means changing themselves – so be it. This fire is fuelled by the realization that their children are being given the chance that they, the parents, never got. "If there was an Akanksha when I was young, things would be very different today".
Abha Raja is an associate, Marketing, The Akanksha Foundation. Article written with inputs from Abhishek Chavan, a social worker at Akanksha.