The Optimist Citizen

A 16 year old’s dream to imbibe humanity and empathy in students by turning it into grades

Grading Humanity to save it from degradation

“A child might be excelling in his academics but if he turns out to be a good human too, it can change the way how he looks at society. Only if we could give more importance to the inclusion of elements and activities that highlight humanity, to children studying in school, it would be a great thing.’’ Would you believe if I tell you that these words of wisdom come from a person who is still 3 years away from being eligible to vote in the General Elections? If the expectation is that he would be another average youngster, chances are that you are in for a bigger and better surprise.

Agastya Kuila, a 16-year-old student from Bengaluru is not an ordinary teenager who would stay engrossed with studies or gadgets and prefer a cosy life. Ever since his early days of adolescence, Agastya was very sensitive towards issues of bullying and inhumane behaviour, which he witnessed around him and wanted to do something to curb it. His zeal to do something made him realize that he needs to move out of the comfort of his privilege and explore real-world challenges. He was nearly 16 when he expressed his desire to explore the world with his mother, Mrs Shalini. Coincidently, Mrs Shalini happened to know about an organisation in Delhi, called Pravah; working with young people since 1993, to bring since about social change. She introduced her son to the world of ‘volunteering’, through Pravah’s adolescent intervention programme called Beyond Zebra. It was Agastya’s moment to explore a new world, undaunted and relentless.

Beyond Zebra, is a 54 hours volunteering programme for adolescents between the ages of 14-17 years run by Pravah. Here, young people are placed with Pravah’s grassroots community partners where they get an opportunity to undertake social action initiatives and explore the world and contribute to the community. Here young people are placed in leadership internships with Pravah’s grassroots community partners for 54 hours; where they get an opportunity to take social action initiatives and explore their own identities. As a part of this journey, Agastya engaged with an organisation called Jamghat, that focusses on holistic development and well-being of street children and youth at risk. He says, “Going every day and working and helping the kids at the boy’s shelter house in their activities like their street play and annual day practice has taught me a lot about the society, because of meeting so many new types of people. It really has opened my mind to so many new ideas and to know the thought process of different sections of the society.”

Agastya with the children at Jamghat | Image courtesy: Agastya Kuila
Agastya with the children at Jamghat | Image courtesy: Agastya Kuila

The experience with Jamghat, changed many beliefs for Agastya. It shattered his age long misconception that underprivileged children are usually sad and depressed because they have a lack of resources. He witnessed that, despite the shortcomings they face; they’re empathetic and possibly much happier. It is only by making ‘cross-border friendships’ with people who are vastly different to ourselves, do we really get a chance to ‘step into their shoes’ and their lives. ‘They considered me as an equal and a friend. They made me feel at home.’ says Agastya while recollecting memories of his work with these children. The 4 weeks learning journey with Pravah and the association with Jamghat not only gave him new perspectives; but the mentoring from Pravah facilitators, helped him deconstruct his own personal stories of victimization; and connect them to larger struggles being faced by other people.

Agastya had always been concerned about bullying, intolerant remarks and insensitive pranks that happen in the school ecosystem. He recalls an incident that moved him personally, where a few 15-year-olds, “from extremely affluent families, living in a luxury high rise apartment in Gurgaon, for whom a pizza was nothing to be fascinated about”, stole a bunch of pizzas from a pizza delivery boy’s bike. It pained his heart to see how insensitive, “thoughtless and selfish” the act was. What was considered as a mere joke by these kids, eventually cost the delivery boy his job. The delivery boy was seen sitting and crying inside the complex – the kids saw it and did nothing to identify themselves or apologise and clarify the matter. It also hurt that the building security who saw the kids but refused to identify them as they were scared of the repercussions that may arise due to their influential wealthy parents.”, said Agastya with a similar shock that welled up when he saw the complete episode.

While discussing with children in Jamghat, he found out that they faced similar comments on colour, creed, body shape; being hurled by teenagers at each other, but never found it unusual. The apathy was vastly sustained to such a degree that these incidents became a part of life. “I thought if I had the smallest chance to help children to become more sensitive to people around them, I would leap for it. We are informed about the word Humanity but do we actually know what it means?’’ he quips. For his action project, he designed and facilitated a session with children of Jamghat on ‘recognizing and responding to intolerance in our day to day lives’.

As a young person with a fire to make a change in the world; to spread empathy and hope- Agastya has come a long way. However, he doesn’t fail to recognise the contribution of Pravah and his mentor, Amit, at Jamghat in shaping his journey and initiative. “Earlier it was only a concept in my mind, floating like a word. Pravah helped me get hands-on experience of on fieldwork, exposure to moving out of my comfort zone that eventually taught me a lot of nuances on how to organize and display my learnings and skills’’ says Agastya. Mrs Shalini who connected her son to Pravah is extremely content with the way his journey has shaped up. “The associations with Pravah has always been a humbling experience. I have known about their summer programmes with school children and knew it would teach Agastya a lot of things. I think that was a really good decision I made because it turned out to be an eye opener for him and he matured a lot as a thinker and ideator after that’’ says Mrs Shalini.

This passion for change, germinated into Agastya’s brainchild project – #GradeHumanity. Through Grade Humanity, Agastya wishes to grade humanity and ethics into grades and credits. He believes if humanity and ethics are graded, parents will push their children to be more ethical and value driven. Moreover, students would also start exercising empathy and would respond more humanely to their fellow mates. With this coming in the education system and curriculum, one can possibly hope to turn this into a habit. Though quantifying humanity would be challenging, Agastya believes that the idea is to spread the message and make students more sensitive and empathetic. He wants to make this a movement and become large enough to be taken up to the education ministry to give his thought a chance. “The bigger picture is to propagate this concept in schools in the form of workshops and sessions. This would also require partnering with a lot of NGOs working in the similar spectrum”, says Agastya. With increasing traction, he hopes to present this idea to decision makers of the education curriculum someday.

Agastya’s mother Mrs Shalini is extremely proud of what her son is doing and is highly supportive of his son’s decision to address this issue. ‘’You can come first in the class or be a champion at some sport, but that does not make you a good person. I think the latter is more important and there is what everyone’s priority should lie. It’s high time that the society is made aware of it so that everyone can do something about it. I’m really glad that my son has taken this up’’ adds Mrs Shalini.

In times when violence is normalized and inhumanity is taking precedence, a 16-year-old’s attempt to formulate a system that can create responsible, tolerant and more compassionate humans; only goes to prove that change is not far away. There’s plenty of light at the end of the tunnel and the next generation of changemakers, like Agastya are making the world a better place to live.

Beyond Zebra, is a 54 hours volunteering programme for adolescents between the ages of 14-17 years run by Pravah. Here, young people are placed with Pravah’s grassroots community partners where they get an opportunity to undertake social action initiatives and explore the world and contribute to the community. Beyond Zebra is currently accepting applications for their October cycle. Click here to know more. 

This story is part of the series “36 Stories of Change” in collaboration with Pravah

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