Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Designing for Change

“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”                                         Robert F. Kennedy

One of the first of many books I read about Bhutan was a memoir by Canadian author Jamie Zeppa. Not knowing how to cook upon arriving to Bhutan, let alone where to buy the vegetables or how to ignite her stove, Jamie lives on imported cookies and crackers that come in plastic packaging. Coming from a part of the world where you take your trash to the curb and a truck comes to take it away forever, Jamie is baffled about how to dispose of her trash in remote Bhutan. So she keeps it piling up in her house for months. When her students finally weasel their way into her living quarters they are overjoyed to see how much trash she has collected. For them trash is not something to be disregarded and removed from sight: rather, it is raw material to be repurposed into other things like flower pots, cooking utensils and toys.

Since Jamie has written her book things have changed here. Now trash is in the rivers, along the roadsides, dumped in monstrous piles in the center of communities. It is true that Japan donated a pair of miniature trash trucks that play classical music as they cruise around, but the threshold of trash seems to have exceeded the capacity of these fetching little inventions. Scraggly dogs and roaming cows feed on the scraps they can find. It’s surprising that this is the case because Bhutan manufacturers almost nothing. So every bit of trash is imported from India and Thailand. It travels all that way to rot teeth, add to increasing obesity rates and finally fester among otherwise untouched natural beauty.

When the Design for Change contest reached us from Riverside School in Ahmadabad, India we agreed to be the Bhutan country partner. Our students loved the idea of participating in a global contest and they came up with their idea of change pretty effortlessly. I had some of my own ideas for change like, catalytic converters for cars, or sending the sixth graders on an extended vacation to Siberia until they completed puberty, or a community initiative to teach the town cows how to use a litter box. But the contest is only for children’s ideas of change. Their idea was to stop contributing waste to the landfill that they had recently visited on a field trip. They imposed a rule on themselves and all teachers that everyone would bring packaged food only one day a week. Other days were designated food focus days when students would eat traditional Bhutanese food, fruits, vegetables, and homemade food. Eventually we made our way to being a zero waste school sending absolutely no waste to the landfill.

Being the country partners, it was ELC’s responsibility to get other schools to enter the contest. On November 11, the Fourth King’s birthday and Children’s Day, ELC hosted Bhutan’s first ever DFC Contest Awards Ceremony. Throughout the year we have been working to make this a reality. More than a few twelve hour work days and weekends went into the planning and preparation for the November 11th presentation.

Last December Principals were given the task of educating for Gross National Happiness. Nobody could argue with that. But once it was agreed upon that happiness would become a priority in the classroom, educators were left with the question about how to educate for GNH. Participation in this contest has been the answer to that question. Students become participators in their communities, they learned leadership qualities and developed their powers of mind along the way. The best part is that they are self motivated to seek out information, to teach each other and truly affect change. Happiness is capability.

Watching the ceremony did feel like the culmination of a fruitful year of our efforts, but more than that it felt the beginning of something bigger. Donors from all over the country came forward to offer financial support. After the awards had been distributed students began to ideate for next year. The enticing thing about this contest is the hope that it could become a way of life. If students are taught the skills for making change and empowered to do so it could be a whole global generation that internalizes the process. I just finished reading The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz, one of the world’s most eminent idealists. She stresses over and over the importance of individual leadership, just like Bhutan’s present King.  Teaching people to listen, observe and take action is the hope for a sustainable and enjoyable future for all. With a lifetime of change-affecting leadership under her belt she reflects:
    Today we are redefining the geography of community and accepting shared accountability for common human values. We have the chance to extend the notion that all men are created equal to every human being on the planet...Though the average citizen cannot, of course, match the enormous gifts made by Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, each of us in his or her own way can contribute something by thinking-and acting--like a true global citizen. We have only one world for all of us on earth, and the future really is ours to create, in a world we dare imagine together.

It turned out that the means became more important than the end in the case of the DFC contest in Bhutan so I'm not even going to tell you who won...

Monday, November 15, 2010

Julie and Jon in Bhutan

    It is one of those mornings when you wake up before the alarm goes off because you are so excited. My parents are arriving today. Out the window a giant orange sun is rising between two mountain peaks. Their landing between the steep crevices of another worldly landscape will not disappoint. I know that in just one hour the tiny plane will be arriving right here in Bhutan, a nose dive right into the impossibly skinny Paro Valley.
    Jigme and Sonam pick me up in the school bus. We arrive to the Paro International Airport and before we can exit the car we have already met three people we know. That is one of the most enjoyable things about Bhutan, wherever you go, there is your community. What other international airport in the world lets you wait for your loved ones, surrounded by familiar faces as they wait for their loved ones on a daily basis? “Kellie! Your parents are arriving today?” One friend calls out. Another friend has been on their flight and is now exiting, “ Kellie, I’ve just met your parents! They’re absolutely charming!” And then there they are in the flesh. I wave frantically. Don’t they see me? Before they exit my dad makes a hard left and disappears for a few moments.
When he reappears, he has a sizable bottle of Scotch in his hand, his first purchase in the country from the duty free shop. Now he is ready for Bhutan. Julie is also ready for Bhutan. In her hand she has a giant Toblerone bar and I hope for a fleeting second it may be for me? But no, that is for her. I am so happy to see them and we hug and kiss in a wild display of affection that is not very Bhutanese. Around us, Bhutanese give us warm smiles anyways. Parent-child love is universal. I take hold of my dad’s hand and don’t let go for three days.
    We load Julie and Jonathan onto the school bus and take them to the trail head for Jimoulhari, the tallest virgin peak in the world. The mountain has never been summited because there is a deity residing there who may not be bothered by adventurous humans. From the trail head we marvel at the jagged snow covered peaks. Around us old men mutter their mantras and spin their prayer wheels. Within moments of arriving in Bhutan, you are really in Bhutan. There is none of the metropolitan buffer that usually greets you in international journeys. As we drive back to Thimphu I try to answer all their questions the best that I can. I point out the natural elephant on a cliff face. I point out the haunted house that supposedly revealed some treasures several centuries earlier. My cell phone rings. Several of my class six students have baked a cake and are waiting on my doorstep to present it to my parents. This is just the beginning of the tremendous hospitality they will enjoy during their visit.
    Every class I teach held welcome parties for my parents, showering them with homemade food and traditional gifts. One morning I arrived late to assembly and Julie had organized an impromptu hula-hoop contest. In her quiet yet stimulating way she commanded even the most hyperactive student’s attention. She personifies teaching as the art form of compassion and enlightenment that it is.
    One weekend we piled back into the school bus with Madam Deki, Chechay, Madam Manju, Jane from Santa Cruz, Joe, Jen, and Jigme. We drove six hours to Phobjikha Valley, the sacred home of the endangered black necked cranes.We enjoyed amazing hospitality at the Phodrang Monastic Lodge right behind the stunning Gangtey Temple. The guesthouse is perched on a little hill looking out over the valley with young monks running all around. At night we sat around a bonfire under millions of glittering stars and passed around a canteen of Jane’s coronation whisky. It was our only hope for staying warm.
     The night before my parents were due to leave we all sat around in Madam Deki’s house eating some of the most delicious food I have ever tasted (thanks Deki, Kueron and Chechay). All my loved ones were together and even though they had only known each other ten days, they professed their deep admiration and respect for each other. My parents were showered with gifts and treasures to forever remind them of their time here.
    The next morning, all too quickly their trip is over and I’m riding with them back to Paro. Julie happily chirps to the non-English speaking driver how she will be returning next year to teach at the Early Learning Centre. For free. She loved it that much. She tells him how in Madam Deki’s new school she will have her own living quarters right above the school so she’ll never have to leave.
    My dad looks at me with a weary smile. I know what he is thinking, “How much of that Scotch is left for the three day journey home?”