How do you help children from poor, rural communities to identify themselves as changemakers?
In order to break the cycle of poverty, people must be empowered to make change happen in their own lives. But in the rural community in South Africa where I work, change comes at a slow snail’s pace. I am always trying to discover new ways to teach children – many of whom who eat the same thing for dinner night after night and rarely leave their village – that they have the power to change things, to solve problems and to make a difference in their lives and in their world.
Bill Drayton, a renowned social entrepreneur and founder of Ashoka, envisions a world where everyone is a changemaker. And with his words in mind, I began to question people in the community.
Regina Hlabane, the thoughtful and articulate chairperson of the local weaving cooperative, likes the idea that children should learn that they can change the world. However, she adds, “First you must teach us how to change the world. We don’t know that, so how can we teach that to our children?”
She makes a good point.
Next, I speak with a local primary school teacher, Sonia Foure, who feels that children first must learn they can change themselves. They can learn to care for their clothes and their hair and their school books and then feel proud of themselves. “You don’t have to have money to take a rag and clean your shoes,” she says succinctly.
And Emerencia Mohlolo, the administrator at the local primary school, believes that success comes when children are encouraged to dream. She makes appointments with some of the poorest children to simply listen to them and encourage them to dream of what could be.
But it is as I watch children in an art class working with their teacher to paint the wall of the nursery school that my attention is truly captured. They are creating change in the most visceral of terms; an aged once-white wall is becoming a brightly colored mural of an elephant standing by a stream at dawn.
Walter Sibuyi, balanced on a rickety ladder with a can of red paint, begins the mural painting. But soon all the children have a paintbrush, a cut off plastic coke bottle paint container and an area to paint. They work hard with their teacher for three days and the completed mural is wonderful. The kids are proud of their wall and everyone who goes by notices the change and smiles at the elephant washing himself on the face of the nursery school.
Maybe being part of the team that transformed a white wall to a beautiful picture will begin to strengthen the changemaker muscle within these children. Maybe in art class they will have the experience of beginning with a blank white sheet of paper and ending with something bright and wonderful. Then they will get a taste of that heady creative power that effects change.
Just as Ashoka encourages finding innovative solutions to common problems, I am convinced we need to be just as innovative in finding new ways to give the future changemakers of the world the experience of creating change.
I watched art serve as an empowerment trigger. I would be interested to hear your ideas and suggestions for ways to help disadvantaged children understand their power to make things happen.
By Judy Miller