Spotlight On…Shalini Menon
Setting up Community Learning Circles
“If we don’t experiment as educators we will stagnate. It’s really important we allow ourselves to make mistakes and learn from them.”
We first met Shalini through our India-based partner organization, Dream a Dream. Having attended several trainings with PYE, Shalini recognized a real need for more networking and community among youth workers in Bangalore so she set up an organization called the Educators Collective to answer that need.
Like most dreams, Educators Collective was born out of a pain. A sense of disconnect…with peer educators, with the larger community and the opportunities in it. Most educators remained voiceless and faceless throughout their careers, despite their passionate and deep work each day with young people. A vast majority of freelance educators worked as isolated islands, divided by geographical locations, never having access to a platform that engaged and empowered them on a continuous basis.
At PYE trainings, we often spoke about the idea of Learning Circle and I started to really see the potential of building on that idea. That’s how FUN(N) Saturday was born in March 2013. FUN(N) Saturdays are one of the Educators Collective initiatives. The term FUN(N) has been coined by Karl Rohnke. It stands for Functional Understanding Necessary and Functional Understanding Not Necessary. Our learning circle explores both. The concept was built on a simple belief that educators need to constantly engage, up skill and unlearn in order to create meaningful experiences for those they work with. Step 1 is always ‘transformation of self’. Our first learning circle was held in a public park in March 2013. It was a Saturday evening and 12 people gathered. The initiative grew garnering support from artists, activists, outdoor and experiential educators, corporate trainers, rock climbers, storytellers, puppeteers, youth workers, wildlife conservationists, researchers, special educators, classroom teachers and corporate organizations.
With time, this circle became a collective of passionate educators and a highly diverse network of 70 people who wanted to share their skills, invest their time and resources in working for low and middle income groups focusing on projects and platforms that work towards positive social change.
When we first started the project we really weren’t sure who would turn up. People were quite skeptical about whether or not anyone would actually give up their Saturday for this kind of thing. When those first 12 people turned up that meant a lot to me because they had chosen to be there. After that a lot of those people came back and brought friends with them and the whole group keeps growing.
“A vast majority of freelance educators worked as isolated islands, divided by geographical locations, never having access to a platform that engaged and empowered them on a continuous basis.”
One of the biggest challenges we have had is around finding locations where we have enough room to play but also space to paint or do art if we wish to. This initiative works on a gift culture and limited budgets. This is not a commercial project so we don’t ask people to pay to be part of the event. Currently we are only running these learning circles in Bangalore but we have plans to expand. We’ve had lots of requests from other areas and we have more than 200 educators on Facebook from all around India.
Eight months later, the learning circle took the shape of Educators Collective, a formally registered for profit organization in Nov 2013 that only focuses on children, youth and communities in low-middle income groups. We registered ourselves as a for profit organization, because we wanted to challenge the mindset that social change is only an NGO’s work. We believe India’s greatest challenges are opportunities in disguise – financially viable, self sustainable opportunities.
All our work is collaborative by nature – with people and organizations– as it allows us to build on each other’s strength.
We have 3 main goals. First, build a community of educators, creating an exhaustive pool of talented, passionate and skilled individuals. Second, create and share meaningful work opportunities that allow us to grow and learn as educators. Third, to create new opportunities through partnerships and design ‘projects for change’. In India, the low & middle income schools are short staffed, compromising on the quality of attention given to each child. Questions have been raised on the quality of hiring too. This builds pressure on those in a teacher’s role – who will deliver their daily task and exit. Not because they don’t want to contribute a 100% but because they are not equipped and supported enough.
I first learned about learning circles during a PYE training program. In every debrief session there was an emphasis on building community and helping each other. Also, the program really reinforced the use of art as a medium. Before the trainings, art was just art to me but I learnt how to use the arts to create powerful experiences for people. The Creative Community Model is a beautiful model because it is simple and yet incredibly effective.
My dream is that eventually every educator in Bangalore and across India will find meaningful connections with peers and organizations. Community building is the core of my dream.
In India there is a strong emphasis on living as a community. Individual identity is not encouraged so we are forced to think as a group all the time. My biggest wish for young people in India is that they would be self aware and sensitive individuals with an identity they shape on their own, a sense of power from within.
I think my biggest strength as a facilitator is my ability to connect with people around the world no matter where they come from, what their age is or what language they speak.
In 2008, I left my corporate job and met a Play for Peace trainer, Agyat Mitra on a outdoor wilderness camp. He works with some of the most marginalized communities in India like Dalit youths and he really influenced my desire and commitment to continue work in this field. He showed me that our work is not just about fun and energy but it can positively transform our societies and communities, addressing barriers of caste, ethnicity, religion, sex and race. That meant a lot.
If I could offer one piece of advice it would be to take risks. If we don’t experiment as educators we will stagnate. It’s really important we allow ourselves to make mistakes and learn from them. In life, taking risks can be everything – to quote a line from my favorite readings – “an individual who risks nothing, has nothing and is nothing”
Shalini Menon was talking to Nadia Chaney and Katie Jackson