The Power of Collective Thinking

My last post was about child participatory methods. For this post, I would like to talk about children’s collectives, the vehicle through which these methods are used.

When I first learned that Shaishav’s Balsena was a youth collective, I compared it to youth organizations in the U.S., such as Boys and Girls of America. Both seemed to have same goal of helping underprivileged children, and at one time specifically street children, to find their way in life. However, Balsena has certain aspects unique to it compared most youth organizations in the U.S. For one, it actively participates in politics at the municipal, state and even national level through petitions, protests, and filing motions for improve to active legislation. Balsena has also conducted its own research and collect empirical data to show to its municipal political leaders that change is indeed necessary. For instance, in 2009, after being trained in research methods by the NGO, Concerned for Working Children in a 5-day workshop, Balsena children conducted a city wide Child Rights Audit. Their survey covered household facilities, community issues such as unsafe neighborhoods and crime, health issues, education, and social issues such as gender discrimination. Based on the results of this survey, they approached their municipal officials about issues which needed the most urgent attention. Knowing what the problem was the first step, so the Balsena received positive receptions from the officials they approached and often a quick resolution (Hattersley 2011).

Shaishav acts as a facilitator for Balsena providing it with resources such as a space to receive leadership trainings, and hold council meetings, however the collective operates quite independently of Shaishav. Balsena points grow out of the neighborhoods that the children live in so its structure is decentralized. Each point works on issues specific to that neighborhood with a few members whom report to a council made up of members of the other points. At these meetings, the council members decide on which issues that are more than that Balsena point is able to handle and see help through different avenues developed by both Balsena and Shaishav.

Balsena Children’s Collective. (Photo Credits: Adrian Fisk)

The idea that Gujarat was one of the first states where children’s collectives took hold is not surprising when you consider the state’s history. Arguably, the most important historical figure of Gujarat is Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi often purported the idea of self-rule not only in business but also self-preservation. His philosophies encouraging people to collaborate with each other and the idea that more voices means more power continue to endure in the state. In fact, I have met several Bhavnagar citizens whom refer to themselves as Gandhians, a term I haven’t heard as often in the other states of India I have visited.

Let’s look at some of the organizations inspired by Gandhi’s message. Amul, the ubiquitous dairy brand found all throughout India and although it is not quite a collective, but rather a cooperative, it is still owned by the producers and has a democratically elected management team. Another example is SEWA, a collective for self-employed women started in Gujarat in 1972. SEWA was started to ensure that unsalaried women such as those who sell homemade goods, produce, or other services were guarded against exploitation “with the goal of full employment in which a women secures for her family: income, food, health care, child care, and shelter” (SEWA Homepage).

Shaishav’s special connection with SEWA is that Ela Bhatt, SEWA’s founder, a Padma Shri awardee whom holds honorary humanities degrees from Harvard, Georgetown and Université libre de Bruxelles, inaugurated Balsena in 2003. A wonderful honor and a testament that the voices of children are heard even at the upper echelons of social activism.

The roots of Balsena are deeply embedded in the values of democracy. The structure of Balsena is quite intricate and even has a system of checks and balance built into it. It has an executive team and group of advisors for the president and vice president, which is similar to the cabinet in the United States. Separate from this, is a council made of two team leaders, aged — and two team members, aged to represent the young demographic are elected from each of the 12 points to represent their neighborhood. This council seems to resemble Congress, attending meetings organized by the President and voting (Hattersley 2011).

The voting is even more elaborate. Instead of voting for one candidate, each candidate is ranked on a predetermined set of skills and values. Administrative members are closely monitored to make sure they uphold their responsibilities and of course. There are term limits, minimum gender ratios, and procedures to remove those from their position if they don’t perform to the collectives satisfaction. Balsena resembles a mix of the community-based Indian panchayat system and the more sophisticated regional democratic governments. The whole operation is amazingly intricate and home-grown from the ideas of children within Bhavnagar’s slums and beyond (Hattersley 2011).

Subtle details of Balsena — such as the story of its cherished uniform of a pink scarf and its trademark gesture “De-Tali!” — lends a perspective into Balsena’s application of democratic values. “De-Tali,” a gesture which resembles an upwards aimed high-five, is meant to be a reminder that everyone’s hand is met at the same level and moving upwards towards a more positive future. The pink scarf was chosen instead of a full uniform as it could be worn by both boys and girls and of minimal cost.

Although Shaishav was the first children’s collectives in Gujarat, several more collectives have sprouted throughout India around the same time. In Tamil Nadu, the Arunodaya NGO facilitates collectives of children for street and working children throughout the city of Chennai. (Arundhaya Centre) They have lead several, often successful, petitions to improve conditions in their neighborhoods such as making parks safer by banning alcohol, covering manholes, and requiring schools to allow the enrollment of more child laborers. At Chetna, a New Delhi children’s collective, many children report its support system as being instrumental in overcoming substance abuse problems among themselves (Chetna Homepage).

From these examples, the impact of community and personal development of children’s collectives is clear. It would be amazing to see the concept of Balesna-inspired children’s collectives one day taking hold in the United States, or if it already has, then see it command a greater presence within communities. I could see it being a tool to amplify children’s voices regarding issues like clean water, safe schools, and among a myriad other public concerns which directly impact them. 


References:

  1. Hattersley, J. and Atkinson, B., Balsena: A Child Participation Approach. 2011
  2. SEWA: Self Employed Women’s Association, http://www.sewa.org/
  3. Arunodhaya: Centre for Street and Working Children, http://arunodhayacentre.in/
  4. Chetna: Childhood Enhancement through Training and Action, http://chetnango.org/

A recent Emory University graduate interested in child welfare and poverty alleviation, Subha would like to eventually work for an NGO. By serving with Shaishav as an AIF Clinton Fellow, she hopes learn more about their world class philosophy for children's empowerment. Prior to joining AIF, Subha interned at the American Association for People with Disabilities in Washington, D.C., and the Global Village Project in Atlanta, Georgia, as a development and policy intern.

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