Architects of the future: Part two

George Srour: Entry Education

I am George Srour from Building Tomorrow. I would like you all to close your eyes for a minute. I want you to imagine that you live in a country where 50% of the population is under the age of 15. I want you to imagine that you live in a country where only 30% of first graders graduate to second grade. I want you to imagine that you live in a country where just 2% of the population goes to university. Open your eyes. Welcome to Uganda.

You might be wondering what I’m doing up here holding a very small shoe. It has been a long time since I could have worn a shoe like this. It was when learning how to read and write was part of a routine that unfortunately, today, 41 million children in sub-Saharan Africa do not know, because they have absolutely no access to education.

At Building Tomorrow, we are working to change that. We are working with communities in the United States and abroad, communities of primary, secondary and university students, who are coming together with one goal: to build brand-new primary schools. Through very creative fundraising campaigns they come together to raise $45,000, which is the cost of just one school.
In Uganda, we have a team that works together to identify villages that have never had a school before. We mobilise the community so that parents and guardians come together and they commit themselves to 25,000 hours of labour to build one of our academies.

We work in conjunction with the local government to provide the teachers and the ongoing operating expenses to run each one of our academies.

Our honorary chairman is Archbishop Desmond Tutu. There is a quote he uses quite frequently: “Education is the key that will unlock the door to eradicating poverty.” Today, Building Tomorrow has given that key to nearly 1,000 students in the three schools that we have built, and in the next 18 months we will build approximately four more schools and give an even greater number of students the opportunity to gain an education. We are building tomorrow, one walk to school at a time.

Rajeeb Dey: Teenagers Truth

My name is Rajeeb Dey and I am the founder of the English Secondary Students Association.

I want to start by quoting from Article 12 of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. It says that children have the right to express their views on all matters affecting them. The matter that affected me the most was my education, yet in the seven years of my being in secondary education, from the ages of 11 to 18, and despite experiencing more than sixty different teachers in those seven years, not once was I asked about my views on my education. Not once was I asked, what did I think about the lesson I had just received.

However, that did not hold me back. I would go up to a teacher and say, “I didn’t quite understand that,” or “would you clarify something for me?” But at the same time, my peers, those in the classroom, when they did not understand something, would sometimes feel too embarrassed or shy to put their hand up, or would simply think it was not their place to ask, or maybe that they were being stupid and therefore just switch off, wait for the bell to ring and leave the classroom, being completely disengaged from their education.

I thought this was a terrible waste, because students have a very unusual perspective that they can offer in shaping the education that they receive. Businesses would not ignore the views of their customers, so why should we ignore those who are at the very heart of the education system–the students?

So I decided, at the age of 17 when I was still at school, to set up an organisation called ESSA, which is run by students for students. We work to empower those who are aged 11 to 19 in the education system, to give them a voice not only in their own schools but also nationally in educational debates.

For too long, we have only heard from parents, teachers, governors and heads about what their views are on education, but those at the heart of it rarely get the chance to be heard. Last year we worked with more than 8,000 students in more than 100 schools, training them in campaigning skills. They have been from across the education sector–from those in mainstream education, but also those with special educational needs and those who have been excluded or are on the verge of being excluded from mainstream education.

Often, what we find is that there has simply been a breakdown of communications. Those who have been excluded often find that they did not have a voice, no one was listening to them, and so they would act in a way that would lead to their exclusion. By delivering peer-led training, run by young people, we are empowering these students to speak up when they have a concern, and to convey this in a way that leads to fewer students being excluded from education, better behaviour and better attainment.

We have actually been well received within the education sector. For example, the National Union of Teachers, the largest teaching union in the UK, sponsors us and invites us to their annual conferences. They also pay for one of our full-time members of staff. This is because we are about showing the value of partnership in education. By engaging with students, teachers and all the other stakeholders, we can co-create the education system rather than students being passive recipients of knowledge.

So I would urge you, don’t forget that students and young people are not merely citizens in waiting. It is our responsibility to engage them now, to hear their voices and make sure that education is something that is not endured but actually enjoyed.

I would like to start by saying that dance saved my life. My name is Rose Kingston. I was born in Liberia in West Africa. I am the founder and director of Century Dance Complex, currently based in New York. I use dance as a tool to help children overcome the many challenges they face in everyday life. I will tell you why.

At the age of nine, my education was suddenly interrupted. My childhood was taken from me just like that, as the result of a ten-year civil war that broke out in my country. My family and I managed to escape to a refugee camp in Ghana. After living in that camp for six years we were granted political asylum in the United States. At the age of fifteen, immediately after entering the U.S., I was placed in the ninth grade. That was my biggest challenge, given that the last education I had had was the third grade before the war. However, according the U.S. academic system, a child is placed in a grade according to their age and not their ability.

Amongst the challenges I faced was culture shock, the language barrier, and many nights of nightmares. Today I know those nightmares to be trauma. But there was one thing about the education system that I actually liked, so it was not all bad. That was my physical education class in dance. The dance class was the one place where I never had to speak–we all spoke one language, and that was movement. My dance teacher always used to say, “You need to allow yourself to feel in order to heal.” As I applied that technique, I found new meaning to life. I felt happy. I finally regained my childhood, and that was the reason why I founded this organisation.

Currently, I work with children from all over: refugee youth, immigrant youth, underprivileged, privileged, at risk. I use dance as a therapy to help children overcome the many, many challenges that they face every day. We also provide homework assistance to make transition a little easier and to reduce the dropout rate in school.

When a child learns to dance, they build confidence, they learn to be creative, they learn endurance, teamwork, dedication and commitment. At CDC we teach children how to be hopeful instead of hopeless, how to have a sense of direction instead of feeling lost and confused. It is my vision to extend this programme into other neighbourhoods and communities. I would also like to visit many refugee camps around the world to speak to children and let them know that they are not alone, because I used to be one of them. I would like to share my joy and passion, and the power of dance, with these children.

Dance has no colour or face. Dance is international. Dance is my saving therapy.

Sriram Ayer: Art Education Empowerment

My name is Sriram Ayer, and I come from India. I have a story that has changed my life and made me do what I am doing, and that I would like to share with you.

Not so long ago, I used to work for a large, multinational software company, primarily dealing with business start-ups, in both Western Europe and North America. In 2002, something catastrophic happened in the state of Gujarat in Northwest India. Close to 3,000 people, Hindus and Muslims, were massacred. I went there about a month after the carnage, and that was a big moment of truth for me.

The truth was that it was very scary, and it led me to a big internal agitation about whether people are essentially good. Are they acting as though they are good? Is fear driving them to be good, otherwise they would give way to the sort of inhuman activities such as had taken place?

It was a spiritual quest for me as well as a behavioural understanding of why people are the way they are. I struggled with myself to find answers and went to different gurus and people to ask my questions. I was extremely busy with my work at the time, which was going well, but I was also in disarray with my personal quest.

In 2003 I was in the city of Chennai, in the south of India, which is known for software development, and was working at a software development center. I was at work one evening when a small boy walked into my office and asked if I wanted to buy some incense sticks. He was probably about 10 or 11 years old. I was a little surprised that he was able to get to my office, given all the security that surrounds a software company. No, I did not want to buy any incense sticks, although a colleague did make a purchase. However, I was very curious about the boy, because he was going to school during the day, he did not have a mother, his father was making these incense sticks, and in the evening the boy went out, on public buses, to sell these incense sticks to make a living for himself and his family and to fund his education.

That was a huge moment for me, for several simple reasons: it gave me confidence in people who, despite their own desperate situation, would go to any extent to realise an ambition, and this was a boy who was willing to work hard to do so. This was another moment of truth for me.

It explained to me that the divisions in society, whether of colour, religion, or income could be bridged–if these divided communities could be brought together, and if the agent of socialisation is a mentor from an educated background who is prosperous enough and could provide an emotional anchor. He could work with a community that was disadvantaged, particularly if the object of socialisation was a child who was bright and hardworking. Put these two people together, give the child an opportunity to grow, and you create a great atmosphere of connection between two communities that are otherwise forever divided.

That was a big miracle that happened in front of me. I quit my job the next day to start Nalanda Way. Today, the challenge has become so interesting and so engaging; and the organisation has grown enormously, helping children who are so promising, hardworking and persevering. They learn through the arts, to express themselves through film, through theatre and music, to learn the challenge of taking the computer world head on, and learning marketable skills that were not presented to them before.

Today, we work with more than 3,900 children throughout India, and UNICEF and the World Bank have accepted our model that is going to be applied across sixteen states of India.

I have had some great miracles in my life, and I look forward to your blessing and support to take my journey further on.

Alischa Ross: Aids Awareness

My name is Alischa Ross, and I have travelled a long way from a big island in the other hemisphere called Australia.

The reason I am here is that I would like to live in a world without AIDS, and I am sure that there is no one in this room who would say anything different. It is a huge global crisis and I am sure that it interconnects with much of the work that other people are doing. One thing I have come to understand is that it is one thing to say that you would like to live in that world, but another thing to create and shape that world.

I would like you all to think for a moment about the really profound moments in your own lives, the ones that have shaped you and changed your lives for ever. For me, the moment that had the greatest impact on my life was when I was eight years old. Somebody turned to me and said, “Your Mum has AIDS. She is going to die.” That changed my life.

What I learned in a family growing up with AIDS is how disconnected people can be from those who are closest to them, in their own communities.

Australia is not really a country that people think of in connection with an issue like AIDS. We know that there are many stereotypes and a lot of stigma when it comes to AIDS; most of us think of the poor parts of the world, particularly of places like Africa, and the incredible carnage and destruction that is ripping through whole societies in Africa because of the spread of HIV. But we all recognise that AIDS is a universal problem. We know that it is a pandemic, that it exists everywhere in some way, shape or form, but a lot of our response to HIV and AIDS is superficial. We tend to be reactive in the way that we respond to HIV and AIDS rather than proactive; we should be looking at what the real drivers are behind this.

So yes, I’ve had a pretty powerful, personal story that has shaped my involvement around HIV and AIDS. But it is not just that personal story that caused me to set up an organisation called YEAH, which is Youth Empowerment Against HIV/AIDS. I set that organisation up when I was 24 years old, so actually a big part of choosing to do that was the fact that I was a young woman. So why is that so important to a young person? I have contemplated that I have been around for about as long as HIV has been around. I am now 28 and don’t know what it is like to live in a world without AIDS. I know that many of you here do know that. I know that you remember the early days of this epidemic and the panic and fear that swept across the world. That panic and fear still shapes so much of our response, but I think that what we need is a different kind of vision and leadership, and a huge part of that leadership can come from young people who, as I said at the beginning, would like to know what it is like to live in a world without AIDS.

In Australia, our mission at YEAH is really simple: Let’s talk to as many young Australians as possible about AIDS, because one of the fundamental building blocks for this is actually knowing what HIV and AIDS are. You do know that you can do something about it.

It makes me incredibly proud that, over the last three years, that dream of bringing AIDS education to young Australians is something that YEAH has achieved. We have a long way to go, but in those three years we have reached literally tens of thousands of young Australians, sometimes working in a pretty difficult climate to find the resources and the support we need. We have managed to work with hundreds of schools right across the country.

So, as somebody who considers herself to be the founder of an organisation, that is what founding an organisation is: it is about creating a really solid platform for sustainable work in your community. What I’d like to ask you is, What do you know about it in your local community? And how can you be part of the solution?

Sehnaz Layikel: Community Collaboration

My name is Sehnaz Layikel. I come from Turkey. Before I start telling you about my work, I invite you to imagine something. Here is a picture [she shows a slide of a bare dormitory room full of beds packed closely together]. I would like you to imagine that you have spent years in a room like this. You sleep in this room and you wake up in this room. You wait to be served food and you wait for people to take you to the bathroom. You are not given permission to go out into the garden.

You might think that it is a prison–it is not. It is a place where people are sent because of their psychological difficulties. It is a mental health hospital in Turkey. Probably most of you know that there are thousands of people in the world, as well as in Turkey, who live for years in rooms like this. Why? They have committed no crime, it is only because they have had difficult lives, mostly childhood traumas, and with no support from their families, that they end up having nervous breakdowns and spend long years in a room like this.

I established an organisation in Turkey called Human Rights in Mental Health Initiative two years ago. In those two years we have been the only organisation that has had access to institutions like this, to monitor them. Our dream is to have different places where people can cope with their difficulties in the community, with all the kinds of support that they need.

The next picture will show you somewhere in Hungary. It is a community-based service where people with the same psychological difficulties can spend their lives with other people who have similar problems. [The picture is of people socialising in a room with comfortable furniture and soft lighting].

So that is our dream. How do we try to realise this dream in our organisation? We go into these institutions and talk to everyone, not only the patients. We talk to the professional staff, nurses, doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, and the patients. We take their views, we listen to their problems, and we also listen to their solutions and suggestions. We prepare reports for the Turkish Government, the EU, and the general public.
As a result of our activities, the EU, for the first time in Turkey’s EU accession process, has included a line telling the Turkish Government to turn to community-based services rather than having big mental health hospitals. This made us really happy and proud.

The method we use is something innovative for Turkey in that we try to bring different sides of the picture together in a different way [shows picture of the hands of two people sitting opposite each other at a table, drawing on sheets of paper]. This is one of several exercises that we do in the hospitals. A psychiatric nurse and a mental health patient, for the first time in their lives–and they spend years together, the nurse gives the patient their medication and is their chief support–draw each other’s portraits. After this exercise, a nurse said to me that this was the first time she had looked into her patient’s eyes and seen the human being in the person.

I think change is there. If we are to change the world it will come through dialogue. I hope that one day we will have a world where people can look into each other’s eyes without labelling the other.

Todd Lester: Having a Satirical Say: Providing a Safe Haven for Refugees

My name is Todd Lester and I am the founder of an organisation called FreeDimensional.

Before I tell you something about the organisation I would like to introduce you to a friend of mine. His name is Issa Nyaphaga [shows photograph of a man with painted hands]. Issa is a cartoonist, a journalist and an activist from Cameroon. Issa has been imprisoned eleven times for publishing controversial cartoons in a local newspaper that poked fun at the political establishment. On many of these occasions Issa was tortured, before he eventually escaped from his country to seek refuge outside.

FreeDimensional provided Issa with a room and a bed to sleep on for more than three months during that period of exile. It is a service that we call “creative safe haven,” and it is something that we have also provided for a composer from Lebanon, a playwright from the Congo, a poet from Mexico, a TV personality from Afghanistan, and others.

FreeDimensional is a platform of collaboration that links the art world to human rights issues globally. We work in more than 40 countries with artists’ communities, helping them to use their space strategically in the service of vulnerable groups and individuals.

Every year, there are hundreds of human rights activists like Issa who are violently assaulted for pursuing the ideas they have for social change. Community leaders lose their jobs, many are arbitrarily imprisoned, and many ultimately die for speaking truth to power.

FreeDimensional was born out of this dilemma. In 2005 we created a service or a system by which human rights organisations could identify individuals in distress who were leaving their country or their state, and we would work with those individuals to place them in an artists’ community for three to six months of creative safe haven, giving them a place to decamp, to breathe, to hide, to relax, to be angry, to talk to the media.
Since that time we have worked with more than thirty human rights defenders in distress from more than twenty countries, helping them into creative safe haven placements.

As we have learned over the last few years, how to accommodate individuals at risk, it has helped us in developing our new services, which are for communities at risk. This week I come to you from our partner center in Cairo, Egypt. As you know, Cairo is a huge city of millions of people, and is host to about a million forced migrants, many of whom languish without the basic right to work as they wait for refugee status or to return home to war-torn countries. In Cairo, FreeDimensional is working with members of the Sudanese, Iraqi, Somali, Palestinian, Eritrean, and Ethiopian communities represented there. We are working with them to build livelihood strategies, to advocate for their rights, and especially to link them to Egyptians who have the same concerns and interests, in order to build healing solutions from the neutral space of an artists’ community.
These groups, like Issa, receive protection and support in an artists’ community, but at the same time they give back to that community. They inspire and instigate the members of that community to take action on human rights issues that are untraditional from that corner of civil society.

Speaking of Issa, ever since I have known him, which is a few years now, his art has really developed in a new direction to the extent that he paints on his body, as you can see in the photograph. When I asked Issa what he was doing by painting his body before live performances of his visual art, he said that it allowed him to both remember and resolve the physical torture that he had experienced. I thought that this was an amazing healing solution for his personal growth.

I think the time is now for us to look across sectors and to identify healing solutions and radical innovations that ensure the basic rights and protections, of a cartoonist from Cameroon and refugee populations in Cairo, but moreover of the vulnerable groups that we do not see or hear about.