Five Tips for Creating Learning Spaces that Lead to Change

When Vishal Talreja started Dream a Dream with friends in 1999, he was armed more with passion than experience in education or development. But after a transformative and boundary-shattering experience working with HIV-positive children in India’s shelter homes, Talreja felt the very real need to put his empathy into sustained action.

He came to realize that the shelter system had to provide much more than refuge: without the ability to work in teams, to communicate effectively, and to feel a core sense of resilience and self-efficacy, young people would end up back on the streets the instant they left the home. Dream a Dream has since developed a life-skills teaching approach that is altering how people view street children—and how street children view themselves.

The program’s ripples are beginning to transform India’s caste-based society. Dream a Dream trains adult facilitators to work with youth and then builds additional alliances by bringing in an army of community volunteers. All involved work to foster and sustain safe spaces that cultivate empathy.

Here are five techniques that Talreja uses to create those spaces:

1. Empower everyone to be learners and teachers

The children, adult facilitators, and community volunteers are all encouraged to be both learners and teachers. For children, this may mean recognizing that a peer struggles in a certain subject or at a certain game, and stepping in to give them a hand.

For the adult facilitators, it means an in-depth training session that focuses on their own personal transformation. Facilitators learn about themselves, constructing and defining their own narratives and views on the world, before ever walking into the room to work with youth.

This same principle is likewise critical to the transformation of volunteers. Volunteers do not simply give their time and skills; they are asked daily to forge personal relationships and learn from the children they serve.

As these relationships deepen, they start asking questions that catalyze important shifts in understanding: “This child could easily be the son or daughter of the driver at my house. If I’m giving so much love, care, and respect to this child, why do I mistreat the driver so much?”

2. Build space for reflection

Dream a Dream incorporates life lessons about teamwork and building healthy relationships into all kinds of group activities, cementing them through an intentional reflection. If, for example, a child learns principles of conflict management during a game of soccer, they’re then asked to figure out how to translate them into their own lives in the slums, and to challenges they may face with their peers or parents.

After one reflection, Talreja recalled, a young adult came back up and said, “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to change my father’s attitude toward beating me up, but today at least, I understand where he comes from. I understand why he’s so violent. It’s because he didn’t have anyone to guide him when he was a child.”

Though a child might just sign up for a game of soccer, a carefully guided reflection afterward can leave him or her with powerful life-long insights.

3. Play “In,” not “Out”

Usually when you play a game, whoever makes a mistake is then “out.” That sends a very powerful message: “If you’re not good enough, you’re always going to be thrown out of life.”

And thus people start labeling themselves: “I am good,” “I am not good,” “I am not good enough,” “someone else is better than me”—you know the drill.

Every single game played at Dream a Dream removes the isolation that comes with being knocked out. If make a mistake, you start facilitating the game, breaking down the concept of winners and losers.

Affirmation plays an equally important role. “India is a place of saying, ‘no, no, no,” said Talreja, “You can’t do this, this will never work.”

The organization instead plays the “Yes Game,” where you’re only allowed to say “yes.” That simple word has a catalytic effect on individuals’ belief in their own voice and ability.   

4. Create a Community Agreement

Whether the group is coming together for sports events, art workshops, or neighborhood projects, they are asked to create a Community Agreement. Children propose and agree upon the goals of the session and then on the commitments they’ll make to ensure that the group reaches its goals and intended outcomes.

It can be as simple as agreeing to show up on time, or to be 100 percent present when a meeting is in session. Children have also been known to make rather extreme commitments, in an effort to keep the group on track: “We will not take a toilet break when the session is going on, so we’ll go to the toilet before we come to the session.”

These agreements are also molded and shared by facilitators so that everyone feels equally invested in the success of the community.

5. Question the status quo

“Once we take you to that space of empowerment, you’ll be ready to help someone else,” Talreja said. Moving from an initial state of accepting things the way are—where poverty is fate and the caste system is unshakeable—to a place where your ideas have value and you have an opportunity to do something in life, is a powerful thing.

By being more aware of themselves, their peers, and their surroundings, the children are empowered to ask questions that lead to action: “Why are the communities I live in the way they are, and how can I change that?”

Children have been able to look around them and identify all kinds of issues that were once just unchangeable pieces of their reality. One group decided to get the community to follow better sanitation practices.

Another group took the initiative to teach art to students in a neighboring school, without even telling the Dream a Dream program. “It’s that expression of empathy,” says Talreja, “that allows them to become changemakers.”