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...


  1. Kellie this is awesome!!! I love what you're doing and you're a very gifted and thoughtful writer. I love you!

  2. Spoken like a true saint! I love you, too. Julie

  3. Ohhh Ohhhh, me next, I love you too!

  4. I love to read what you write. I especially enjoyed Julie and Jon in Bhutan.