Ted Talks India: Empowering Villagers by Showing Them the Beauty of Their Own Voice

What I appreciate most about TED, the company committed to spreading innovative ideas, is its ability to inspire me. For example, I recently watched a TED video, in which Candy Chang of New Orleans fixed up a dilapidated building by applying blackboard paint to the wall, and writing “Before I die, I want to…” in large letters, and left a bucket of chalk for passersby to record their thoughts. Some of the responses included: “Before I die, I want to find true love,” or “Before I die, I want to follow my dreams.” Apart from beautifying the space, Chang was able to turn a symbol of poverty and decay into a community space filled with hope. After viewing this talk, I was inspired to replicate it, with a few tweaks, in an Indian village called Bishanpur in the state of Bihar, the poorest state in India. 

Some TED talks may not inspire us to act, but force us to rethink our assumptions. For example, the most watched video on TED is Sir Ken Robinson’s talk on how schools kill creativity. Robinson describes how our school systems reflect a narrow conceptualization of intelligence, and he calls for a radical rethinking of how we teach our children. Still others use theatrics and visuals to communicate their messages. For example, another popular speaker on TED is Hans Rosling, who uses interactive charts and stunts on stage to discuss demographic trends in life expectancy, health, and education. 

I attended TEDx Delhi last weekend, and similar to the talks I had previously seen, the speakers used many theater techniques to animate their stories, businesses, and research as a means of presenting information and inspiring the audience. 

For example, Karthik Narasletty, a 22-year-old Rutgers University dropout from Andhra Pradesh, India presented an interactive powerpoint to discuss how the story of a family’s struggles to find regular blood transfusions for their 4-year old daughter with thalassemia compelled him to start Social Blood. Social Blood connects blood donors with those in need of blood transfusions through its Facebook-facilitated platform.

Meanwhile, Deepak Ravindran, another 22-year-old college dropout, used humor to discuss his motivation for founding Innoz, an offline search engine that helps the millions of Indians without internet access, find answers to their questions. Deepak was flustered when he asked his friends how he could pick up a girl he liked, and they responded “Google it,” only to realize he could not, due to lack of internet access. He dropped out of college shortly after and started Innoz so that he would not find himself in such a position in the future

Another speaker I found inspiring was RibhuVohra, whose WasteLess uses innovative modules, such as a “trashion show” to instill in children the need to reduce, reuse, and recycle our waste. 

While I found these talks and many others to be inspiring, I had just come from Bishanpur, and therefore, I was watching the lectures through this lens. TED’s motto is “Ideas Worth Spreading,” yet what constitutes an idea, and how we identify worthiness and value is subjective. A cerebral engineer or scientist may not connect with a social science or right-brain audience or vice versa. 

Similarly, we are often predisposed to connect with those with whom we share similarities; Deepak and Karthink are my age, while Ribhu is half-Indian, like me. Although many others mentioned that they enjoyed these three talks, and I likely would have found them inspiring regardless of the similarities I shared with the speakers, I do feel that it effected how engaged and inspired I was during their lectures. In this context, I thought about how little the Bihari villagers in Bishanpur share with these speakers in terms of vocabulary, symbols, and lifestyle. While these constructs are quite superficial when you have the chance to talk and meet with people, they matter, whether or not we recognize it, for conveying information over a short period of time, as in a TED talk. 

Thus, I have begun consider how a TED format could be used to provide inspiration for school children in Bishanpur, where I am currently working for an educational NGO. One of the biggest obstacles I face as a teacher and an administrator here is the lack of confidence that some of the children have. Whether it is due to the derisive effects of the caste system, gender inequality, large, poor families in which individual children receive little support, or the stressful impact of poverty on the children, many of them have low self-esteem that affects their participation, focus, and performance. Programs and structures that could stimulate and encourage the children to be optimistic and hopeful could help improve educational outcomes. 

One of the overarching issues that the village faces is a sense of inferiority vis-à-vis the city. The language that many of them use to describe themselves and their village in comparison to the city and city dwellers illustrates a certain deference, calling themselves “small,” and city people “big” and “important.” This image is perpetuated by the media, which is based in and tends to focus on urban areas. In addition, children from lower castes and poorer families tend to be cognizant of their relative social position. Student participation and performance clearly reflects local social hierarchies, as those from high caste and relatively wealthy families are much more active in class and perform better on the assessments we give them. Completely untangling cause and effect is not possible, but these social institutions are clearly having a corrosive effect on these children’s performance. This feeling of lowliness then translates into a feeling of hopelessness and fatalism, in which the children have low expectations and aspirations. 

I see a few ways in which TED-style talks and conferences could help undue some of these harmful social institutions. For example, to address the general feeling of inferiority that villagers experience vis-à-vis those from the city, a TEDx conference celebrating local knowledge could help increase the confidence of the villagers. At the same time, distributing this material could then help undue some of the stereotypes of villagers as simple, monolithic, and backward that urbanites hold. 

With this in mind, I have provided my eighth grade students with cameras so that they can conduct interviews with family and others in the community whom they find inspiring.  Through this project, I will try and identify the criteria the students use for selecting inspirational individuals and what qualities these individuals have. This information would then serve as a means of holding a TEDx style conference in the village. While I do not know what this project will uncover, I will say that I have seen incredible resourcefulness here. For example, an uneducated bicycle salesman and repairman retrofits motors and carts to bicycles, which is something I, with my ivy league education, could never do. Acknowledging and celebrating such funds of knowledge will help address the psychological and intellectual impoverishment of villagers. Similarly, the talks from such conferences could then be distributed using mobile technology to provide inspiration and hope to those in other villages. The talks would be tailored to the sorts of criteria that those in the village use to identify the leaders and influencers to whom they aspire to be. Given the ubiquity of mobile phones, such an application could easily be created. For example, a model similar to Innoz, in which sending an SMS would reveal a set of potential talks to listen to. 

I am by no means indicating that such a program would be a silver bullet for improving educational outcomes or for undoing centuries of marginalization. At the same time, I have found that low confidence has been a huge obstacle on academic performance. If students had access — not only physical, but also linguistic, social, and emotional — to TED-style talks featuring villagers from their communities, students would likely be not only entertained, but also inspired. 

Once garnering cultural acceptance of these intellectual talks, a wider variety could be offered, including the TED talks currently featured on TED.com. Demonstrating that those from villages can also be highly innovative and intelligent would also help diversify the current TED speakers, who generally come from prestigious institutions, or have been vetted by the mainstream media.  At the same time, challenging the Manichean notion of the backward villager and the civilized city dweller can be used to encourage the self-empowerment of poor villagers. 

In this way, students’ improved sense of dignity will help foster better educational outcomes, happiness, and social change.