I landed in India on Monday at 3:50 AM with no other arrangements other that 4 nights booked at Moustache Hostel and the intention to stay for a month. And I knew I wanted to visit Swaraj University so I asked my friend Martin to help with an introduction. Martin kindly helped and also mentioned “the unconference”. Almost too good to be true: The Noida NCR Learning City UnConference was taking place right in my first week in India! What other starting point for exploring alternative education in India could I ask for?
The warm welcome to my tribe in India
I got there late enough to miss the introduction. As I walked through the gate, a cheerful energy invited me to relax about being late. Someone who appeared to be among the participants, probably noticing my disorientation, spontaneously asks: Do you know what an unconference is?
I know the concept and love it. I used Open Space format in a few events and organized the first RestartEdu Unconference in 2012. RestartEdu Unconference is now probably the most important anual gathering of education innovators in Romania, thanks to its wonderful host for the past three years: Ana Răducanu. (Bragging sidenote: Ana is also a graduate of Alternative University and one of the most promising young leaders I know in Romania. Read her blog here.)
But I did not mention any of that to Vijay. I wanted to hear what he will choose to tell me about this unconference. Vijay is a professional dancer and instructor, about to start his own dance company. He encouraged me to go around, talk to people and hug them. And then gave me a welcome hug as a proof of concept.
That is probably the most welcoming large event that I steped into as a total stranger. And the best thing about it: this detail was not ”organized and planned for”. It was something spontaneous emerging out of that space and Vijay’s friendly personality. This welcoming spirit was the highlight of the UnConference for me. I probably needed a warm welcome to India :-)
A diverse tribe
This continued throughout the day, as I met Manish, Deepankar, Surhabi, Manik and his young brother, Vibhuti, Naman, Chandra, Kunar, Sonali, Rahul, Manish Kataria and others that I did’t find on facebook yet. Although I talked to only a small part of the 400+ attendees, each minute I was absorbing details and felt enriched and fascinated by people attending.
For example, Manish Jain is one of the founders of Swaraj University and Shikshantar – The People’s Institute for Rethinking Education and Development. Deepankar founded Anubhavshala – a learning & development organization working in the field of employee engagement and people development. Surabhi is an architect turned into toy designer who owns a brand of toys called Gammat (= essence of play). Vibhuti is just 7 months into being an Expressionist, helping teenagers express their true self. Naman is one month into starting his own company called MakeMe. Akshat is a teenage social entrepreneur, incredibly wise and articulate. Chandra is the CEO of IDG Smart City & Village. Sonali is an energetic software developer, interested in doing “something social”. Rahul has a personal project of 52 weeks and 52 jobs in organizations that work for environment. I also saw a Teach for India T-shirt and recognized a few books by John Taylor Gatto and Daniel Greenberg. I would guess that freedom is at the heart of all the unconventional approches to lifestyle, work, economy or society that were present. Or maybe the big freedom banner influenced me.
The level of collaboration and trust
The conference was a collaboration of four organizations but it felt like it was a collaboration of everybody involved. To have a diverse group of cool people in one place is one thing. But to have also this spirit of sharing, collaboration and trust among them, is even more amazing. This I found truly inspiring and goes to my Incredible India list!
All in all, I had the feeling of meeting the alter/natives of India, the heroes that build an alternative world that is wiser, more just, more joyful and of course sustainable. And I am grateful to everybody involved for having the chance to experience a piece of that world for a day.
A few more pictures from the Unconference here.