Gandhigiri for teens
In the month of Mahatma Gandhi's birth anniversary, an Australian peace educator uses elements of his philosophy to suggest how the youth can rescue the world from environmental, moral and economic degradation
Some will say that the world is facing a sort of multi-dimensional global crisis. The Coronavirus pandemic, severe economic downturn and climate change challenge are compounded by a general void of political and moral leadership. India, in particular, is witnessing the additional challenge of security threat from China, as well as rising social and gender inequalities. In the month of his birth anniversary, one is reminded of Mahatma Gandhi's words: In a gentle way, you can shake the world.
"We all have an important role to play to get through this. But the most crucial is the one being played by the country's youth. There is no time like now for them to do what they do best—come together no-bars-held in global solidarity," says Margaret Hepworth, a Melbourne-based peace educator and founder of The Gandhi Experiment.
Hepworth was first drawn to Gandhi as a middle school student. She became better acquainted with his ideologies when she travelled to India. "While meditating at Sabarmati Ashram, I understood his methodology better. I also found ways to bring them into teaching my students in Australia," says Hepworth, a member of Initiatives of Change Australia, Creators of Peace, and Education Today, Society Tomorrow (India).
A former history teacher, Hepworth reinvented herself as a peace educator, designing and conducting workshops in Melbourne using Gandhi's techniques to stir change at the individual and societal levels. She calls her intervention programme, The Gandhi Experiment, one that's aimed at guiding teenagers and students, encapsulating global citizenship and conflict resolution. In her workshops, students open up to their own selves and identify one thing they would like to change, and list steps to achieve that goal.
swaraj The youth are the future, but they are also the present, Hepworth thinks. "Their contribution is integral to building sustainable peace, preventing conflict and countering extremism. But in order to motivate them to achieve these, we need to address their concerns of today. How many of us have bothered to ask how are they [children] battling the pandemic-led lockdown?" she asks. While all children may not be emotionally rattled by the situation, it is still a major concern among researchers and parents. "Many kids are showing extreme emotions of anger, anxiety and hate while cooped up at home. There is an increasing need, therefore, to raise emotionally healthy children during the pandemic. And we need Gandhi to guide this change."
Gandhi coined the term Swaraj, meaning self-rule and self-restraint. Hepworth thinks children need to embrace their inner Swaraj and use tools to calm themselves. They need to acknowledge their emotions, take full responsibility and act if they don't wish to sink into a dark place. "Parents will play a key role in this, by motivating and offering them hope."
satyagraha COVID-19 has proved traumatic, but climate change could be worse. It has already made conditions more favourable for the spread of infectious diseases. We don't have direct evidence that climate change is influencing the spread of COVID-19, but we do know that it can alter how we relate to other species and that matters to our health and our risk for infections. As the planet heats up, animals big and small, on land and in the sea, are headed to the poles. This means they are coming into contact with other organisms they normally wouldn't encounter, and that creates an opportunity for pathogens to get into new hosts. "The Spanish Flu, SARS-CoV-1 and now SARS-CoV-2, all the outbreaks were caused because of the way we treat animals. Gandhi had said, 'A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its animals'. It's time our teens—our future leaders—revisit this thought."
Cover of Hepworth’s book, The Gandhi Experiment—Teaching our teenagers how to become global citizens
While teens already know the world is grappling with climate change, the information available online is overwhelming for them. "The media shows us the doom and gloom. Teenagers worry about their future. They are doom scrolling, and feeding themselves with only negative thoughts. They are beginning to feel they are unable to cope with both, the health emergency [COVID-19] and the global environment crisis." Hepworth shares a methodology of positive reality. "Teens need to accept the problem for what it is. This way, instead of being overwhelmed, they will shift to a place of hope, become solution-focussed and then move to mindful action. Instead of telling them that the future is bleak, we need to talk about the right things/people to them. In my workshops, I always use the examples of Dutch-born Boyan Slat, who is on a mission to clean the Pacific."
The Gandhian paradigm of the Khadi movement can be applied here, too. India's wonder fabric Khadi was used as a major agent in the fight against global warming. "Teens need to start being satyagrahis [firm commitment to self-discipline in thought, word, and deed] while they are in lockdown. They need to think deeply about how they can contribute to the world when they grow up. Lockdown is a good time to think about a greater future," adds Hepworth.
Hepworth visited the Tardeo Universal School in Mumbai in February 2020 to conduct a workshop based on Gandhi's tenets for students and teachers
dharma As the pandemic plunges the global economy into a deeper recession that some say is worse than at the time of World War II, can our teens hope to get their dream jobs to change the world? "Absolutely. I know it is difficult, but things will change again. We need to build a good communitarian spirit, so it keeps us buoyant and lets hope stay alive. It's a very Gandhian thing to help each other out. He had said, 'The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others'. Instead of just thinking about yourself, if we think about humanity's future, we can truly build a better world in a few years."
ahimsa Tensions along the border between India and China remain high after a clash in June, which killed 20 Indian soldiers. As the two countries continue with talks on disengagement, misleading content is being shared on social media about the stand-off. "I have been teaching kids in China as well as in India for years. I want to say that the Chinese are no different from you. The ongoing political tension is provoking racism. Gandhi would have never approved of it. He propagated nonviolence [ahimsa] in his speeches. It is something our kids need to be reminded of today."
She suggests implementing the model of collaborative debating. "We might have opposite viewpoints, but we can still listen to each other and learn. The only way forward is through dialogue. Gandhi was big on respecting others; and that is what's required to improve diplomatic relations."
sarvodaya With the lockdown, gender violence and social inequality are a "shadow pandemic" in India. "The recent cases of alleged rape and murder in Hathras and Balarampur are a reminder that despite the impressive progress made on a number of social indicators, women and girls from disadvantaged social groups face additional vulnerabilities and are at greater risk of gender-based violence," the UN in India said in a statement. Hepworth draws a parallel with the killing of one of her German students in China in 2000. "In April that year, four young Chinese men crept into the villa of the German family in Nanjing and killed them after a robbery. There was a global outrage after the incident. But the international community did not seek revenge. They chose the Gandhian way of sarvodaya [the economic and social development of a community as a whole] and instead, built the Pfrang Foundation. Members of the Foundation, till date, spend time with underprivileged families and educate them so they can earn a better living. Twenty years on, the heartfelt legacy continues. While I agree that the upper caste perpetrators of the Hathras incident need to be brought to justice, India needs to understand the underlying cause of why they did this."
Hepworth stresses on the need for education in improving equality. "I was sexually assaulted at the age of 13. When I told my father about it, he believed me. In India, the survivor is shamed or shunned. Education helps us create empathetic young leaders. Gandhi rightly said, 'Be the change you wish to see in the world'."
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