What if you walk into a university to find out that there are no classrooms, no teachers, degrees, curriculum, and exams? Above all, you even see people learning joyfully in their own ways, involving their head-heart-hands, doing in their lives what interests them the most. Welcome to this place of learning and unlearning called Swaraj University, which for last 6 years has been providing platform for youth to identify their hearts’ vision and engage them in developing the skills and practices they need to manifest that vision.
Learners at Swaraj are known as khojis i.e. seekers. These khojis come from all over the country. They are also from varied socio-economic backgrounds and hail from metropolitan cities, semi-urban as well as rural areas. The first cohort of khojis joined Swaraj in 2010 and in the last 6 years, 93 khojis, more than 250 mentors, and countless other supporters from all over the world have been part of the program while the idea has reached many more in some way or the other.
It’s a 2-year program that is partially structured, and partially co-created with khojis to enable them to become self-designed learners and whole, happy and healthy beings. The question might arise that why we need a program for self-designed learners. All of us have experienced self-designed learning, and we might be ready to walk our own unique paths, several factors stop us: fear and doubt, lack of mentorship or guidance, finding supportive co-travelers, socio-economic responsibilities or simply not knowing how to start.
At Swaraj University, we support khojis to start, create and reclaim self-designed learning processes, provide a safe space to the learners to walk their path with other co-travelers, engage them with many unlearning challenges to help them out of their comfort zones and build deeper perspectives for regenerating self, soil and society. We also connect them with a wide network of individuals and organizations that provide internship, mentoring and work opportunities, support them to discover, articulate and work towards shifts that our world needs today and give the opportunity to translate dreams and passions into real and sustainable livelihood possibilities. The program also involves building skills like critical questioning, self-awareness, effective communication, goal setting, project planning, self-evaluation, managing multiple perspectives and more.
Khojis from the previous batches have explored more than 75 different fields, some of them are sustainable living practices, eco-architecture, farming, theatre, design, healing (psychology, pranic healing, naturopathy, etc.) technology, facilitation/teaching, writing, film making, storytelling, alternative education, kabaad se jugaad, event-management, and much more.
The Story Behind
Four visionaries – Reva Dandage, Manish Jain, Nitin Paranjape and Deborah Frieze – who imagined a democratic learning space for youth to engage in, founded Swaraj University. The seeds, however, had their foundations years back. One of the co-founders, Reva Dandage, in spite of being an above-average student in school failed in all subjects of class 12th exam. During the same time, two of her friends committed suicide due to failure in exams. This made her question the parameters of grading and measurement and pushed her to find the dreadful impacts it were causing to a learner. She felt these parameters were not leaving learners with satisfaction and happiness; rather they created new social hierarchies like rank, grades, pass or fail. Then on, she has been passionately involved with democratic education. Her interest in understanding the pedagogy of self-directed learning made her leave a well-established design business and took her to several alternative and free schools around the world.
Manish Jain, on the other hand worked with UNESCO, where one of his tasks was to get mainstream education to African nations and that is when he realized that there were traditional learning systems already placed in those places, to which the mainstream education not just neglected, but destroyed. He saw a big picture of how the whole education system is destroying local cultures, traditions, occupations and is creating more insecurity and fear, and is getting people ready only for corporate slavery. This made him quit his job and he came back to India, and along with his wife and sister, initiated a learning movement called Shikshantar in Udaipur. For last 18 years, Shikshantar has worked tirellesly creating alternatives and challenging mainstream education system. It has also worked for creating Udaipur as learning city. Over the years, several hundred people have visited Shikshantar and have gotten inspired and taken home a seed for change in their lives. Manish along with his wife have unschooled their daughter Kanku and has motivated many families to do the same.
Nitin has been actively involved in activism through Abhivyakti Media for Development, an organization he and his wife started 25 year back in Nasik and has actively worked with land rights movement including Narmada Bachao Andolan. Nitin, in his life, has experimented a lot on learning and unlearning. He also supported her daughter to unschool. He opens up space for talking which a youth does not find anywhere in society. Nitin and Manish ran a fellowship program called Berkana fellows for self-driven adults striving for a different lifestyle and occupation just before the launch of Swaraj.
Deborah, another co-founder, lives in USA and was long associated with Berkana institute. This US-based nonprofit promotes “leadership development” projects based on community conversations on issues of interest. She has also co-authored a book with with Meg Wheatley called Walk Out Walk On: A Learning Journey into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now. She also runs an urban learning center where neighbors gather to rediscover how to create healthy communities.
Uniqueness of Swaraj University
One frequent compliment we have received all these years from khojis is that this place offers them acceptance that they struggle to get outside, and that is one of the biggest reason youth have been attracted to Swaraj. Unfortunately, due to pressures of society, family, media, and education system, youth today are devoid of acceptance at every level. In the tender age of 15-27, a lot changes in the life of a youth which they need to cater to – there are struggles with parents on career & livelihood; that is when they begin tryst with relationships and love; there are a lot of bodily changes, one also begins to question their role in the society, or find purpose of life, or try to understand one’s own sexuality. Unfortunately, our education system and none of the universities focus on all these aspects of life. The only focus is on career and livelihood. Thus a lot of youth today struggle with low self-esteem, and if unnoticed and uncared for, they carry the unnecessary emotional baggage with them.
At Swaraj, apart from understanding one’s interests and practicing skills, a lot of focus is on holistic learning; which means it is inclusive of understanding self, working with community, harmonizing relationships at home and society, and understanding body and emotions, and much more. Workshop on Non-Violent Communication (NVC), Understanding, Gender and Sexuality, Dance Movement Therapy, Jeevan Vidya, and living together in a community at Swaraj have helped khojis find balance in their lives. To cite an example, two of our khojis at separate point of time had to miss their mentorship and had to spent time with their ailing fathers. Any other place of study or work would have not counted or valued this experience, but here, as a community, we did it and rather encouraged them to hold that period of time as a learning time. One of them, Dhaval even used NVC to bridge many gaps to heal his strained relationship with his father.
Khojis are also empowered to build their own support structure involving parents, peers, friends, mentors, and other people who can motivate, inspire, instigate, critique and hold them through their journey.
Life at Swaraj University teaches youth to be an active citizen in a democratic community. Right from deciding a day’s schedule to deciding what kind of food experiments the community want to try, from resolving a conflict to sometimes sitting 8 hours at stretch in a community meeting struggling to come to a decision – all of it has help khojis build muscle to live in any kind of group – be it in a family or workspace. Democratic education has helped khojis be more tolerant, patient and learn to look at other’s point of view- which is very essential in today’s living.
Swaraj University also does not offer any degrees, diploma or certificate, nor does it have or require accreditation from anyone. The word ‘University’ was intentionally added to challenge the notion and provoke learners on what they think education is. ‘University’ also means a place to learn, research, experiment. So why does one need to have permission for the same? Thus, encouraging youth and society to reclaim our learning rather than being stuck with baseless papers, which have no value. Also, Swaraj helps khojis build their learning portfolios, which comprises of their experiences, actual work models and recommendation letters from mentors, peers, and feedback council.
The best part for khojis as well as the team has been the continuous evolution of the program. It has never been the same for any khoji cohort, and nor it has been for the facilitating team. Every khoji cohort bring their own flavors, ideas and needs, thus helping the program to not be stagnant but evolve keeping everyone on toes, ready to learn new things, challenging & pushing everyone out of their comfort zones.
What are our khojis up to?
More than 40 khojis have completed their two-years of program at Swaraj University and a lot of them have begun to work on their heart’s calling. Some of the initiatives are:
Ritesh is currently running a collaborative enterprise called Eco-Hut, which is a store in Udaipur that sells handmade herbal products, products out of waste, books, and hand-made jewelry. She makes jewelry out of seeds.
Gyan is a documentary filmmaker. He has worked with Ekta Parishad, a pan-India organization working on land rights movement, covering 18000kms of Jan Samvaad Yatra. He has also worked with other activist organizations and has made more than 50 films.
Kamalbir has started her own enterprise ‘Saadgi’ where she with the help of women-folk of a village in Udaipur, makes utility bags out of fabric waste and then markets it at various handicrafts store and exhibitions.
Arjun has been working extensively with SkillTrain in developing video content, marketing and the website administration part of it. SkillTrain is a technology-enabled blended vocational training company that offers online and mobile-based training programs to cater to prospective vocational skill learners anywhere in India, for free.
Anant started his own company called ‘EndlessCycle’ that specifically organises cycle tours in Srirangapatna, near Mysore. He’s been living sustainably, full-time on a farm in Mysore since 2years and recently started another venture named ‘Goldilocksoil’. They produce organic Virgin coconut oil- using fresh instead of dried coconuts.
Karen left her job of 5 years in IT & Advertising sector and gave herself space to explore her association with theatre. She has begun directing theatre shows in Bangalore and recently directed a theatrical play called ‘Taramandal’.
Savyasachi is pursuing a major in Film studies from Srishti School (Bangalore). Without much of a background in the field, he says he got into the college based on his portfolio which was full of stories from his journey with Swaraj.
Vikas is currently practicing Pranic healing on gift culture basis in Anand, Gujarat and carries out small experiments in farming with his wife. During the course of Swaraj process, Vikas worked at Vinobha ashram (Naturopathy centre) for 1 year and experimented that year living without money and later also practiced consultancy for 6 months at a friend’s clinic in alternative therapy.
Rahul Karanpuriya has initiated his traveling and learning process called 52 parindey, in the process of which, he will travel to 52 differently located people who have self-designed learners in their life and are experimenting with their life and lifestyles. The intention is to make short films and inspire others to take a leap and walk on their own path.
Read more stories of what khojis are up to.
Many other khojis are trying out different things, experimenting different ways of lifestyle and livelihoods, some figuring out what kind of life they want to live, some confused, some trying to understand the impact they want to create in society, but all are connected to each other, sometimes working at individual levels, yet kind of supported by a community.
Ideas, experiments and way forward
Many people, of all ages, show interest in being part of Swaraj University but due to family and financial responsibility and unavailability of time, they are not able to join. For people who cannot afford to give 2 years into it, we have short period workshops, which are open for khojis as well as outsiders, which also helps people interact with the khojis and get the feel of the program and space. A few upcoming workshops are on Non-violent Communication from 9th – 13th December, Rethinking Development from 20th – 27th December, and Sociocracy from 24th – 28th January. Experienced facilitator coming from different parts of the India and abroad facilitate these workshops.
At Swaraj we also are constantly striving (failing, falling, getting up, trying again) to imagine and create a space for being the gift – which means slowly cultivating inside us and around us a wholesome state of giving and receiving. As a part of this, we are experimenting with gift culture practices in our relationships with khojis, mentors, resource persons and team-members like moving from transaction to trust, contracting to connecting, scarcity to abundance, private ownership to commons, extracting from relationships to nourishing each other. These are big words and yet they hold meaning for us in small acts.
We believe spaces like Swaraj University can sprout up anywhere and everywhere. The idea for us is not to scale up and expand to various cities, but support individuals, groups and communities to begin one in their own locality, with their own philosophies, design and ideas. That is how learning can evolve and be diverse; otherwise, expansion with the same idea will homogenize the learning and will turn it destructive similar to mainstream education.
First published on The Common Indian