One Future Inspire I Sagarika Unnikrishnan: Creating Playgrounds in Villages


One Future Inspire is a series of interviews with young people across countries, borders, spectrums of work and being. These people share a common quality — they inspire us. Our aim is to bring their work to the fore with the hope that it might ignite a spark in someone, somewhere.

Team One Future interviewed Sagarika Unnikrishnan, a lawyer with a keen interest in education. She has been working actively as a Gandhi Fellow to engage government school students through art forms of dance, drama and storytelling. She believes in working to strengthen the current system through specified targeted interventions and solutions instead of creating a parallel system.

Please tell us a little about your personal journey. What made you want to move from law to education?

The narration of the personal journey changes as time passes, so what follows is what I remember at this point in my life! As a young girl, I wanted to be a journalist in order question the system and its current ways. In high school, I decided to switch to being a doctor for the number of lives I could save, for some reason. Then I joined law because I thought it would help me make a difference in the society, and did not involve as much studying! I interned at several places over the five-year course and worked with college committees to ensure that legal aid is accessible but always felt the gap with respect to the audience we had and the one we aspired to reach. In addition to this, my volunteer escapades in the education sector left me a lot more satisfied and motivated; be it teaching English under the Teach India program, volunteering at a TFI class for a month or being a mentor under IDIA program. So I was looking for a program that would help me combine my legal knowledge and love for kids and teaching, which was how I felt Gandhi fellowship would be a perfect platform. I genuinely believe that the society can be made or broken by children, and education is the best way to get to them to know their hopes, dreams and aspirations in order to raise a self aware adult.

Tell us about your work with the Gandhi Fellowship and your Ketto campaign, Playground in Villages.

The fellowship was started with a dual purpose: to strengthen the current school system with better pedagogical practices and new ideas provided by youth, who in turn learn to see the world through a new lens and explore the skills they have within themselves to become a ‘nation builder’. I have been a fellow for the past one and a half years, working in government schools in Surat and Sanand (a little away from Ahmedabad) to better school systems through processes such as library and BALA (Building As Learning Aid) and tools such as TIPPS (Teacher Instructional Practices and Processes System) and TNAT (Teacher Needs Analysis Tool). Apart from this, I conducted sessions on menstruation and menstrual hygiene, career awareness through talks over Skype and GTalk and used dance and drama to boost attendance and give an outlet for the kids’ creativity.

The Ketto campaign was in collaboration with Anthill Creations to provide these children with a space of their own to play, learn and grow. The campaign was to build playgrounds in three locations: Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. When I approached my Headmistress with this idea, she was quite excited to build one for our school! The kids were elated when broached with this topic and decided to participate in the fundraiser wholeheartedly. We filmed a video where they explained why they wanted a playground and put it up on social media, and it took off. After the initial spike in receiving funds, I had to strategize and actively promote for the cause using all platforms I had at my disposal: WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, you name it. It was a fun journey raising the INR 1.5 Lakhs for the playground and we hope to start working on building some playgrounds very soon!

What are the challenges you face and the resources you need for your work? 

The biggest challenge I think we face is explaining our role and work to the school staff. It is assumed that we are here due to the lack of placement opportunities in our specific fields and to break that mindset and prove that we really care for education and the want to help in bettering the system is a quite a task, not to say that it isn’t pleasant! Entry into the community is comparatively easier but staying and working there (which is what we do in a phase called Community Immersion) really tests our commitment and zeal to work and pushes our boundaries to the ultimate limits. I believe that each and every one of our challenges helps us in self growth: be it identification of areas of improvement or improve values of empathy, tolerance etc., so it has shaped me as a person over the past year.

From my very limited exposure to this field, I think what one needs to break into and really perform in this sector is a strong belief in adding value to the society and grit, in addition to communication skills, being creative and being self motivated. Having a laptop and a good bunch of colleagues is an added bonus.

What role does storytelling play in education?

Storytelling is one of the oldest arts in our civilisation and a language all of us understand well. So, anything said it in the form of a story tends to stick in our heads for longer. Think of it: there is a greater possibility of you remembering a funny story from your grade four than you remembering a chapter taught in grade eight or chances are that you preferred your language classes over math and science ones. This is because a good story makes you imagine, feel, think, question, enjoy and most importantly, engage. This fact has slowly been recognised in India and the system is moving towards adoption of these practices. NCERT has consciously tried to convert its textbooks (especially math and science) into this format, a move I laud them for.

But adding a good story to the curriculum does not do the trick, it is important that the content is delivered correctly too. A great script can be ruined through crappy acting, while brilliant acting elevates a sub-par script. The problem currently is that stories are thought of as a means to cover time or as an additional activity, not as something that is a powerful tool to get our kids interested and engaged in education. This mentality needs to be changed, something I’m trying to break through my interventions in my five schools.

Sagarika with her children at school.

Describe a day in your life.

On a typical school day, I have to be in office by 9 am. Once there, we usually have assembly where we do a baal geet and chetna geet followed by debrief where we split into our zonal groups and discuss our plan or last day’s execution of plan with our Program Leader (PL). I then leave for one of the five schools alloted to me with my bike partner and try to join in time for assembly where I either do a baal geetor share a story. A discussion with the Principal on the day’s plan is followed by following up on the tracks (intervention points: library and a tool called TIPPS, for now) currently in motion. This month, we were also intervening in the classroom by taking classes in Math and language with the teacher in Grade Three for 2 hours. Library in-charge and/or library committee meeting is conducted to know the places where support is needed and what is going well. TIPPS videos are made and analysed, if time permits.

On weekends or non-school days, we have assembly followed by sessions on either tracks, mini boot camps on topics for self growth or Leadership Curriculum (LC) created to ensure that each fellow leaves the fellowship with enough skills and tools to become a nation builder.

What does the ideal education system look like?

For me, an ideal education system addresses the needs of every child physically, emotionally and mentally. It provides kids with the knowledge, skills and tools required to face the 21st century world and ensures that they have a happy and fulfilling childhood. This would include skills of critical thinking, empathy, risk taking, collaboration and tolerance, to name a few. Realistically, I want kids to come and leave the school with a smile on the face!

What would you like for people to understand better about your work?

I want them to know that it is a choice I made consciously and not something done as an afterthought or as an alternative. So, to be seen as the shining examples to the youth, self sacrificing young people and what not for the sheer reason that we work in the social sector with the ‘underprivileged’ is quite annoying sometimes and I hope that everyone understands that while it feels good to be praised, the adulation gets on the nerves! This is because I learn more from my kids and parents and teachers everyday than what I can give them. It is a very humbling experience to share a meal in a family that cannot really afford to feed another person or when kids share their stories with you which they feel they cannot tell anyone else, so that side of our world remains hidden which makes us realise that we gain so much more than what we attempt to give, therefore making us unworthy of such praise. We really appreciate when people share our posts and messages for resources or money though, so keep that going!

Which country’s policies on children’s rights or education are worth learning from and why?

For a country of the size and population like ours to declare right to education as a fundamental right makes me cry tears of joy so I would highly recommend reading through Article 21-A of the Constitution and Right to Education Act to learn how to implement such a large scale idea, which is not saying it is faultless. National Policy on Education (NPE) and National Curriculum Framework (NCF) are required readings to know the priorities of the government with respect to education. I believe it is difficult to work in a sector without knowing (at least broadly) what are the issues the government thinks need to be addressed and steps taken to do the same, which is why the fellowship makes everyone read up on these three policies in the very first semester as well.

I would recommend anyone interested in education or impacting children to read Divaswapna, Tottochan and Summerhill.

Describe 3 books or tell us about three people that have impacted your life.

To narrow it down to three people is an extremely difficult task, so I’m making it into three categories of people I am thankful for!

My parents have had a major impact on my life, because apart from bringing me to this world, they let me and my sister choose our paths providing unconditional love and support (and money!), something I can never thank them enough for. Their work ethic, financial management and skills to manage good relationships in an Indian household have astounded me, and I hope to be half as good as them when I’m a little older. The entire fellowship gang: co-fellows, higher ups in the organisation or alumni, inspire me through their work and commitment to the cause. Seeing them ideate and implement those very ideas bring about a lot of motivation and reassurance that people do care. Lastly, my friends have constantly inspired and motivated me to keep doing what I like and for that I am eternally grateful to each and every one of them. They help me with ideas, research, fund raise and just lend a ear once a while to vent, which is very therapeutic in a field like this.

What is your advice to the youth?

As a twenty-four year old lawyer from Mumbai currently in the social sector living in a village working in government schools, I think that we should not undermine the power our voices have to bring a change in the society. The challenge is to get over our fear of ridicule and log kya kahenge attitude. Identify areas where you think we need to improve on or a problem that has gone unidentified or ignored, and look for ways to solve it. We forget that the weapon called internet exists for all the right reasons as well, so do your research, band people together, register your complaints and speak up. Use social media to raise concerns, bring issues to forth that are not being addressed or add your view to a burning topic of discussion. But please don’t restrict your activism to the online sphere only and make sure that it is followed in your actions and thought, and does not just exist in letter. We are lucky to be alive in a time where change is widely accepted and even demanded, so let’s use that advantage.

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