Change Is Not Extracurricular

Yesterday, I took a chunk out of my Sunday to meetup with photographer Jen Lemen of The Shutter Sisters. In Terminal 4 of JFK in front of the lines for Air India, we hugged tightly. She was anxious to hear all about the love of my life but this was not a personal encounter. I came with a special delivery in a green TED2009 Rickshaw backpack that she would carry to Nepal. Inside the backpack, which was a gift I received as a 2009 inaugural TED Fellow, were 5 laptops I had been waiting to donate to the Koseli Center in Nepal for 5 months. This was only the second time Jen and I have met. In October 2009, Jen and I along with Renu Shah Bagaria attended the European Summit for Global Transformation (ESGT) in Rotterdam, The Netherlands and we hit it off.

Four of the gifts were XO laptops from a One Laptop Per Child Campaign I did with students from two sections of my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course at Baruch College in the Fall of 2008 and the Fall of 2009. We created a simple and effective project in less than a week with a video that educated students about diversity and the global economy with one simple question: How much does $199 buy in your home country? With 56 students in the fall of 2008, students raised over $600 during finals from a conversation about wanting to make a difference and doing it without having everything all figured out. We took action and created a video that still moves me today.  What if young adults, students-as-adults, could experience the impact of a few dollars as power while sitting in their seats of their classrooms? This has been a mission of mine since 2008. Social media helps leverage their power.

Since the fall of 2008, I have been creating an environment for love and connectedness within the classroom and beyond to honor my commitment to structural diversity and compassion for a real equality in action. I was inspired by TED videos and videoby digital anthropologist Mike Wesch and his students to do something different, to make a difference from within the classroom as a collective rather than inviting students to do extra credit outside class or join some extracurricular volunteer organization. Every classroom has the potential to be a nonprofit for change, a classroom for generating and distributing learning, not just consuming knowledge. It’s time for a new economic model of learning in the liberal arts.

Three powerful women from two continents met on another and kept in touch primarily throug social media…Twitter, Facebook and Skype. In fact, it was after an amazing Skype conversation where Renu conversed with my 95-member anthro course in the the fall of 2010, that a beautiful woman from Kyrgyzstan in my class of 95 students, who sat in the last row and rarely desired to participate, was inspired to donate her new Acer laptop to Renu and her kids. She said “I’m not even using it.”

I am always amazed at the power of social media to bring people closer together, to as my partner says “shrink the distance” between us and them. I love connecting people through social media. I think the liberal arts classroom should is a place where we can make a difference in the world. That difference or change is not extracurricular. Students partnering with their faculty can make a difference just while sitting in their chair but that requires a shift in the thinking of most professors and a shift in the rhetoric of mission statements in the liberal arts.

This week Jen will deliver the laptops to Renu, the founder of the Koseli Center. As a young girl Renu had a dream to open a school for street kids well over 10 years ago. A year ago this April, she opened Koseli, a center for slum and street children situated in Kathmandu, Nepal. The kids there are the driving force behind her dream. Kids who exist on the periphery of mainstream society. Over several Skype conversations in class and out, we learned of one child in her school. Januka is 10 years old. Like many of the slum and street kids who arrive at Koseli, if she weren’t in school she’d probably be sniffing glue in the streets to survive.

At the age of 10, Januka received her first pair of shoes ever as winter descended on mountainous ranges around Kathmandu last November. At the age of ten, Januka is in kindergarten at Koseli. At the age of ten, a girl in the States is ordinarily in fifth grade and shoes have covered her feet since before she could walk or talk. The biggest need for the hundreds of thousands of slum and street kids orphaned in Kathmandu is survival. Renu’s center is named “Koseli” which means “a gift” in Nepalese. Her center meet their basic needs of 75 young people.

They start their day with brushing their teeth, bathing, changing into school uniforms. Then they settle down to study. At 1pm they are served a hot and wholesome meal consisting of dal, rice and vegetables. The children leave the premises between 4-5pm. However, a few kids are held back after school. These are our “little gamblers” and “street fighters.” They are engaged in simple activities like making bags out of old newspapers, book marks etc.

Renu and the teachers at Koseli give these young people more than the gift of survival. They give them a chance at a life worth living. Skyping people like Renu into my anthropology course is not an extracurricular event. It and other projects I have created with my students INSIDE the classroom, have been the the fulfillment of a mission I articulate that expands on the usually articulated mission of the liberal arts. I promise to create an environment in which student-as-adult is called to be a great citizen, great professional and a great human being now just from being a student in their chair.

I have no idea how those five laptops will be used to enhance Koseli. But from a meeting in Rotterdam and a few classrooms in anthropology, a set of intimate friendships were made not only among Jen, Renu and I but among over 400 students since 2008 not mention the over 12,000 viewers of a TEDFellows Nokia documentary featuring our project. We cannot afford to consider that kind of power, leverage and influence as some extracurricular, resume builder. It is life and it is the kind of living and loving that is not only missing in the world but in the higher education classroom. I wish everyone the audacity of that kind of learning!

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