By Rhea Kumar, 16 years
From repainting a school in Kolkata to raising funds to help victims of a flood in Slovenia, from fighting bullies to cheering up the sick and old, from making efforts to reduce the consumption of shark fin soup in Singapore (in order to conserve the endangered shark) to working towards a ‘zero waste’ school in Bhutan, they have done it all. Through fundraisers, awareness campaigns and clean up drives, they have truly made a difference in their communities. And no, I am not talking about NGOs or adult social workers, but young school going children, aged between roughly 9 to 15 years.
The Design for Change (DFC) movement identifies and connects with such children. From its humble beginnings in Riverside School, Ahmedabad, the movement has spread to 33 countries around the world. DFC has developed a four-step process to enable children to become effective drivers of change: to feel (any issue that bothered them), imagine (a way to make it better), do (implement the act of change) and share (make the change visible). Through its efforts, DFC has enabled over 25 million children across the globe to say ‘I Can!’ instead of ‘Can I?’
Some of these inspiring stories have been compiled in two volumes, I Can (DFC 2010 program) and I Can 2 (DFC 2011 program). The books have been written by Devika Rangachari, an award-winning children’s author, and published by Amar Chitra Katha. The stories have been fictionalized and organized under various heads such as Health and Community, Preserving Cultures and City Infrastructure.
The stories are not only geographically diverse, but also vary greatly in the manner in which children approach an issue. In a story set in Taipei, Taiwan, a boy named Zhang Tuo Ye helps his blind friend Jack English ‘see’ the faces of all his classmates by feeling their faces with his hands. Zhang and his other friends make cards for the rest of their classmates and solicit their willingness to participate in this unique experiment. In contrast with this compassionate and highly emotional story, there is the story of a group of kids from Chalco, Mexico, who repair the city’s potholed roads on their own steam, when faced with apathy from the mayor and other government officials. The determination and perseverance of the children is indeed commendable!
What really impressed me was that some of these children were able to bring about change despite their own handicaps and poor circumstances. For instance, Saachi, Ila and Jagriti, students at the Blind People’s Association, Ahmedabad, are afflicted by Rubella as their mothers contracted it during pregnancy. With help from the local doctors, they organize an awareness campaign and a vaccination camp for girls from the neighbouring schools.
A few months ago, Devika Rangachari interacted with schoolchildren in New Delhi about her two books at the monthly session of the Habitat Children’s Book Forum. While I could not attend the session, I managed to meet her at India Habitat Centre a few days after the session. She is a powerhouse of emotions; bubbly and engaging, far from the shy person she claims she was in her schooldays.
Here are some excerpts from the conversation:
Me: So ma’am, tell us a bit about your childhood? Were there any significant influences that helped develop your passion for reading and writing?
Devika: I was a studious and rather shy child in school. I always loved reading but never really imagined that I would be an author someday. Even though my English teachers always pushed me to contribute to the school magazine and participate in essay writing competitions, I never really wrote much at that time. My family, my English teachers and my librarian at Loreto Convent, who would constantly challenge me with books way beyond my age, were significant influences who somewhat pushed me in this direction.
Devika (left) with Jalebi Ink correspondent Rhea
Me: You mentioned that you never imagined yourself as an author. So when and how did this happen?
Devika: I didn’t write through my senior years at school and in college. But sometime after my BA or MA, I don’t really remember when, I saw an advertisement in the paper for a competition for children’s writers. I don’t know what struck me, but I began writing a novel, just as an experiment. It was a daunting task; moreover, I had to work on a typewriter, which doesn’t have a backspace option, so that was physically tiring. But my manuscript won the prize and came back with a publishing contract from Children’s Book Trust. That was Company for Manisha, a book loosely based on my classmate, Manisha. I submitted two more manuscripts to the same competition the next two years, both of which won prizes and publishing contracts.
Me: Wow! You’ve come a long way since then, with your book, Harshavardhana, being placed on the CBSE Supplementary Readers list? Did you face any challenges on this journey?
Devika: Surprisingly and thankfully, I didn’t face too many challenges. After my first three books, publishers starting approaching me themselves and I never had to go through the struggles that most amateur writers face. In any case, a very limited number of Indian authors write for children. Publishers often share names of authors, so if you are in touch with one, others are bound to approach you. I’m still supremely under-confident, though, and usually send manuscripts to publishers with a warning saying ‘its terrible!’
Me: That’s really modest! Well, moving on to Design for Change and the I Can series. How did you get to know about the Design for Change program, and how did you get involved?
Devika: My editor, Sayoni Basu, earlier at Scholastic and then at Amar Chitra Katha, got in touch with me about the Design for Change program. The idea of fictionalizing true life stories of children who had made a difference with minimal intervention of adults seemed very interesting to me and I decided to take up the project.
Me: So how did you go about writing the books? Were you in direct contact with the children, or were you connected to someone on the Design for Change team? And is every bit of the stories true or have you woven fiction into it?
Devika: Writing the books was quite a challenge. Each book features ten top stories from India and ten top stories from outside India. In most of the stories, I was given a hundred-word prompt on the problem and what the children did to solve it. I was given the names of children and YouTube links to the stories in very few cases, so I had to imagine and weave the story from start to finish. After I wrote a story, I would send it to my editor who would then forward it to the school concerned. Here, it would be checked for its accuracy and would be fleshed out by names of students, teachers and other details. So while the core idea and the sequence was fact, the conversations between characters, and the physical descriptions were often fictitious.
Me: Well, the stories have been portrayed in a very interesting manner, so I guess you have met the perfect balance between fact and fiction. It has been an inspiring read, especially since some of the kids were really young, merely in fourth and fifth grade. Finally, what feedback have you received for this book, and what message do you think it carries for the youth today?
Devika: In the session at the Habitat Children’s Book Forum, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that some children had already read the books. They connected to many of the children in these stories, who faced the same issues and pressures as they did, notwithstanding differences in culture and language. They felt inspired and motivated by the stories and expressed a desire to do something similar in order to bring about meaningful changes in their communities and lives. I’m pleased that the stories have been able to create a conviction among young children that if they have the desire and the determination, they do have the potential and resilience required to bring about positive changes in the community. Doing something like this would be a source of pride for them and is an important part of growing up. Also, adults generally tend to underestimate children’s abilities and attempt to ‘micromanage’ their lives, so this book acts as an eye opener for them. This, according to me, is the main idea behind the books.
The DFC movement is a continuing one and will hopefully spread further and deeper in the years to come. It reinforces the power of youth and harnesses the creativity and innovative energy of young minds to address everyday problems and issues. Like a student says in one of the stories, “We really did it. We did become the change we wanted to see in our world.”