When I was a junior in high school I read a short story by Hemmingway for English class entitled “A clean well-lighted place.” At this time I was working my way through Hemingway’s book of short stories “In Our Time,” so I had read lots of his work, but this story stuck with me for some reason. The story is about an old man who comes every night to a café and drinks until very late, and a disagreement between the two waiters who serve him about whether or not to close the café early and send the drunk man home. The story primarily features the waiter who believes the café should remain open, because although one waiter claimed that the old man could “buy a bottle and drink at home” the main waiter believed in the solace of “a clean well-lighted place.” I still don’t understand why this story spoke to me to such an extent during my junior year, but I do now believe with all of my heart in the impact that a space can have.
My first realization of the importance of space in creating an positive environment was during my work as a UROP intern. I helped out as a research intern for Community Action Network in Ann Arbor, a nonprofit that runs after school programs for youth in under-resourced neighborhoods in the Ann Arbor public school district. My job was to interview all the children, asking them questions about the way they view education, about their safety and home-life, and about their general wellbeing. The results of these interviews were some of the data that CAN used to demonstrate their impact in their grant applications. The idea was that if a kid participated in after school programs for many semesters, we would be able to see their survey answers impacted as well.
Conducting these interviews, I realized that the reason why CAN made an impact on the life of the kids it worked with had very little to do with the actual substance of the academic activities. While the kids did have 20 minutes of scheduled reading time, 20 minutes of scheduled homework time, and 20 minutes of some other enrichment work every day, often times this schedule was compromised. Typically during the reading rotation, perhaps 5 or 10 of those 20 minutes would be really productive reading. However, when I wasn’t feeling like I was able to engage the kids productively, I would step back and remind myself that 20 minutes of reading really wasn’t what mattered for these kids.
One of the questions that I asked during these interviews was “How would your life be different if you didn’t participate in our program?” The answers to these tended to be about getting to see Skylar (the center director) every day, about playing with friends, or about how they would be sad and bored if they went straight home right after school. In a life where home and school aren’t necessarily safe, clean, positive, and structured environments, being able to provide such an environment was the biggest contribution that CAN’s after school programs and summer programs could offer. Each child knew that when they walked to the community center, regardless of what else was happening in their life or in the world, they would get to eat something if they were hungry, they would be treated with kindness and respect, they would be surrounded by workers who told them education was important, and there would be enforcement of basic rules. Hate was not allowed at the community center, crime had no place, and the fridge was always full.
When I was doing my research about NGOs in India, I was really at a loss for what direction I wanted to go. Initially I wanted to go the public health route, then I was looking at mostly female empowerment organizations, but ultimately when I came across the Prajna foundation it just felt right. Prajna has six modest community centers based in slums across New Delhi. The community centers provide tutoring, take their kids to events and on field trips, help subsidize school tuition, and engage the kids in artistic and cultural activities. Basically, Prajna created an environment right inside the slum neighborhoods that did not exist before. The center was a clean well-lighted place.
When I arrived and began teaching English in the mornings, I immediately saw many striking similarities. Even though kids would complain sometimes about the teachers being too strict or would have days when they were frustrated and didn’t want to study, they still came and played within the gates of the center hours before the program even started. Once I left my water bottle at the center and came back 3 hours after program. The kids were still playing inside the gates, despite the fact that the building itself had been locked for several hours.
When I became frustrated with the teaching, I would remind myself that it didn’t matter how much English I would be able to teach the five girls who I was working with. What mattered was that we were demonstrating to these children that places like the one we created could exist. Once the kids knew what it felt like to be in clean, safe, places where love and respect were the defaults, and rules were enforced, it was much easier to convince them that a better life could exist in their future. Prajna provides their kids with not only the academic tools and physical resources to help the children escape the cycle of poverty, but also with a reason to believe that they could achieve a better life.
Today I got a tour of another school space in a different slum neighborhood. This time I was just going to see a local college program where the university students taught in their neighboring slum. The conditions in this slum were worse than the conditions in the one I was working in. Furthermore, the slum was entirely Muslim, in a country where the government is dominated by Hindu traditionalists. Not only are slum people looked down upon in India, but Hindu/Muslim tensions are really widespread as well. When the professor who initiated this teaching partnership began the program, the students from the university would teach the kids inside the school classrooms on Sunday (when the campus was unused except for the security guards). Other professors protested and said that it was a security issue because the kids were Muslim. The program was banned from using public university land and had to relocate to a space inside the slum, despite the fact that the university full of empty classrooms and the slum were less than one kilometer away from each other.
We climbed a giant precarious set up stairs into the new space that they found to teach in. It was a tiny room above a stand where a man was selling live chickens. Here there were no flies or goats walking around. There was a single computer, and a window that let in lots of sunlight. This classroom space was reserved for older girls. Stepping into the room it was clear that you had entered an entirely different universe than the one that lay at the bottom of the staircase. The girls went around and introduced themselves.
“My name is Anushka and I want to be a lawyer”
“My name is Iqra and I want to be the prime minister”
“My name is Hiba. I am a housewife and I want to become a working woman.”
There were many other hopeful teachers, surgeons, and one future railway security officer (not entirely sure why that was the dream but still cool that she knew exactly what she wanted to do).
When my host dad asked the girls what the purpose of education was, Iqra responded that the purpose of education was to stop discrimination. Iqra was 13.
Over and over, I have seen the power that space and environment can hold. If you’ve ever walked into a place of worship in a rough neighborhood, that is the kind of atmosphere that these community centers create. They encourage environments where education is sacred, regardless of creed or class. As somebody who has never been religious, that was the closest thing I had ever had to a spiritual experience. It was as if the air was different inside that classroom. The same is true of Prajna, and the same is true of Community Action Network.
Walking out of the slum, I had to hold my breath due to the smell and couldn’t breath through my mouth because there were so many swarming flies. Right as I exited the slum, I turned around and saw this man. It that is not some kind of sign, I have no idea what is.