Interviewing rapists and murderers in their prison cells for 31 hours transformed the life of Leslee Udwin, leading her to the founding of the Think Equal NGO.
In this piece, Youth Time Magazine brings an exclusive interview with Leslee Udwin, the Executive Chair of the first global education initiative endorsed by the United Nations Human Rights Office that is introducing social and emotional intelligence learning for social justice to children in early years education between the ages of 3-6 years- Think Equal.
Think Equal is also a movement, and its mission is to create a safe, free, and equal world for the next generation.
Read on for an incredible journey of how one has the power to turn every situation into action, doing good by the entire community.
Seeing a Problem-Creating a Solution
The inspiration behind Think Equal is a film she made in 2013 called India’s Daughter, a documentary centred around the gang rape and murder of a young medical student in Delhi, Jyoti Singh.
“In the making of this film, I interviewed the rapists and murderers in their prison cells for 31 hours. That time was transformative for the course of my life. Their mind-sets justified their actions, their discriminatory mind set towards women and their place in society was affronting.”, she explains at the beginning of our interview.
When she found that their mind-sets were shared by the lawyers who defended them, and learned about the upbringing of those men, and met their families, she learned that this was not a take of bad poisoned apples and that in fact, the whole barrel was rotten.
“These men were not the antithesis to society, they resulted from society. I became aware, painfully so, of how much awareness but how little action filmmaking was creating. In order to prevent and uproot the discriminatory mind-sets of our adults, we have to start with early education.”
Here, she recalls a saying from Mandela “No child is born hating another human being…. if we can learn to hate, then we can be taught to love”.
She believes the key question is ‘what kind of education’ and ‘mediated when’?
“It was at this point that I started on the path to founding Think Equal as the preventative solution to the programmed mind-sets I met in those interviews, but also have seen globally in all societies, regardless of how ‘developed’ they consider themselves to be.”
And Think Equal proved to be just the right idea. As of today, it is with over 170,000 children globally in 20 countries, however, the Eastern Cape province is a stand out achievement.
“In the Eastern Cape, every child in reception will get the programme, with implementation occurring over this year and next, every child will receive the Think Equal foundation for pro-social outcomes.”, Udwin tells us.
Another highlight is the recent request for Think Equal to be brought to every Early Years setting in Rajasthan by Indian officials.
“That’s 68,000 settings, 2.5 million children per year, with at least 25 million children receiving this life-changing programme within the first 10 years.”
Introducing the Third Dimension- Social and Emotional Learning Program
Think Equal works in the Early Years to provide its holistic Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Programme, which teaches 25 critical competencies and skills, including empathy, gender, racial and religious equality, and peaceful conflict resolution to children aged 3-6.
The Programme lays the critical foundations in developing brains for pro-social outcomes in life, reducing depression, discrimination and inequalities of all kinds, and antisocial behaviours in later life.
“We seek to introduce SEL, the missing ‘third dimension’ of education, into Early Years curricula around the world, with the belief that every child in every classroom deserves to have the foundations for positive outcomes for the rest of their lives.”
The classroom-based curriculum comprises three levels, each containing several narrative picture books, comprehensive lesson plans, and engaging activities.
A Unique Way to Measure Success
When asked about how they measure their success, Udwin gives us an outstanding example of how we should see our achievements.
“We believe that in order to create actual change, we have to move away from the short term-ism that is so common today in politics and education. While we see results immediately, the factual evidence of Early Years successes must be measured over time, as we must see the results in adulthood.”
According to her, there is a wealth of science, upon which they built this programme, which evidences the lifelong impacts of effective Social and Emotional Learning between the ages of 3-6 when taught with high quality (tangible features which Udwin mapped out and incorporated in the design of Think Equal).
As they started piloting the programme in 2017, they cannot yet measure the enormous impacts.
Regarding the immediate impacts, she here quotes a few teacher comments:
“A little girl (who) understood- spoke at home, but at school, she spoke not a word… Aside from her lack of vocal communication, the child also expressed no emotion or facial expressions. When we did the lessons with the self-portrait – that was the opportunity for her to express herself. Suddenly, she started singing, and she started dancing. And it was such a rewarding moment for us teachers. She has become a different person and is talking all the time”.
“They (now) are very interested to know more about issues such as disability, caring for the planet. For example, in the schoolyard, they come to see the recycling bin which we have now made together, and they comment: “Here is the place to recycle: plastic, aluminium, cardboard, paper”.
Such success rarely comes without challenges.
Udwin says their key challenges fall into two major categories.
“Firstly, we experience apathy and indifference from those who seem to be so overwhelmed by pessimism and despair that they cannot see how easily a difference can be made […].”
On the other hand, the hurdle that most charities share is the constant battle of funding.
“We have so many incredible donors, from individuals to organisations or companies, however, I must acknowledge that the most common snag in implementing Think Equal is funding, we often find keen teachers and Early Years settings, desperate Education Ministries’ reluctance to embrace change, and the programme is ready to go even at full scale most times, it is just the funding that is often the puzzle piece which is hardest to find.
Concluding in a Cheerful Tone
To end on a bright note, she acknowledges that this is how they create a brighter tomorrow, with a safe, free and equal world for future generations, and every day we work towards reaching more children, and every day we make progress, and they will be our future.
Pictures courtesy of Think Equal NGO
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