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Day 28

July 28, 2013

Today Pradeep woke me up to go and see the sunrise. “How the tables have turned!” I mumbled as I opened up the door to see his mischievous expression. “I’m not even really awake right now,” he told me. “I’m just running on willpower!”

We went for a walk with Kabir and Preeti, the team of architects who run Buildings as Learning Aids (I think I talked about them before). Pradeep was trying to convince them to stay on for his workshop on the rural schools project. He gave them and me a puzzle to ponder. One of the on-the-ground partners for the rural school pilot wanted to build a windmill on his land to capture some energy. Pradeep and him talked it through, realizing that they would have to account for the unpredictability of wind energy. How could they store energy from the windmill in an environmentally-friendly way? Batteries aren’t the answer – or at least conventional chemical batteries. “We figured out how to do it.” He told us. “Can you?” (Update: No, not yet!)

After a quick breakfast, we rushed to the last session of the conference. It had already started. Already, the tone was different. It ended up being much more participatory and free-form than the day before. Participants challenged the questions, definitions and goals of the session in a meaningful way.

We touched on ideas of inclusion, exclusion, sustainability and ownership. The workshop leader for this part, Steven, initially wanted to discuss these separately. What came out from different voices in the room was that these ideas are all tied together. If the community feels included in the project, they’ll help to make it sustainable. If a project is just about including people who have been excluded, it is important to ask “from what are they being excluded?” and “Will including them mean others have to be excluded?”

Someone spoke about a pie. Is our goal to distribute the slices of the pie more equally or grow the pie? Someone else noted that ‘including’ a group wasn’t a pass-fail activity. Sub-groups might form within the group that include or exclude themselves.

“Inclusion and exclusion is not a new concept in India. These particular terms might be, as they’ve been imported in, but there is a tradition of thinking about and working towards inclusion.”

The idea of sustainability was also challenged. “We have to make sure we’re focusing on sustainability of the impact rather than the organization. If we do our jobs well we shouldn’t have any reason to exist in a few years. That is the goal of an NGO, right?”

I felt as though the room was finally getting a chance to learn from each other.

Unfortunately, the next session was a wrap up and thank you. I have a feeling that the friendships formed in the past few days will continue. It was a very positive room to be in. A playful atmosphere and lots of genuine listening.

We headed for lunch, where I ate probably enough to have fed a family of four (“All your training as a child finally paid off!” you say). My meal was not even the largest at the table. And this was the restaurant’s lunch menu. I still don’t understand their business model!

“You are eating with your hand!” said one of the conference support staff to me. He’s an IT guy on a sabbatical. “Here I was sitting and eating with a fork and I look over to you and you’re eating the real Indian way.”

Besides making Pradeep proud by eating with my hand (“The perfect utensil!” he says), I managed to talk to Sankal, the project lead from HP’s Sustainability and Social Innovation department. He told me about his path so far; Civil Engineering to public sector job, then MBA to a consultancy job at HP, volunteering for policy and open data hackathons and finally landing at this position. I had never really thought about corporate social responsibility as being an avenue to pursue. Maybe I will now.

Walking back to the main compound in the heat, a few of us decided that we wanted to go to Auroville. Auroville is the experimental village the Mother established. Auroville is supposed to be a place where nationality does not matter, where there is no property and where people can work together to realize the perfection of themselves and the community. Started in the 1960s, it has slowly evolved into what some people call “Indian Disneyland” – that is, very commercial. The Sri Aurobindo Society has disassociated itself from the project. Still, there are people from many nations living there together, there are many cottage industries and it was supposed to be in a beautiful setting. So, we went.

Unfortunately, Sunday afternoons are the worst time to visit Auroville because everything is closed. We did get to walk to the spiritual and literal centre of the town – Matamandir. It is a huge spherical building modeled after a lotus blossom and painted with gold. Inside there are twelve meditation rooms and one central ‘concentration’ room. The central room is painted entirely white and in the middle of the room is a crystal that reflects the sunlight.

On Sunday afternoons, Matamandir is closed to the public, but we saw at least the external structure. To be honest, I just enjoyed walking around in the heat and spending time with five of the participants. They are just fun guys. One is a mathematics professor who leads Team India in the youth Math Olympics. That isn’t the reason he was at the conference, though. He’s also working to create electronic learning resources for math and science in local languages so more children can build skills.

He also told me the best analogy for teaching someone math. “So, let’s say you’re birdwatching with a child. And you hear a sound and look up and see the bird. Now, you can try to guide the child all you want so that they can see the bird but you can’t physically make them see it. But, with a little patience, they see it and then they can’t not see it. It’s like that with teaching math. The moments of realization are wonderful.”

Another one, the man I told you about who started his NGO at age 18 and has run it for 18 years, made a joke about tables. We had just come back from our walk to the Matamandir and were sitting at a very large table. “In India,” he told me, “we have very large tables because there are so many people.” Then, we went to go get some fresh juice (I got watermelon) at a café. He then sat down at a smaller table and said “Oh, this one must have been brought from Canada.”

As we sat and drank our juice, the men started to talk shop – about grants they had and hadn’t received, difficulities in getting funders to give them money they had promised. I can’t exactly explain why but I felt happy hearing them ‘find their people’; the people who immediately understood what their work was really like.

We came back and I went for a nap. I’m still not used to the heat. Tomorrow, another workshop starts. It will be helmed partly by Pradeep. I’m looking forward to seeing how different it will be.

I am not entirely sure how coherent that post was, as I probably need to get a good night’s sleep tonight. I will post pictures to make up for it.

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