The moment comes near the end. Not the end of the day, but at the end of the first session. I am standing surrounded by almost 200 students from 5 years of age to 12. They are sitting all around, listening. Just as they have been since I began, but, instead of me that they are listening to, they hear the voice of one of their friends, she speaks into the microphone. The microphone is passed to the next student, he speaks, and so forth. They are summarising everything that I have said, they are proving that they have listened, learned and are able to reflect on the conversations that I have had with them about waste, systems thinking (including shifts in the current paradigm (in simple terms of course, but still they understood!)!), segregation, composting, problem solving and finding solutions.
Earlier that morning I was travelling between Bangalore, Karnataka, and Vellore, Tamil Nadu observing the mountainous landscape that stood beside the highway. It was beautiful at the tops of that landscape. However, there was waste on the road at the base of the tall peaks, thrown down there, littered. Next to the discarded items the trees swayed in the wind, absorbing what it could of the fumes that poured from the car I was sitting in and the other vehicles on the highway. Everything mixed together and became one. A system. It all functioned the way that it did and the way that it had for some time before.
I spoke of this briefly, in lay terms, to the children I was running the ‘What is Waste?’ workshop for. I wanted them to understand that the world, their village, the city I work in, the country we were standing in, all of it, was all interconnected. Having a mountain independent of other parts of the landscape did not happen. Having waste on the side of the road independent of the people who allowed it to get it there (from production to consumption to disposal) did not happen. Similarly, if a change can be made to a section of a system, change can happen but it is also dependent on what else happens around it. Will the rest of the system allow that segment to shift from its current attributes to something new?
The students at the primary school had already had a large shift in their lives. A German company had set up a shoe factory in the village of Vellore, many of the children’s parents worked there. They were from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and the business had allowed them to attend school. The fees for the year for the students, as an example, are kept exceptionally low and are subsidised by the business. This allows the students access to education, uniforms and a cohort who are being taught to at as high a level as any other school in the country. This is changing the system.
No longer can the 199 students (who, by the way have a 96.1% daily attendance rate!) say that they are no longer provided with the resources to learn and to set the course for their future. It is a wonderful school where the teachers are exceptionally passionate and proactive (they attended an afternoon workshop on ‘How To Move Toward A More Sustainable Lifestyle (Including Quick Win Solutions)’ after I finished the student’s session), about providing the best education in a number of ways for the children. A poignant, illustrative example is the rooms. Instead of plain painted walls the youngest class has the alphabet, numbers and farm animals painted on it. Increasing in year group, there are giraffe height charts and personal hygiene illustrations. Graduating again, the map of the world with specific definition on India and Tamil Nadu is present. Older still, there is the solar system in a room, specific landmarks of different countries in the next including the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids and the Leaning Tower of Pisa among other illustrations. In the remaining rooms there are paintings of the human body, healthy food groups, all types of religious imagery mixed together (not one specific religion stands out from another), and finally the Earth depicted as a tree. Nature, for the eldest children.
The students have been provided with so much that has allowed their system to change. For instance, they have been provided with access to me and my knowledge after I had a conversation with their head teacher and knew that I had to make the three and a half to four hour journey, one way, to the school to present in front of the children for an hour. I spoke to them about how they have as much ability as I do, and as much responsibility too, to make decisions that can effect change. Firstly, I walked them through visuals of an earth with garbage (such as the waste I noticed on the side of the highway, ocean waste and cows and dogs and children surrounded by discarded items or tangled up in them). I also showed them a clean earth (such as the tops of the mountains I viewed on the drive to their school and the beach in Mumbai that has been cleaned and now has turtles laying eggs on it for the first time in over two decades).
I spoke about the system, how interlinked everything is. I related it to their understanding and the head teacher improved on my points as she expanded and translated my words into Tamil (the kids are bilingual but at times my Australian accent gets in the way of understanding, I'm working on that!). I described the processes of composting and allowed them to absorb the information that within India 60% of waste is organic and can be composted. Subsequently, I noted that 20% of the products we use on a daily basis is recyclable or reusable. I involved them in a practical segregation game where all of the students attending on that Saturday were provided with a small paper token with a picture to place into a specific box that related to one of the categories: organic, recyclable, toxic or rejects.
The students loved that game. I had not tried it out with such a large group but such was the standard of teaching that they all waited patiently and spoke about their coupons until it was their turn to find the appropriate category for their own selection. I also provided them with bamboo toothbrushes, steel straws, leaf straws, bamboo forks, spoons and sporks and reusable tote bags to see and feel in order to understand what I was speaking of. What was I speaking of? Solutions of course. They are not all that complicated. Simple solutions using products that do not harm the environment. I explained that using those along with minimising waste, food waste for example, can make a big change.
I was passionate, I love speaking about these areas. The children recognised it, the teachers did and so too did my co host who let me know that the moment I was speaking about changing from a plastic bottle to a reusable and making it your own, was a point where she had never seen anyone hold a bottle more lovingly. We need that at times, my passion to communicate about these areas to promote change, to allow the system to shift to a new paradigm.
Did the students understand? I had spoken to them about big, worldly terms after all. Systems thinking. Circular economy. Sustainability. Zero waste. Problem solving. Critical thinking. Taking responsibility for your own actions and many more areas. Fortunately, between myself and my co team of teachers on that morning we were able to provide all of those terms in bite sized, easy to understand examples. Thus, the answer to that question is yes they began to. They are unlikely to remember it all but the conversation has started, the youth of the small village of Vellore has been engaged and the message will continue through the teachers adding environmental awareness into the curriculum on a regular basis. There will be the chance again for the teachers to hear the feedback that I heard as I stood in the centre of the group of children and listened to the girls and boys summarise my words. During that moment I could see the first stages of learning, the initial steps.
We all need those steps, whether it is the children making them or you or me. Those first steps of understanding that, firstly, we are living within a system where everything is linked, and secondly, that by simple steps and awareness we can make great changes. Regular education and reflection on the differences made is exceptionally valuable. Whether that is reflecting on the fact that Mumbai’s beaches now have turtles or that the Primary School in Vellore manages and minimises the amount of waste that all students and teachers in attendance produces. We need to be aware of our successes as well as our failures for us to make enough differences that the entire system will shift to a new paradigm.