Developing a New Education Model for the Rural Poor in Kenya
In the hills of Ikerege, a man has built a windmill out of steel drums cut in half and soldered to a post. This windmill powers his home. Our neighbor rewired his radio and created an amplifier using plastic scraps, dirt, fire and some wire. In Kioma Kebe, I visited a home that has a beautifully cantilevered ceiling beam system.
Innovation and creativity thrive here in Kuria. There is evidence everywhere – in the homes, in the jua kali stalls along the streets, in the markets, in the intricacy of children’s toys and women’s baskets. So why does innovation stop at the doorways of the schools?
As the education team dives into the research and development phase of the new model, I have witnessed a hesitancy to innovate. They are brilliant – each of them – so why do they shy away when asked to create a new approach to an embedded concept or structure like education? They do not lack the gall. They have scars to prove their fierceness and tenacity.
I think innovation draws from an ability to capture your surroundings, experiences and perspectives and weave them into new shapes and textures. To take that new shape and begin to give it focus and clarity. To create a plan to realize a vision. It’s a process that requires reckless abandon coupled with patience, independent thought and a willingness to invite ideas, communicate and take accountability for actions, decisions and failures.
In a place where brilliance is a norm and innovation is a household standard, what prevents that innovation from crossing the chasm between the practical and the structural? If it were applied to huge, seemingly immovable and systemic issues like poverty, illiteracy and hunger, this ferocious innovation and creativity could provide the propulsion to unlock the potential of communities and unleash alternative education systems, economic opportunities that empower the poor, inter-community collaboration that uplifts rather than burdens…
How do I help my team cross the chasm from practical innovation to systemic innovation? How do we focus that innovation on this challenge – creating a new system, a new model that develops creativity and critical thinking from early childhood and combats illiteracy?
To do it, I think I need to remove fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of failure. Fear of criticism. Without that fear, will the floodgates open to unleash a torrent of inspiration? Then to spur and focus that inspiration, do I provide tools and resources that expand the team’s perspective and give them references to draw from or build on?
I know that I could drive the process. It would be easier for everyone and faster. I also know that if I do, it will stunt my team’s development and ownership of our end product. We need to act in concert because together we can create a more sustainable, relevant and inspired model.
Saul Alinsky, in Rules for Radicals, drives home this point by saying “We learn, when we respect the dignity of the people, that they cannot be denied the elementary right to participate fully in the solutions to their own problems. Self-respect arises only out of people who play an active role in solving their own crises and who are not helpless, passive, puppet-like recipients of private or public services. To give people help, while denying them a significant part in the action, contributes nothing to the development of the individual. In the deepest sense it is not giving but taking — taking their dignity. Denial of the opportunity to participate is the denial of human dignity and democracy. It will not work.”
If we move together, every member of the team will have explored our model, tested it, questioned it, exposed possible flaws, and sought feedback from the community. Through this process of innovation and discovery, they will take ownership and they will understand exactly how and why the approach will improve literacy among their people. They will have the knowledge to support the model and they will have the tools to implement. They will have a plan and will be prepared to scale.
As I reach the midpoint of my time in Kuria I feel a growing impatience to make progress. My expectation has never been to solve the problems of the community in my time here. My desire, my plan, has always been to help build the local team into a powerful, inquisitive, effective force for change in Kuria. The challenge now is how best to push their learning edge into the unknown, how to build competency not in creativity–they have that in abundance–but in creativity applied to these structural problems. I am posing these questions to myself and to the team in search of the answers.