By Karishma Desai
As dusk gently settled in, I sat behind relatives and members from neighboring villages, waiting for Adharshila’s annual program to begin. Manjali, a sixteen year-old female student-teacher, briskly moved students into their places, and then stood confidently ready to lead the evening’s program. The event left bold imprints. Female students performed a skit challenging child marriage in a region where only 21% of females attend school. Students shared research collected from village elders about Adivasi activists who had organized their villages to protest government land-grabbing in the 1950s. They presented bilingual folk tales they had collected and written in their indigenous language, Barelli, and in the national language, Hindi. The program’s radiance and rigor challenged us all to re-imagine the possibilities in and through education for Adviasi students, children of one of the most disenfranchised communities in India.
Adharshila Shikshan Kendra is located in central Madhya Pradesh, a state with one of the highest concentrations of Adivasi communities. The school developed in partnership with Adivasi Mukti Sangathan (Adivasi Liberation Movement), with the firm belief that the work of social movements could be augmented when paired with education, and that education could better fulfill its liberatory potential in partnership with movements working for broader social change. On one hand, Adharshila Shikshan Kendra represents a counter-narrative to government schooling by presenting new avenues for learning and definitions of knowledge. Simultaneously, Adharshila works to complicate and expand students’ understandings of self, society, and world.
I met Amit and Jayashree Bhatnagar, founders of Adharshila Learning Center, eight years ago when I traveled across India to learn from educational organizations across the country. I stayed with Amit and Jayashree for four days during that time, and every night I went to bed fired up after long conversations with the couple. They left me in awe and wondering how I might better align my values and actions, and how I might deepen and better manifest my solidarity with people’s movements. Amit and Jayashree spent many years working alongside Adivasi movements before they began their work at Adharshila. As such, they believe that in order to achieve long lasting social change, education cannot exist in a silo, but rather, it must be inextricably linked to people’s movements. Adharshila translates as foundation. Thus, at the individual level, the school creates an educational program that aims to provide all children with a strong physical, emotional, and intellectual foundation; its curricular and pedagogical practices align with this framework. At the collective level, Adharshila Shikshan Kendra envisages its school as a foundation for a new society based on greater equity, a more robust conception of democracy and transformative notions of justice, and this is equally entrenched in the school’s practices.
Curriculum and Pedagogical Vision: An Inquiry Stance
Adharshila Shikshan Kendra’s curricular and pedagogical approaches promote complex narratives and critical consciousness, and thereby demonstrate new imaginings of Adivasi citizenship. I believe that the school acts to both deliberately integrate and expand ways of knowing and being for Adivasi children.
Integration of Adivasi Ecological Knowledge
It is broadly argued that indigenous communities possess ecological perspectives that uphold deep intertwined relationships between humans and the natural world.
Adharshila has thoughtfully embedded local Adivasi political ecological knowledge in curricula and overall school practices. For example, in one curricular inquiry project, students collect folk tales from their own villages and analyze relations between self, community, nature, and world. In another unit, students collect oral histories from village elders to understand why the arid mountain behind their school community was called Reech (bear), considering it did not represent an environment that bears would live in. Through this investigation, students learned about colonial conquest, deforestation, and colonial development schemes that had turned a forested area rich with minerals and biodiversity into a dry grassland. Adharshila students were in deep shock upon learning about the reasonings behind the drastic change in the environment near their school community, and they felt an urgent desire to take action. They worked with a local non-governmental organization to research biodiversity and acquired seeds that used to be in the region and could still be grown and harvested despite the environmental changes. They conducted further research in their communities to gather a better understanding of what life was like in earlier times, and realized that the intensive material poverty they faced was a consequence of deforestation and shifts in the environment due to this. Students conducted a biodiversity campaign where they went to Adivasi homes with their research findings and seeds in hand. Adharshila’s students argued the importance of restoring the biodiversity of their past and took action to encourage families to participate in this quest.
In addition to curricular methods, overarching school practices illustrate Adharshila’s commitment to maintaining ecological perspectives. As opposed to traditional numerical grades, Adharshila organizes its students by learning levels into broader grade bands which are named after rivers. In many Adivasi communities, there has been massive conversions to Hinduism. However, Adharshila embellishes the ways in which these holidays are celebrated. For example, during a holiday called Raksha Bandhan on which sisters tie rakhis (bracelets) on their brothers to acknowledge bonds between brothers and sisters, Adharshila’s students tie rakhis on every tree on their campus, and have small group discussions on the practice.
Another significant aspect of the programming is the inclusion and value of agricultural work and engagement with the land. Adharshila’s founders learned from elders involved in the Adivasi Mukti Sangathan that children who attended government schooling began to view their communities, and the labor their families engaged in (farming, herding, etc.) as backwards. To challenge this hierarchy of knowledge that positions manual labor as lower than intellectual work, Adharshila’s leaders and community teachers created an organic farm on their school’s land that students are responsible for. Students till the land, grow food, and help cook meals. The integration of organic farming into their school life has strengthened the bond between students and the natural world, and counters the alienation that students and families feel once their children enter the institution of school.
Cultivating Hybrid Adivasi Identities
Adharshila Shikshan Kendra works to foster hybrid cultural identities, which they argue is necessary in their support of helping students to build critical consciousness. Adharshila Shikshan Kendra’s curriculum fully incorporates students’ lived realities into their classrooms. For example, the school begins instruction for children in Bareli, their indigenous language, and therefore, it validates home language, challenges linguistic hierarchies, and better facilitates learning. Additionally, teachers utilize and support local folk tales, oral histories, and tribal histories by designing experience-based inquiry. However, the school’s curriculum is not solely situated in the local. Rather, the leaders and teachers at Adharshila simultaneously help students to develop comprehensive analyses of local and global processes and participate in action. Adharshila recognizes that in a postcolonial and neoliberal economic and political landscape, individuals must be able to navigate multiple arenas. These features produce multiple locations of belonging and new forms participation for Adivasi children.
Re-considering Democratic Education
Adharshila views its school as a location in which visions for a more equitable and just society can be cultivated. In fact, when students are ready, they take ownership and hold decision-making power in their own learning. Each week, students design a weekly list of content they seek to study based on an overarching group theme or research project, and use this to decide the most appropriate learning tasks. Teachers coach students to ensure they integrate creative learning (dance, music, visual arts, and drama). In another instance, after a study of mal-nutrition rates in their district, female students were impassioned and created a theater group to raise awareness of issues within the Adivasi community that they felt should be discussed at the village level. Adharshila students also have a council of ministers. Imitating the ministers in India’s national government, Adharshila’s student body elects ministers and has village councils – panchayats – based on their grade bands. However, the elected ‘ministers’ act as facilitators, as opposed to decision makers, during ‘village council’ meetings. They also have students within each village council that represent kudrath or nature; in this role, students voice what they perceive would be mindful of what is best for the environment.
Therefore, Adharshila expands the frame of what democratic participation as students, staff, and community members make decisions about and for the school. They also heighten spaces for disagreement or “dissensus” (Ranciere, 2006). Dissensus suggests that democracy is a continuous process of becoming, as opposed to a position to be achieved. By creating the aforementioned structures within the school, Adharshila expands the possibilities for dissensus, and therefore expands ideas of democracy with the recognition that this is what leads to the possibility of more just futures.
This year, Adharshila has created a beautiful calendar highlighting the cultural lives of the Barela, Bhil, Bhilala, and Paavara indigenous communities of the Western Indian tribal belt. As Adharshila teachers describe, “the calendar is made for the purpose of creating awareness about the fast vanishing Adivasi Culture and bring attention to the problems Adivasis face in India as well as to raise funds for the school.” Adharshila does not take institutional grants to avoid being tied to development funding agendas. Therefore, solidarity in the form of financial support is vital.
PLEASE SUPPORT ADHARSHILA’s AMAZING WORK. The minimum support for one of the calendars pictured here is $20. Support in amounts of $50, $100, $150, or more would help immensely.
1. Click on the blog link above and/or read more/see photos at the bottom of this email to learn more.
2. Make your contribution via paypal here.
3. Fill out this form with your name and address.
4. Expect a calendar from me in approximately two weeks or I can find you if you are NYC based.
5. Forward to other like-minded folks.
Karishma Desai is a doctoral student in Comparative and International Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is also a school leader at a middle school in Queens, New York and was a teacher for six years.
[This article is part of the Cafe Dissensus School Project. If you would like to know more about this, please visit Cafe Dissensus School Project.]
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