August 31, 2011
From the Streets of Delhi
The give and take of learning with India’s street children
(Page 2 - Previous Page)
Meaning “from the heart” in Hindi-Urdu, the Dilse Campaign of the Centre for Equity Studies strives to do just that. A collaboration between government and citizens, the think-tank/action-research organization works to develop a sustainable, large-scale intervention model to uphold the dignity and rights of the urban poor — specifically the children and youth who live and work on the streets. Dilse’s Delhi program includes a health clinic, a field team, a research arm and three community-based residential schools across the city. For the past year and a half, I have been working on developing English language and computer-skills education programs for these schools, in a mix of classroom teaching, curriculum development, teacher training and supervision, and staff soft-skill training and capacity building. While Dilse runs four similar schools in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, the organization’s Delhi program currently works with more than 350 children and youth in-house, and provides services to more than 2,000 other children and families in the various communities in which we work.
One could say that I am engaged in the work of social justice and tikkun olam, as all of us at Dilse are working to build a more just and equitable world. Yet I often feel that the phrases tikkun olam and social justice have a self-serving ring to them: “Look what we can do for them.” “They need help, and we can help them.” To some extent, this is undeniable and unavoidable; in a world where some people have more privilege and were born into a world with more resources, more supportive communities and, frankly, more luck than others, certain people find themselves desperately in need of help and support, while others are in positions where they can grant it.
But what does tikkun olam really mean? As with learning, I believe that tikkun, or repair, can and should happen both ways, and it is never a one-way street. One of the most powerful lessons I have learned from working with the Dilse Campaign in New Delhi is that I am receiving tikkun as much as I am giving it. Every day I am challenged to grow in new ways as I interact with my physical and human environment. While this mutual process of learning took me by surprise at first, I now feel that this mix of tikkun olam, repairing the world, and tikkun atzmi, refinement of the self, is one of the most powerful ways in which I can connect with the children and young adults with whom I work.
This notion of internal and external repair also brings home a larger debate — where should we invest tikkun? And which olam, world or reality, are we talking about? Having grown up with a strong identity of my own and feeling interested in, welcomed by and invested in a culture very different from mine pushes me to ask what Judaism’s commitment to peace, equality, justice and diversity really means, and how we are encouraged to live out these values. Are some people’s olam more deserving of change than others’? Does tzedakah and service work within the Jewish community take precedence over intercommunity work?
It is our responsibility, as committed Jews, to work in other communities and find a common ground where we can both learn and be learned from. How can communities know and appreciate one another and the beautiful, subtle web of their differences and commonalities, and work toward making peace if they have never really interacted?
Dilse children teach us a powerful lesson in their phenomenal ability to act as bridges between communities. In their new environment, children like Fatima do not know the “rules of the game.” As they learn both inside and outside the classroom, they depart from the arena of their previous lives and, unknowingly, they close a door behind them. Their worldviews, their expectations for themselves and their awareness of society’s expectations for them are soon much wider than before. Even in doing something as simple as putting sounds together to read a word, children like Fatima go through transformational learning — where one is taken and changed into something different from what one was before. Yet the vast majority of those who have families maintain contact and strong relationships, going home to visit on holidays and special occasions, bringing back news, and often helping parents and family members get outside help and support. Despite all the changes they have gone through, they appreciate the learning from their previous context, and they are able to flit back and forth between worlds.
Supporting the children and helping them stay on track during this vulnerable period requires a lot of reinforcement. Resilience can be developed in the space between teacher and learner, caregiver and child. As a program developer, I am continually trying to come up with ways to expand, explore and make use of this space. To meet this challenge, a great part of my work is child-participation based, and I spend a lot of time both in the classroom and working with children after class in small groups. And though my primary role is to teach and develop education programs for the children, I am repeatedly awed and amazed by the powerful lessons they teach me every day.
Fatima taught me some of my most valuable lessons. Who would have thought that a foray into the old city and spending several hours at the Jama Masjid one Ramadan break-fast could make such an impression on someone? A little girl who observed me from afar remembered my face so clearly that she recognized me in a context completely removed from her previous reality. That day doing alphabets taught me two lessons: First, even the small things we do can have a lasting effect on something or someone, and so, we should be conscious and present in our day-to-day words and actions.
Fatima also taught me the beauty of going with the flow. A little girl whose world was full of big changes and instability, Fatima was nevertheless ready to absorb and process everything that came her way, one day at a time. Her patience and determination even in the face of external chaos are qualities I strive for in my own life. Working with Fatima gave me tikkun that day. I hope to keep Fatima’s quiet, naïve bravery in mind when I grapple with my own life changes and the important but sometimes uncomfortable learning that comes my way.
As I sit on the mat, in the garden of the school in Old Delhi, with rambunctious little hooligans running in circles around me, thousands of miles from the city and community of my childhood, I feel I am living all the values I grew up with in a visceral and exciting way. Day to day at Dilse, my work is almost always an adventure fraught with Delhi’s traffic, limited building infrastructure, the challenge of working with inexperienced teachers and the need to accommodate multilevel classrooms of children of all ages with multiple learning and social issues. But then there is the heady mix of naiveté, life experience and wisdom I so often encounter in these children, their unabashed honesty, and the electrifying moments when I find ways to connect with them and see those lights come on. I am often astounded by their remarks, by their application of new knowledge to current realities, and by their nimble ability to connect information and find meaning in what they learn. Some days these all come together, and I see them love learning and love themselves. In such moments I know that working with these children can be transformational — both for them and for me.
Rachel Firestone, 25, grew up in Los Angeles and is a graduate of Wesleyan University. She is currently living in Delhi, where she works with the Dilse campaign of the Centre for Equity Studies.
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