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Shanti Bhavan features at Toronto design festival

Toronto design festival EDIT shines a light on a socially innovative school, Shanti Bhavan, in Tamil Nadu

EDIT in Toronto. Photo: Courtesy EDIT
EDIT in Toronto. Photo: Courtesy EDIT

Earlier this month, an abandoned soap factory in Toronto morphed into a living, breathing space bursting with design innovations. This 10-day festival of ideas, known as EDIT: Expo for Design, Innovation and Technology—held from 28 September-8 October—was the brainchild of Design Exchange, a design museum in downtown Toronto.

Executed in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme, the festival was themed on the UN’s recently identified 17 global goals for sustainable development, which range from improving health and education and ending poverty and hunger, to combating climate change.

Dubbed the festival of the future, EDIT’s aim was to show how smart, inventive design can help solve some of the biggest issues facing our planet today. Curated by Canadian design visionary Bruce Mau, it featured 125 speakers, 40 workshops and 50 exhibits. “Today, we have new problems that don’t fit into old categories," says Mau. And design, according to him, is about finding modern solutions. “Design isn’t a costly add-on, it’s how we solve problems, a way of thinking."

Kentaro Toyama (left) in conversation with Ajit George. Courtesy EDIT

One of EDIT’s sub-curators, Kentaro Toyama, an international development researcher, highlighted Shanti Bhavan, a non-profit boarding school in Baliganapalli, Tamil Nadu, dedicated to transforming the lives and futures of socio-economically backward children, largely from the Dalit community. “Social and institutional innovations are as important as physical ones," he says. “Shanti Bhavan is perhaps the world’s best example of this in education."

The school was founded in 1997 by Abraham George, an Indian entrepreneur who had emigrated to the US years earlier. His son, Ajit George, who serves as director of operations at Shanti Bhavan, was invited to EDIT for a conversation with Toyama about the school’s philosophy—tackling poverty and socio-economic discrimination through high-quality education, provided free of cost.

“On the surface, Shanti Bhavan is a school, but I really think of it as an ecosystem," George explains. “Education is one major component of it but the end result is to uplift children from extreme poverty and social prejudice. We’re trying to create a different way of looking at life, of looking at society. And as these kids go off into the world, they become change makers themselves."

The school received a flurry of media attention recently thanks to the release of a four-part Netflix docuseries by Oscar-winning film-maker Vanessa Roth, titled Daughters Of Destiny. The series follows five female students over seven years, highlighting the contrast between the world they were born into and the one they are patiently groomed to transition to.

“Physical and sexual abuse rates are very high in this population, about 80%," says George. “Alcoholism rates are high—90%. Poverty of this kind is incredibly destructive. It’s not just a lack of money—it’s like 20 different things combined. It’s sexual abuse, it’s discrimination, it’s sexism. When these things combine, you have all these forces pressing down on you and preventing you from uplifting yourself. These are the circumstances (our students) come from."

Which is why the fact that its graduates have gone on to work for companies like Amazon, Ernst & Young, Mercedes-Benz and Goldman Sachs is so remarkable, and why media outlets like Vogue, Glamour, The New York Times and The Guardian have taken note. Another factor that makes the school truly unique is its focus on feminism, leadership, public speaking, social graces and gender equality. “Throughout my life, I went to pretty good schools but there was never any conversation about ethics, morals, feminism, LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning) rights, racial equality," says George. “I thought that was really weird. These are fundamental aspects of humanity; we should be having these conversations. If your school can’t teach you that, what is your school doing for you? So we try to address these issues in various different ways, with complex questions and real-life scenarios, through continued engagement and periodic reassessment."

The school, which has around 300 students, follows the ICSE curriculum. But it’s clear that this is a school where the endgame isn’t just good grades. Its goal is far more profound and significant, one that doesn’t stop at changing the life of one child or one family—it’s about encouraging children to shape the world around them.

Clearly, it’s working. Vogue’s American edition notes in its recent story on the school that 97% of the alumni are employed full-time, giving 20-50% of their salaries back to their families, communities and villages.

Expanding on the notion of different kinds of innovation, George says: “Sometimes social innovation is organic. Silicon Valley is a perfect example; the technology firms there have started to shape the city of San Francisco. And sometimes it’s intentional—intentional design that forms intentional communities. Shanti Bhavan is a great example of that. We bring in elements of design within the school that give it a sense of equity and compassion, that make it a school that gives back, pays forward its successes to others. These are all design elements that create a new way of thinking about society, a new way of living life."

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