In the previous blogpost, I provided an overview of the Barefoot College and its innovative ‘Solar Mommas’ program. In this piece I return to Tilonia to shine the light more squarely on one of Barefoot’s founders, Bunker Roy, and his philosophy of development and social change.
Roy, the well-educated son of a Delhi family, moved to isolated Tilonia, Rajasthan, in 1965 after completing university in order to help his rural countrymen and women. Earlier that year he had witnessed firsthand the horrendous Bihari famine and was shaken to his core. In moving to the poor rural village of Tilonia, he hoped to do his part in helping the helpless poor of India.
His expectations of being the hero and the helper were upended quickly. He soon came to recognize the wisdom and skills that everyday villagers possessed. He became a student of the well-diggers and laborers that he worked with in the community rather than their teacher.
These experiences in Tilonia altered the direction of Roy's life and career. Tilonia became his permanent home. Inspired by the knowledge and resilience of the rural people of Rajasthan, Roy helped to create the Barefoot College in 1972. The goals of the institution were to make visible and promote the knowledge of rural communities, to serve as a center where communities could learn from each other, and to be a beacon of development that was not premised on outside experts and resources. To hear more of Roy’s story, watch his 2011 TED talk here.
The Solar Mommas have put Roy and Barefoot in the global spotlight, but the solar program at Tilonia is based upon decades of consistent work with communities in Rajathstan and across the world. Bunker has worked tirelessly and consistently with his message to trust in the knowledge and capacities of communities, that they can be their own development experts. Working from a contrarian perspective his entire career, Roy has honed a keenly critical perspective on development practice and social change. His perspective is unique, cynical yet humane and ultimately wise. His practice and advice are rooted in practicality while still maintaining a revolutionary and utopian vision.
I have had the opportunity to meet and speak with Roy on multiple occasions. My most recent engagements with him have been during courses with Northeastern University that I have co-taught over the past few years. My co-instructor Sara Minard and I bring students to Barefoot each year to experience the community-driven approach to development that is on view there at every level, from the campus design, to traditional water harvesting, to eating and sleeping the floor, ashram-style.
During our visits, Roy is always generous with his time, meeting with our students and answering their questions thoughtfully, inspiringly and with humor. Please view the video below to see the exchanges between Bunker Roy, Barefoot CEO Megan Fallone, and the 2016 cohort of Northeastern students:
I conclude this post with a variety of excerpts from the above conversation with Roy, as well as from a recent 2017 visit to Tilonia where he again answered questions from each and every student in our group. I have distilled these two conversations down to 20 points of Roy’s barefoot development wisdom:
1. “Mark Twain said, 'Never let school interfere with your education.' School is where you learn to read and write. Education is what you get from your family, your environment and the community. We insult people by saying they are uneducated. Illiterate is not uneducated.”
2. “If you are working with very, very poor people, you will be doing political work, whether you like it or not.”
3. “If everyone is for your project, there is something wrong. Someone must get hurt. Someone must object. Someone’s vested interests should be effected.”
4. “The Barefoot College is an attempt to make people recognize that communities have the power within them to solve their own problems. They don’t need anyone else.”
5. “All development comes out of conflict. There has to be an element of conflict in every change that you bring about.”
6. “There is never a final solution. With every solution that you create, you are creating a new set of problems.”
7. “100 years ago, what did communities do? They solved their own problems. They identified their own problems and came up with solutions. Barefoot College thinks that those solutions need to be revived, need to be brought into mainstream, need to show that those solutions are still applicable and relevant today.”
8. “Inspiration doesn’t last long. You have to be angry, on a sustained basis.”
9. “Illiteracy is not a barrier. An illiterate paraprofessional can provide a service to the community without going to school.”
10. “There is no [university] course in the world for compassion. Why is there no degree for tolerance, patience and generosity?”
11. “I see role models in very ordinary people who are doing such extraordinary work here in the community.”
12. “All change comes out of conflict. Conflict of ideas, approaches, methods, mindset. That’s how change comes. The trick is to persevere.”
13. “When I have university graduates here at the Barefoot College, I tell them, ‘For the first six months, do nothing. Sit and listen to what people say. Don’t form an opinion. Can you just listen to what people say?’”
14. “They’ve never been to school, yet they respect the water. They respect the sun. They respect the soil. They live within their means. They don’t waste. What more educated can you get than that?”
15. “You ask, ‘How does an organization become strong?’ You should ask, ‘How many crises have you gone through.’ If an organization hasn’t gone through a list of crises, then there’s something wrong. If you’ve done something good, something for the poor, then there will come to be resistance.”
16. “You have to take risks. You have to do something beyond your comfort zone. Otherwise you won’t bring change.”
17. “Every university in India should require every student to go and work in the village for a week.”
18. “To be a social entrepreneur you have to be misunderstood for at least ten years. It’s a very lonely path. People won’t understand you. You’re running 100mph. You’ve left the track behind.”
19. “Without giving it a shot, you will always regret something you never did.”
20. "[The Solar Mommas] arrive at Barefoot like grandmothers, and leave like tigers.”
Thank you, Bunker, for the wisdom, the inspiration and for your abiding faith in humanity.
Felix is the founder and director of Empyrean Research. Based in Tennessee, he travels widely with his work for Empyrean.
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