Monday, February 26, 2018

Irrelevant. But Relevant.


The Irrelevant Project began with the simple, yet challenging vision of reducing negative stereotypes

in multiple learning realms. Working to enable children to resist the script of biases by developing awareness and critical thinking in them, through the medium of fiction, the team has just about begun their work in the space of creating insightful literature. 
Could you start by telling us a bit about yourselves, your growing years, education and work?
Meghna - I grew up in Assam and had a very quintessential childhood - large play areas of green, potluck dinners, and Famous Five. I remember very keen on tasting a treacle tart because it seemed like something plucked straight out of heaven! My first encounter with conditioning came from when I first started dating and this boy made a lot of fun of my upper lip hair. It bothered me so much that I forced myself to go through the painful threading, after having lied to my parents about it. On retrospect, I realized that I became very steeped into bowing down to norms from my teenage years. My parents and I also realize now that some of the rules while growing up, while they ensured my safety also did limit my growth as an independent identity ( women can’t go out, dress a certain way, what if someone attacks/molests you?).
I took up engineering and am probably the world’s most redundant engineer. Those days were terrible. I never went back to even collect my graduation certificate. After preparing for an MBA (and also leaving that), I decided to change fields and become a teacher with the Akanksha foundation. I was not a great teacher in my first year. The children made me cry! But someone took the time one day to teach me how to plan a lesson plan and since then, I not only loved lesson planning, I saw the children enjoying the learning. It’s funny because my probation period was increased in the first year because of poor children management and then because of lesson planning, I suddenly saw a change in my own self esteem as a teacher too! I only mention this because I realize how important it is to give time to someone who is struggling because it makes a hell of a difference. What they do after speaking to me is their prerogative and sometimes these conversations have failed for me, but most of the times I ended up making great friends and all the people I helped actually did help me back. Soon after Akanksha I joined YIF where Allie and I met. Allie is a conversationalist who takes out time to listen to everyone, come what may. I remember crossing her room and she asking me, hey, come over and let’s talk and it was so simple and stark that I did go in and we’ve remained who we are since then.
Currently I work with Dost education as the director of curriculum and content strategy. TIP is my/our other full time job.
Alishya - I was born in Mumbai, but spent my schooling years in Bahrain. Reading was an instrumental part of growing up. My parents both teach and so access to reading and imagination was seen as important, rather than an activity kept for playtime. My favorites characters were always rebellious, and forever in pursuit of the questions they had (Alice, Matilda, Anne of green gables) since I hated following rules, and I certainly did not like school because of how much we had to cram and submit on paper as proof of being a ‘good student’ 

Back in Bangalore after school, I was encouraged to pursue a degree in commerce and finance to find stability (and a job) which I detested but I did learn to become comfortable with numbers, and understand how they work in the world. I also spent two years in an auditing firm in Hyderabad where I felt trapped, without purpose but also exposed to various forms of sexism in the workplace. After 2012 and the speaking up of the brutal gendered violence women face in their everyday life, I began a photo campaign in Hyderabad on sexual violence which wasn’t very successful at all, but I did speak to 500 people, and it did teach me a lot about culture and the silence of oppression. After this, I got through YIF [Like Meg, I narrowly escaped a fatal expected route of an MBA] and realized that I was in the wrong classroom my whole life. I continued another year of studying by enrolling in an experimental new master’s program in liberal studies at Ashoka University which allowed me to focus on literature and gender studies. Currently, I work as a teaching fellow at Ashoka where I assist with course of literature, gender and sexuality and film studies. I hope to pursue a Phd sometime in the future in order to bring direction and new tools of inquiry to TIP as we grow.

What is the story of your TIP? How did the initiative come about?
Meghna - I seriously think I was a sexist. And not only catered to sexist beliefs, I wanted people to follow them. It infuriates me now when I look back and realize that I could have avoided so much harm if I was taught to unsee. At 25 when I met feminists at YIF I was initially pretty appalled. But then there was an emotional upheaval and suddenly I couldn’t unsee anymore and I really desperately wanted no more ‘Meghna’s’ in the world anymore. Allie has always been a feminist and seeing a potential powerful movement we had the possibility to create if we worked together, we created TIP. We started with workshops and realized that stories had amazing power to change mindsets which is when we shifted to designing stories. It took us a lot of time to get these stories out. We did a lot of research; we wanted the stories to be less moralistic, and more adventurous, we wanted child protagonists because we wanted children to know that they, themselves, were enough. Soon, we had 5 stories - Bibloo the precocious child who hates his uncle pinching his cheeks, Anvesha the curious kid who loved asking questions like - Why can we not wear short skirts in the temple. We had Annie and Arjun - siblings who are perplexed with the chores assigned at home to them ( gendered), Nila and Najam who dream careers that are diametrically opposite to their gender and finally Mohit, a fat kid who learns that his body size has nothing to do with his talents. In order to support and foster a sustained engagement with the theme of the books, we’ve also created activities and information in the form of worksheets that can be given to the educators/parents/child influencers.

What are some of the key work areas / activities at TIP?
Currently it is about stories and making sure that we expand the definition of the stories by providing worksheets/activities that foster sustain engagement with the themes of the books. Hopefully we will work towards creating workshops and we would love to meet people who would want to co-learn and collaborate with them.

You work in the domain of shifting mindsets towards a violence free, gender equal, free-of-stereotype and inclusive society, which means you work to address some rather deeply ingrained views and issues. Could you take us through some insights on any challenges you've encountered and how you address them?

Alishya - The biggest challenge is to understand the ways in which culture affects how children learn, and to investigate what are the various ways in which information is transmitted to children. Other challenges are as simple as seeing gendered classroom dynamics. To address this, we began with observing the kinds of differences that arose between boys and girls, and how they behaved. Then in our sessions, we see it imperative to encourage the girls to speak individually. Visualizing possibilities for oneself and looking at role models also allow girls to develop confidence. In one of our workshops, giving examples of women in professions in one of that have been historically dominated by men has been a great way for children to speak about the challenges they face in pursuit of their dreams as well. A large part of the problem is that children aren’t encouraged to think for themselves. As adults, our prejudice and biases congeal into our ways which we go on to teach young children without questioning anything. Instead of parading as mindset shifters (which is undeniably a cool term) it is also that we let go of our preconceived notions before we enter a space of learning with children and adults.

As a movement, what do you feel the world needs in its efforts towards  gender equality? What is preventing that from happening or being available?

Alishya - The more I think about equality, the more confused I become. Violence isn’t going to go anywhere, and I think that’s a function of how we live and speak. But it is in the project of being conscious about our identities, actions and our work that we may be able to build practices that provide resistance to structures that enable inequalities. For example, access to knowledge in society is something Meghna and I think about seriously. What does it mean to have various models of education, where one school has greater access to resources and finance than the other? Who is likely to have more opportunities? Another important point that we have to factor in harks back to what Meghna has replied in q.2. What makes the rules and why do we follow them? Culture is responsible for how and what we learn about ourselves and ‘the Other’ One has to only read articles online, or political messages during rallying to see that hate becomes a tool in different contexts through which we learn about people who are not ‘us’

Can you share any anecdotes and success stories from your work so far?
Meghna - W received this email from a 15 year old, and it moved me so much.
Hi. My name is X. I am fifteen years old.
Writing to you was a spontaneous decision. I came across your books today. They were lying on my bed and I had no idea where they came from (I have concluded that my brother bought them), but they oddly intrigued me. I fell in love with the cover illustration of 'Nila and Najam' and I read it and now I have some very important things that I need to convey to you.
The book made me cry. Firstly, thank you so much. I don't know? Thank you? Just... thank you. Oh my god thank you.
In the book 'Nila and Najam', thank you for portraying a boy who wants to be a teacher. It's not just that he wants to be a teacher. The way he puts it out there is so... soft. And passionate. And soft. I don't know how to describe it. Do you get what I mean? There are not enough fictional male characters in Indian fiction who are portrayed as being soft and poetic and fluffy and SOFT in their aspirations. Thank you for breaking this certain gender role.
Secondly, this next thing is more of a personal feeling, but I wanted to write about it anyway. There is a certain part in the book where Najam says that he wants to narrate to his students stories from all over the world. Stories about people, animals, and seas. And he wants to ask his students what they think about the people, animals, and seas. At this point, I think my mind just took it from an extremely unconventional, poetic point of view, and I teared up. The part about stories about people and seas really resonated with me. I don't know how to describe it. And I am in love with the idea of spontaneity, and running around on empty streets at 3 am, and the madness that is poets, and leaving this place behind (if that helps explain why that certain part made me feel so deeply).
I might never get to know what Najam's future students think about the people and the animals and the seas, but I hope they go wild with their imagination. I hope they go so wild that they're out of breath. I hope that Najam is the reason that one day they find themselves a little drunk on people, and poetry, and places they've never been to, and the feeling of feeling infinite, and this messy thing called life.
Another little thing that made me cry and hug the book really, really hard and fall in love with you guys in the tiniest ways possible is this: in the acknowledgements, when you say that you hope that through these stories the child comes to find that their life is not defined by narrow boxes, you don't refer to the children with he/him and she/her pronouns and leave it at that. Thank you so much for being inclusive of they/them pronouns. Thank you. It's funny because the thought in itself is making me tear up, but THANK YOU. I don't know how to word the way it made me feel but asdfghjkl thank you so much I don't know how to express my gratitude. I rarely come across textbooks, and teachers, and many students around me using that certain pronoun in place of his/her. I can't blame them no matter how much I'd like to because it's not their fault. I know something that they don't because they've never been taught that gender is a spectrum and that they/them is a gender-neutral pronoun and that there are 7 billion genders in this world. I don't have the right to get mad at them. The education system needs to teach students about things like this but no thanks for overlooking all of it.

And a book about how important consent is? And "fat is not a bad word"? And that little illustration that reads, "I wanted to erase this but ma'am said it is okay to colour outside the lines"? And star-and-rose blankets for a boy (for once)? I love you so much and the writers made me tear up so often I dislike them so much for that and I don't know just thank you I love you. “

It was unbelievable that this 15 year old teenager resonated with our content!