Indian slum activists are Revolutionary Optimists at Melinda Gates TED talk

ted_talksToday, at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, was another one of those TED franchise talks.

For this latest spin-off of the popular by-invitation-only main TED talks, this one known as a TEDxChange, Melinda Gates hosted a talk given in Seattle and webcast online on positive disruption – on challenging time-worn assumptions, prompting creative solutions to entrenched problems and inspiring even the most disenfranchised to recognize their personal power.

Speakers included a clever young poet from Nigeria, a theologian who claimed it was progress for the Catholic Church to officially consider the possibility that condoms are not immoral, a social media expert who claimed social media is changing the world, journalist Roger Thurow (an expert on hunger and agriculture in Africa) and an inspiring young woman Melinda met on a trip to Niger.

Like most TED talks, it was fun with a lot of broad and encouraging statements without too many complicating details. The webcast itself was ‘negatively disrupted’ (lots of jokes on Twitter about this) when the TED live stream dropped just as Melinda was making her opening statements. It was restored minutes later.

Of all the featured speakers, there may be no better examples of positive disruptors than 14-year-old Sikha Patra and 15-year-old Salim Shekh, along with their revolutionary Bengali community activist and mentor Amlan Ganguly. Salim and Sikha spoke with Melinda at the event. I talked with them earlier.

Revolutionary Optimists

The three are the main characters in a documentary, Revolutionary Optimists, a prize-winning film that describes the stunning work of children working to improve life in one of India’s most notorious slums, in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), West Bengal. The film opened in theaters nationwide on March 29. It’s an incredible, moving — and yes, positively disruptive — film.

In short, the film documents the work of Ganguly and his organization Prayasam in the slums of West Bengal. One of the key strategies is to enlist children as the main change agents – children like Salim and Sikha.

“I didn’t start out with this approach,” said Ganguly, who was educated as an attorney and in the mid-1990s sought to help empower poor communities. He explained that his first stab at it was to talk with the adults. But he found the adults too cynical, or too tired, to fight for change. “Nothing will happen, they told me, go away.”

But the children he met in the slums had not yet given up, Ganguly noticed. They were hopeful and asked what they could do to help.

“I took them seriously,” he said. “Children, being children, believed in their power to change things and didn’t worry about failure … Besides, I find I’m very bad with adults anyway.”

But he’s apparently amazing with children. The film documents the work of many young people like Salim and Sikha pressuring local officials or powerful business people to transform a garbage dump into a soccer field, to start a school for factory workers, to beef up polio vaccinations (and keep India polio free) and install more access to clean water.

One of the most amusing, and inspiring, moments in the film is when Salim, Sikha and other children present a complex hand-drawn map of their community to local officials pointing out the locations of all the unkept promised water pumps.

One of the officials says the map is missing some data and to come back when the map is more accurate. Sikha immediately confronts this evasion by pointing out that she’s just a 12-year-old girl (at the time of filming) and that it is up to the officials to fill in the blanks. She smiled, recalling the issue.

“We are learning,” Sikha said. Learning how to get things done, how to positively disrupt the status quo and conventional wisdom. And they did eventually get a water pump to provide their community with clean water. Not enough, but a start.

“We have fun doing it,” said Salim, in an interview at Seattle’s Maxwell Hotel. “We have 75 members on our team … It can be difficult, because that is also 75 attitudes. But we have learned a lot and have made many changes … Knowledge is not just in a book; it is in the environment.”

Salim Shekh, Sikha Patra, Nicole Newnham, Amlan Ganguly and Maren Grainger Moran discuss their film Revolutionary Optimists in Seattle
Salim Shekh, Sikha Patra, Nicole Newnham, Amlan Ganguly and Maren Grainger Moran discuss their film Revolutionary Optimists in Seattle

One of the film-makers, Nicole Newnham, told me that when they first contacted Ganguly about doing the film, he hung up on them. Then the film “Slumdog Millionaire” came out, somewhat complicating their attempt to do a serious film on the work of community activists in low-income communities.

Ganguly said he doesn’t like the world ‘slum,’ in part because the word itself seems to imply that those living in these poor settlements are hopeless and in despair – and should see themselves as such. As has been reported many times, the world’s slum population is now something like one-seventh of humanity and growing. We better get a more hopeful and proactive approach to how we view these places, Ganguly said.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.