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.
Empyrean Research is pleased to share its latest video interview in its ongoing series of profiles of global practitioners of participatory change. Empyrean Research director Felix Bivens interviews Meagan Fallone, the CEO of Barefoot College, at the Barefoot College campus in Tilonia, Rajasthan, India.
Deep into the arid landscape of Rajasthan, India, lies one of the most radical and enduring outposts of the India’s ‘barefoot’ movement. The barefoot approach challenged the implicit narrative of international development-- that the poor are poor because of a lack of knowledge and skills-- and instead lifted up the indigenous, grounded knowledge and practices of rural communities that they had gained through hundreds of years of close observation and engagement with their environment and innovation with available resources. The barefoot approach also highlighted the capacity of rural people to learn and practice sophisticated activities even without formal education and literacy. The movement led to the emergence of barefoot health workers, barefoot researchers, barefoot architects and more. All variations emphasized the efficacy of local knowledge and while accepting that people from rural communities were open to learning new ideas and practices, especially from peers in other communities.
One of the most recognizable figures from this movement was Bunker Roy, the well-educated son of a Delhi family who moved to isolated Tilonia, Rajasthan, after university, in 1965, to help his rural countrymen and women. His expectations were upended quickly and he became a student of the well diggers and laborers that he worked with rather than their teacher. Tilonia altered the direction of Roy's life and career. Tilonia became his new home. Inspired by the barefoot movement and finding that it resonated with his experiences in Tilonia, Roy helped to create the Barefoot College in 1972. It was indeed a college in that it sought to be a place of learning and a repository of knowledge. It was also opposite of a college in that the knowledge it promoted, in that those who taught and in that those who learned were all deeply rooted in rural communities of Rajasthan. Barefoot became a defining voice in the Barefoot movement, drawing visitors from villages across India and beyond as well as gaining international prominence. As development discourse shifted sharply away from integrated community development approaches in the 1980s and toward the macroeconomic principles of structural adjustment, the barefoot movement faded in visibility. Barefoot College continued its work all the same, building a second campus in the 1980s using local techniques and practices.
Reimagining ‘Appropriate Technology’ for Development
In the late 2000s, Roy and he colleagues moved in a direction that embraced the growing availably of high tech but low cost technologies for rural communities. Roy knew that communities could master the technology, but wanted communities to maintain their autonomy. He envisioned that these technologies could bring new and additional livelihoods rather than supplanting old ones. The college had experimented with solar on its own campus and had been teaching communities to use parabolic solar cookers for years. Now solar electricity production was viable at small scale, especially given the relatively low demand of a rural household in the developing world. So Barfoot began to develop small portable, household solar units that could fit into just a few boxes that could be carried, on foot if necessary, to remote rural communities. The technology was available, but the question of how communities maintain such equipment has always been one of the concerns of the barefoot movement. The rural development landscape is littered with wells and water purification systems which are broken down permanently because the local community doesn't have parts or training for the fix.
Roy and the Barefoot team wanted to overcome this challenge though education, by providing sufficient training that the barefoot solar engineer in the community would be able to disassemble and reassemble the components down to the very circuit boards. This posed multiple challenges. How pedagogically to train semiliterate and illiterate students to be electrical engineers. At the very least such training would take months, which raised the issue of who could leave a community to even take part in a training of this length and complexity. Like so much of Barefoot’s previous work, the answers to these questions that were arrived at were simple but unexpected and transformative.
The training system that was developed was entirely visual and based on a color-coded system for the wiring of the various components. It would be delivered through a six-month residential program that would involve hours of hands-on learning by doing everyday until the design and construction of every component would be second nature to the students. In terms of who these courses would be offered to, Barefoot selected one of the most economically marginalized demographics in any community-- grandmothers. While often much younger than grandmothers in more developed country contexts, grandmothers are still most everywhere seen as non-economic actors, who are valued for childrearing abilities rather than for their potential as entrepreneurs and community leaders. Indeed it was this marginality that made them available to participate in the program. As non-income earners it was possible for them to leave their communities for the extended duration of the engineering course. While this was a pragmatic solution, it also had transformative implications for the participant and the community she came from. The grandmother would leave her community, even her country for six months of sophisticated training in electrical engineering and then return to her community as the manager and technician of the community’s only source of electricity. No longer a marginal figure, she would be educated, important and a business owner with a reliable income.
Solar Mommas Rising
If this seems like a utopian scenario with a variety weak links that seem too implausible for success, consider that the program is now been running for more than eight years, that two cohorts of fifty solar trainee grandmothers-- now affectionately referred at Barefoot as the ‘solar mommas’-- train in Tilonia at Barefoot College each year and that five replications of the program have already been created outside of India and that four more are in the works and that the program is now sustained by an Indian governmental agency grant. By working against convention, Barefoot has created an enormously successful initiative which led to an invite from TED for Bunker Roy to give a talk about the college and the solar mommas. Three million views later, the solar engineers program has global visibility and has attracted the attention of government and business leaders, including global leaders from the tech industry.
While the program is extraordinary in its own right, a significant part of its growth and recognition is due to the efforts of Barefoot International’s CEO Meagan Fallone who took over the post in 2010. She has taken a particular interest in the solar program and often travels to the remote communities that have requested to participate in the program. Likewise she has tirelessly promoted program to funders and other governments, paving its rapid adoption in 9 countries outside of India.
My teaching work with Northeastern University provided an opportunity for me to visit the Barefoot campus for the second time in the summer of 2016. As part of the visit, the students and teaching team sat down for an interview with Fallone and Roy. We also engaged with the current batch of solar mommas and observed their training process. Please see the video above for the interview with Meagan Fallone and highlights from the engagement with the solar trainees.
Fallone emphasized the importance of the solar program on a variety of levels, particularly how it impacted women and the gender dynamics in the communities where the solar systems are installed. She quoted research that estimates that the marginalization of women from economic activities reduces global economic output by 23 trillion dollars each year. The participants in the program have seen significant increases in their incomes after operationalizing their solar businesses. Indeed electrification leads to a rise in village incomes overall. Moreover the women also report changes in their social status. They are now recognized as professionals. As well, they become part of the decision-makers in the community and find themselves operating in formerly all-male circles of power. Perhaps more importantly, Fallone noted the systemic impact on women and girls that comes with light-- increased safety at night, opportunities for study and economically productive work after dark, and as a result, fewer children in the longer run, so that family resources can be concentrated on a few children rather and dispersed across many.
During our time in Tilonia, we visited night schools organized by Barefoot. Many children in the villages surrounding Tilonia work as herders during the day, from sunrise to sunset, and as such do not have time to attend school. Using the same solar package utilized by the solar mommas, Barefoot has established night schools so that these children can receive several hours of basic education each evening after they have complete their herding work. In the short time we visited the school, a dusty courtyard outside a small earthen building illuminated by two bluish LED lights, we could see the energy and joy of the young children as they learned and socialized, a complete reversal of their long lonely days of herding, a small but important shift that may change the direction of the lives of those children. One imagines similar scenes playing out across rural communities where one of Barefoot’s solar engineers has returned home to bring light and new opportunities to all parts of the community, from the youngest to the grandmothers, to fulfill their aspirations and to participate in the world more fully, and on their own terms.
Felix is the founder and director of Empyrean Research. Based in Tennessee, he travels widely with his work for Empyrean.
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