Sunday, October 09, 2011

An Intersection of Personal Journeys

As the CapAsia VI participants met new people, moved through new cultures, and observed new spatial practices in south Asia, the larger CapAsia program explored new territory as well; i.e., regarding planning, design, and learning. Along with providing a service to the community, the participants questioned their own roles as a planner or architect, student, and citizen. They asked some basic questions: How can we solve their problems when we can’t even solve our own? Do we have to tell them what they need and need to do? Do we have to make a plan? What if they don’t need one? It is possible for a planner to change a community without changing him/herself? Perhaps, Gandhi’s idea of “be the change you want to see in the world” helped them dig a bit deeper. Can we take part in people’s processes? Can we be a catalyst to achieving their life goals? Could a small change help?

The main 7-week “Planning to Learn” component was conducted in Chhharanagar, one of the most discriminated communities in Ahmedabad, with the help of a leading school of planning in India: CEPT University. Instead of beginning with maps and data, the group began by getting to know people. Each of them drew a cognitive map, highlighting significant places, and got to know at least three people on the first day. While living in heritage house in Ahmedabad’s Old City, with the family who owned it, helped them immerse in the local culture and built environment, taking part in the kite festival brought them close to the Chhara community. The students settled into comfortable roles such as teaching English and map-making using electronic tools. Instead of stopping there, they expanded their comfort zones to learn from and about the community. Chloe Dotson began to teach English and in the process informed the other CapAsia students of the children’s world in Chharanagar; Tad Jameyfield led the conceiving and drawing of an immensely useful up-to-date map of the neighborhood.

Instead of beginning with plan-making, students began writing a real (positive) story about the Chharas (who are negatively represented ever since British authorities declared them as a criminal tribe), converting themselves into storytellers. Through continuous visits and many meetings, they all came to know most of the community members and their aspirations. They not only questioned the existing plan for urban renewal, but also made a presentation to the Ahmedabad Municipal Authority of possible development scenarios – ones more empathic to people's aspirations.

The 3-week “Building to Learn” component helped upgrade a community square in Duwakot, near Kathmandu, Nepal. It was used by a nearby private college as a parking lot for its school buses and others for similar purposes over a decade. When we visited the community, as the flimsy bamboo fence stated, the people have already begun to reclaim their public space. We simply enhanced the process, empowering the community. The project continued the same research/practice, but at a smaller scale, in collaboration with Nepal Engineering College. In both cases the CapAsia participants worked hand in hand with the community, meeting almost daily. The most intriguing, the people in Duwakot have now completely upgraded the square that we began, but in their own way. There is little trace of our work; they can be seen but beneath the newer developments, like archaeological remains that belong to a different era. Yet our work provided a foundation for the community to achieve what it wants and for us to leave our attachments to the physical behind so that we can enjoy the social outcome of our work. They are empowered; so are we.

They engaged the community and enabled its "development journeys." They learned small projects can go a long way and make a huge impact; even a simple plan of the settlement –appropriately done-- was a significant tool of empowerment. It taught us that planners and development specialists can indeed participate in (and even enhance) people’s processes (not only the other way around); don’t have to locate the subjects in a different time or a space other than our own; and small projects are more effective at the lived (human) scale.

Based on Gandhi’s proclamation, the Adivsai (Tribal) Academy confirmed that the village also has a future (not only the industrialized urban). Through their own work, the students began to see that communities may have multiple futures open in front of them. They experienced that quantitative analysis, computer programs, land use planning, and even planning in general are simply tools among others that can become useful or redundant for development. The usefulness of any tool needs to be evaluated in the context of the community, especially in regard to larger goals, convictions, cultural values, and people's journeys. The participants learned that if they really affect the community, the planner will also change and s/he will have more questions than answers. Planning is about communication and can benefit by thinking and reflection, i.e., transforming experience into knowledge.

As they traversed a new world and used planning and design to do so, the students learned about themselves and their own lives. In Chharanagar, they learned about the Chharas, the Budhan Theatre, customs, traditions, people, kids, but about themselves. They saw how hard people strive to make an honest and better living in a context of discrimination and learned about their own life journeys. They documented stories, made maps, plans, and represented Chharanagar to the Municipal Commissioner; along with these, they also renewed and/or made new plans for themselves. Living in the Old City of Ahmedabad, the kindness of the Chharas, and homestays in Kathmandu helped the students to better understand other people and themselves. When one student left the home for another on the third day, the whole family cried, and the student was stunned by how much the family had grown to care for him in a few days.

At the conclusion of the Planning to Learn project, Catherine Reynolds wrote:
"To a class of ordinary students, this is a community of extraordinary people who perform a noble mission daily simply to secure a future for their way of life. Among the many lessons that the Chharas have taught us we shall never forget that a human is a human regardless of their last name, where they may live and what their past has become. All people have a right to a future and that is exactly what the Chharas are gaining with every child, hope and dream."

The students also met with great people such as development specialist and current Prime Minister of Nepal, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai; the 2010 CNN Hero Anuradha Koirala who created an organization (Maiti Nepal) to prevent the trafficking of women; and Dr. Ganesh Devy who left his professorship to empower tribal groups in India.

The team included students from Rutgers University,IUPUI and of course, Ball State. Once again, the program was supported by a Fullbright-Hays grant of $80,510 (for the third consecutive time), from the US Department of Education (DOE). The group was assisted by two faculty members, Dr. Jeff Brackett and Dr. Maria Williams-Hawkins, who helped to expose students to local Hindu practices and temples and social media, respectively.

Building on their CapAsia experience, Claire Thomison applied for a Marshall Scholarship to undertake a Master’s at University College, London, and Jeffrey Lauer for a Fulbright award to investigate the spatial dimensions of the Gandhian idea “the village has a future.” Adopting similar research methods for her thesis research, Sanjeewani Habarakada immersed herself in the World Heritage Site of Galle in Sri Lanka, for two months, studying how people create their own spaces under the radar of the authorities’ plan to restore it to the Dutch colonial era. Two very bright students from Sri Lanka and Italy have applied to the planning program at Ball State after experience the work of CapAsia.

The students will make a presentation of their experience on Wednesday, October 19 at 4pm in AB 100.