Lara Jensen: reflections on an India Quest

Quest reflections

Lara Jensen

28 January 2015

Lara Jensen teaches at Upper Canada College in Toronto. In June 2014, she joined a Quest to India along with 14 of her colleagues, to explore international-mindedness, what it means and how to teach it. In this guest post she shares some of the insights and lingering questions that were catalysed by her experience in India.

One of the main reasons I wanted to go to India was that I had seen it in so many films and documentaries. I wanted to see for myself what it was like and to know whether my impressions were accurate or not.

Two things in particular struck me during the Quest:

  1. What is good for the community can be good for business.
  2. International-mindedness hinges on compassion.

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What is good for the community is good for business

My partner works in finance. For the past 15 years, whenever someone has moaned about the fees they pay to banks he has said that “banks are businesses, not social service organisations”. I know this seems harsh but it’s true... whether we like it or not. This point was finally brought home for me during our Quest.

In Bangalore, we visited Janalakshmi, a microfinance institution. In talking with the executives there, we learned that the Indian middle class only gained access to institutionalised banking in the 1980s. Maintaining a bank account is expensive in all countries. In India, there are many low-income families in rural communities who don’t have access to banking because they cannot pay the fees. As a result there are many microfinance institutions that give out small loans.

Janalakshmi realised that nobody was providing microfinance solutions in urban communities so they give small loans to groups of women in towns and cities. We had a chance to meet some of the women who’d received a loan. We discovered that they had used the money for things like financing a child’s education, making and selling clothes and filtering and selling water.

The head of Janalakshmi explained to us that the rationale for their existence is to access a previously untapped market and this market is massive. Like all successful businesses, they have exploited (in the most positive sense of the word) a niche. They are providing a very necessary service to low-income families that did not previously exist.

Janalakshmi also teaches that getting out of poverty is not just about making money - it's about learning how to save money. But make no mistake, they are a for-profit business. It is assumed that once these families get their feet on the ground they will end up wanting more mainstream accounts and financial services. Janalakshmi’s investors (companies such as Morgan Stanley!) support them because they can make huge returns on their investments.

One thing that I found particularly interesting was Janalakshmi’s use of a design thinking model that has intrigued me for a while. I first came across design thinking through ideo.org, a non-profit organisation that seeks to empower the poor. They use the following steps to promote social change: empathise, define, ideate, prototype, test. The Janalakshmi case workers employ a similar process:

  1. Field staff visit potential customers.
  2. They figure out what the community needs are.
  3. They come back and figure out what to offer that will help their clients and make the company money.

I was left with a number of questions and things to reflect on for my own teaching practice and our school:

  1. How can we teach design thinking?
  2. Which local communities are underserved? What would help them?
  3. How can we push students to think outside the box when looking for solutions?
  4. How can we get our students to start thinking about solving social problems through business, rather than just throwing money at an issue?
  5. We have many students with money and power… how can they use that to also help the community?

International-mindedness is about compassion

Every leader we met throughout the Quest was compassionate - they empathised, were grateful and wanted to help others.

One of the founders of Dream A Dream told us the story of how, whilst he was a student in Finland, he realised that in the Finnish egalitarian society he could mingle with people with any type of job but back home in India that was not the case. When he returned, he started to help the children of the "untouchables" who clean homes, work as doormen, etc. It became his goal to help them develop life skills and to do this through creative means (often involving the arts or athletics).

Again I was left with several important questions to reflect on:

  1. I wonder if we could make better use of our fantastic athletics and art facilities to create bonds with students from other schools, rather than just going to lower-income communities and offering tutoring.
  2. The teaching of life skills to both sets of students could be the important goal for both parties and the art or athletics just incidental… That could create a really interesting dynamic as both our students and those from other schools would truly be learning something new together.
  3. How do we really know if students are learning to embody international-mindedness, as opposed to just understanding what it means superficially?

Education for the good of the community: a visit to Christel House

When we arrived at Christel House, it felt like arriving at an international school in any tropical climate. It was very warm and welcoming. We learned that the students were from the local community and, in order to attend the school, their families must earn less than 100 rupees per month. There is no boarding available because the owner believes that students need to learn to cope in both the school and local environments (which often contains elements they teach against at school, e.g. corruption). Students receive two meals per day as well as snacks, they attend school six days a week and have very short holidays so that they receive enough nutrition and relief from stress and temptation. The school provides healthcare and maintains students' medical records. In addition, they also offer parent education – covering everything from health and sanitation to employment.

Lingering questions:

  1. As a multi-millionaire, the owner of Christel House could have opened any kind of school. What made her stick to her beliefs so strongly?
  2. Why did she decide to help this particular segment of the population?
  3. How do we teach compassion to our students?

Final thoughts

The Leaders’ Quest experience was invaluable for getting to know more about Indian culture than is possible as a tourist. Throughout the rest of my travels – I stayed in India for an additional two weeks – I wished that I could have had the same kind of access to people and experiences. I can only thank the LQ staff for their tremendous organisation, dedication and desire to meet our needs. It was a fantastic experience and I highly recommend it to anyone who has the opportunity to participate in a Quest. I gained many new perspectives and look forward to working towards answering some of the many questions I left with!