Barefoot College Trains Illiterate Grandmothers to be Solar Technicians

Bunker Roy presents plenary session at Social Venture Network fall conference

Thursday, November 22, 2012 -- Camille Jensen

RYE BROOK, NY – Sanjit "Bunker" Roy has shown it works hundreds of times: train a grandmother and you can change the world.

BunkerThat's what he's been doing in India, Afghanistan and Africa, where older women, chosen by their village, are invited to travel to the world's first college for the poor and illiterate and receive solar installation training to provide light to their villages.

Through partnerships with nonprofits and other organizations, the approach has trained more than 700 grandmothers in 49 countries, bringing light to 450,000 people while reducing 13 metric tonnes of carbon emissions per day.

Roy presented on his work founding Barefoot College, which turns traditional education systems on their head, at Social Venture Network's (SVN) fall conference Nov. 15.

According to Roy, he was inspired to create a college for the poor after receiving a privileged Indian education that almost ruined him.

He chose to abandon a life of privilege to go work as a well digger for five years in rural India. It was there he witnessed the importance of traditional knowledge in solving rural problems, as well as the opportunity to train villagers in professions needed in their village, including implementing and maintaining green technology.

Barefoot College only takes students who live on less than a dollar a day, and cannot read. Through non-written learning models and sign language, villagers and people throughout the developing world have been trained to become dentists, doctors and solar engineers.

Likewise, teachers cannot have a formal degree, and instead must show they have a skill and service that is of use to the community.

Roy says the school is redefining professionalism to be about competence, confidence and belief. Teachers can be midwives and rain water harvesters, who are bringing traditional practices back to India at a time when they are needed most.

Graduates don't receive a certificate.

"We think the certification should be done by the community itself, not the university you go to," Roy tells the more than 200 people attending the session.

Roy says the illiterate of the 21st century won't be those who can't read or write, but rather those who are unable to learn, unlearn and re-learn.

He adds Barefoot College is setting an example for new education models by showing the impossible is possible. From offering night school in 225 locations to children who work during the day to reminding the world of the ability and resource of elders, the barefoot movement is only getting started.

"There is no question the barefoot approach is here to stay," says Roy. "What Mahatma Ghandi says comes to mind: 'First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win.'"

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