Building Community Through Education
Heartfulness eMagazine|September 2021
Kiran Bir Sethi is changing the experience of childhood in Indian cities through her education curriculum and initiatives to build healthy relationships between students and their communities. Here she is interviewed by Kashish Kalwani.
By Kashish Kalwani

Q: I’d like to begin by asking, “What book are you currently reading?” and “What book would you recommend children read?”

Well, the book I have at my bedside is The Bhagavad Gita for Daily Living by Eknath Easwaran. It’s something I keep dipping into. Just open any page and you’ll find some wisdom for that day.

What would I recommend to children? Again, it depends on which age group. Forget what I recommend – I definitely recommend that they read! I think the worlds that open, the way they can visualize and imagine, and the way they will develop empathy are outstanding.

I was always with books. My sister was also an avid reader and we had a fantastic library at home. The worlds that opened up sitting at home in a little corner were literally astounding. I could travel the world! And the way I was able to develop the ability to visualize is unparalleled. Of course, now we have cinema and videos, and while it is great, it is a very passive way to look at the world. With a book, we put the effort into imagining; it’s not just handed to us. It’s not like a pretty picture, or an art gallery. While reading, we put in the paints, the colors, and the spaces. It really activates our neurons. That’s the science behind it.

It’s wonderful if children read, or are read to, when they are very young, as part of a family’s traditions.

Q: Piggybacking off your mention of the Bhagavad Gita, who has been your biggest teacher and how did they impact your life?

When we are ready to learn, we learn from anybody. We learn from a butterfly, from Gandhiji, from a child, and from Nature. Everything can influence us. When we open up every morning and say, “I’m ready to learn,” we never know where those lessons will come from.

Having said that, there are certain places we keep going back to in order to get a dose of inspiration. For me, it started with my own family, who introduced me to the world, and how to engage with the world with empathy, kindness, integrity, and excellence.

Then, my biggest personal learning happened at the National Institute of Design (NID) as a designer. I would attribute my alma mater with figuring out, “Okay, so this is what learning really feels like.”

My husband, Geet Sethi, who is a nine-times World Billiards Champion, has taught me a lot about obsession and excellence, and how to stay grounded and understand failure and victory in such a deeply personal way.

Then, my children. My son introduced me to what it is to be a mother and what my purpose was. He made my passion find a purpose. My daughter is an incredible source of insight for me because she is a type 1 diabetic, and the way she lives her life is a constant source of learning for me. No matter what you are given, you can make it a gift and then anything is possible.

In terms of outer inspiration, Gandhi has been a massive influence in terms of stamina. Through it all he still had a sense of humor and compassion, and there was absolutely no animosity toward anyone. That’s a fabulous lesson to learn.

And then there is Nature. Whenever I have a bit of downtime, I sit outside. I am very lucky to have birds, trees and butterflies around in my ecosystem. It’s a beautiful source of renewal to see how the Earth always gives back, no matter what.

Q: That’s so true! We are in very uncertain times with Covid, and education spaces have shut down completely. Children are feeling uncertain without the safe space of school and friendships – the experience of a school life. What do you believe are the next steps for education? Is there some learning to be had from all of this?

Absolutely! I think Covid has unmasked the entire dysfunctional system of the world. We were always struggling. I don’t think anybody felt the education system was fantastic. There was always the sense that something was off. We kept delaying the urgency to look at it because, “Oh, maybe it happened in Africa, then in Asia, then in India.” We justified it by saying, “That’s your problem, not my problem.”

Suddenly it became everyone’s problem at the same time, with the same urgency, with the same inequity! Nobody could shy away from the fact that we were all in it together. Suddenly, everybody started waking up, as if this was a surprise. But it wasn’t. It was always dysfunctional.

Therefore, there were those people who said, “Boss, this isn’t working,” who showed other possibilities. There were pockets, which I won’t call “alternative,” but the other options. There were other ways to look at education. They had been seen as, “That’s a good experiment, but you know we can’t do it at scale.”

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