Sinjini Sengupta, in conversation with Ulrike Reinhard, the woman who is using skateboarding to build confidence amongst children in rural Madhya Pradesh.
In a loose cotton kurta and pyjama, her once fair skin now tanned, laughter lines adorning her constantly smiling face, author, futurist and community activist Ulrike Reinhard is hard to miss. Originally from Germany, Reinhard arrived at Janwaar, a remote village in Madhya Pradesh roughly two years ago. She had stood there on a hillock overlooking a stretch of barren 1.3 acres of land, which she later transformed into India’s first skateboard park for village children called the Janwaar Castle. It took her three and a half months to raise funds, and another three and a half months were spent on construction activities. Today, the centrepiece of Janwaar is a 450 sqm skate park – the first in rural India and the largest in the country.
Reinhard now lives in Madla, Madhya Pradesh, and rides her Bullet, sometimes twice every day, to the Janwaar Castle, through every season of the year. In 2015, the park finally opened in a rather humble inauguration.
sbcltr met with Reinhard to understand her work and her motivations better.
You have a PhD in Economics, how did you end up where you are now?
I was never an academic person. I have a more practical, hands-on orientation. I wanted to be involved in things. Economics taught me conceptual thinking. It trained me to look at things in a holistic way, to approach problems with logic based solutions. Whatever you do, you take it from the market and work on it, and then give it back. Economics deals more with the financial side. In my opinion, it is rather rigid in how it can accommodate human values, social or environment factors and different kinds of value based models. Now, everything I do in my life has to be centred on some kind of value, and that has never been money. Money came into the equation of course, but not as a purpose. Also, economics tries to explain the market that is trying to achieve equilibrium, and I have a problem in that assumption. We can no longer define the economy as a pursuit of a single balance across the society. I think that instead of one equilibrium, the real world market can have multiple, different kinds of equilibria at different levels. It is not necessary to combine all of those, or to define them. The academic models have not yet been developed to explain this adequately. Most of the work still uses models from the ‘70s or ‘80’s, which are obsolete. The number crunching mechanics will not work here. It has to be real time experience doing the work.
You’ve worked on multiple projects and international government bodies, corporate, magazines and villages. Can you tell us a bit about your experience?
You know, the consultancy industry, it works like this. They send a team of their people, who arrive and involve the management of the organization in discussions. They look at the problem, analyse it, and by the end of it they prepare a report and hand it out back to the organization. They tell them what to do. Now, where are the people involved, where’s participation, where is co-creation? The way I believe it works, you need to involve the people. Every project throughout my journey has been about people and collaboration.
In your TEDX address, you talk about “open processes,” can you please elucidate on the same?
This is how it works, you first set up an environment. You trigger some changes, disrupt the status quo and then you observe where it takes you from there. You realize that this version of economic leadership does not decide either the process or the path. The ownership is given to the participants, and the onus. In a decentralized model, we collaborate and develop a common understanding. We interact at an eye to eye level. We are stakeholders, each one of us. We allow for unpredictability, even as we hold a loosely set vision about where it can take us. We try and seek mutual grounds. This is the new form of economic leadership. All voices are equal to begin with in this model of co creation.
And what is your role in it?
My idea is to disrupt. Disruption is the first step of Change. Disrupt, shake, find a new equilibrium – this is how it works. I disrupt their existing state of lifestyle and show them a bigger world through the game and exposure, but they have to then find their new equilibrium.
How does it work out, the resources and the knowledge?
Internet can help us massively in this process. The power of the internet is grossly understated, underutilised. Internet can provide us with an extremely low cost platform to be able to collaborate. Internet can be an extremely powerful tool for the government and for its organizations in this decentralized model of collaborative creation.
Can you tell us a bit about your work at Janwaar Castle?
I handed over twenty skateboards to the children there, and I said to them – you have to now take care of that. During the construction phase, the children used the slopes to slide down and play games. No trainers. Self-learning on the go, soon they were experimenting, collaborating and joining hands. The stronger among them were picking up the frailer ones, elders passing the boards to younger ones. The parents and the other villages waited – a tad sceptical perhaps and a tad indifferent – so the children took to skating. Today, Janwaar Castle held a Pan India Skating contest on November 12-14, 2016. Participants from Mumbai, Varanasi, Delhi, Kolkata and Kovalam deep down in the south went on long train journeys to join the young skaters of Janwaar. They are bringing out their own newspaper “Janwaar Castle paw” on this occasion too. The village is busy gearing up, preparing infrastructural support, levelling lands with tractors, organizers arranging for stay of guests.
Well, I am not a skater, I played basketball as a child. The idea of skateboarding worked in Afghanistan ten to fifteen years back. So really, we didn’t think too much on that. Cricket would not work, in India. For this model. Football too would not. Skateboarding is sexy! And then, you have this restricted area, which in this case is 450 square metres for us. It improves your social skills. It is collaborative, in a way. Skateboarding also involves balance of mind and body. It is definitely all about balance. Another thing about skateboards is that, skateboarding has little rules to go with it, and so does Janwaar Castle. We just have two simple rules to abide by. The first rule is—no school, no skateboarding. The schools have seen a marked improvement in enrolment and attendance ever since we started the Skate Park here. The second rule is—girls first! Every time a boy sees a girl waiting for her turn, he has to hand over his skateboard to her. They are getting into a conscious habit here.
Do you think they’ll carry the rule back to their homes?
You see, the children are smart. They experience a difference between what they see in the skate park and what goes on at their homes. So, let them work it out.
How do you deal with the issues of exclusions and discriminations yourself?
For me, I address issues when they arrive to me, in specific forms. Take this case for example, when Vicky Roy came to visit Janwaar Castle, he offered to take a boy called Ankush and also his sister, with him to Delhi. I said, well, let’s go and ask their parents. The mother told us yes, you can take Ankush, but no for the sister. We told her that we either take both of them or neither. I had a translator with me. I asked her this, do you want your daughter to have your life, or do you want to give her an opportunity? Think. She then said yes. But then, the next day when the car was waiting outside to take them to the station, she again said no for the girl. We told her, no problem. We will send the car back, but it has to be both of them, or none. I also told her that if she wanted my help to explain to the father, I am there to help. After contemplation, finally, she agreed to send both her children. You see, this is not changing the way they live, not at all. But then, this is a disruption. Not only does the daughter get equal treatment, the mother in this case stands up and decides against the will of the father.
So maybe then, from such experiences, these kids will start to develop a wider outlook?
Maybe, maybe not. Let them decide what they want to do!” She insists. Who am I to decide for them? We can only look at the next hurdle, and if the child wants it, we help them to overcome it. One step at a time, small solo steps. They have to be ready to move. That is where change will start.
As we talk to Ulrike about the various small stories involved in her day to day life at Janwaar Castle, we come back to talk about Asha almost cyclically throughout the conversation. Asha is a sixteen year old at Janwaar, who attended the summer camp at the Skate Park last year in June and she did very well in English there. Surprised, Ulrike asked her if she wanted to go abroad to study. To England, Ulrike had proposed. The girl said yes, and it took eight months of convincing on her part, but the family finally relented.
What made you keep at it, given you have so much on your plate anyway?
The point is, Asha wants to go and also, well, this is my work. If at any point, Asha would have said no, I would have withdrawn. But she never relented. She wanted to go and that kept me moving. Once Asha’s parents were convinced, they stood by their words. The first time they appeared for the passport interview, it was rejected, but that did not make them cower. Her father also promised that he will not marry Asha off as soon as she would be back, and instead let her pursue her dreams. Asha now has her passport and is finally flying to London. We did our homework, and it was only a matter of time. The road which Asha takes when she walks back from Janwaar Castle to her home is not long, but then the local boys hang out at that place. They pass comments, they annoy the girls. Now when Asha walks home, she has the skateboard over her shoulder.
Shivraj is another boy at the Janwaar Castle, who has been granted a scholarship of fifteen thousand Indian rupees a month. But the challenge here is, Shivraj doesn’t like to go to school. He does not want to learn to read and write…
I know, if he feels he needs to read and write, he will learn it in no time, but until he feels that purpose to do so, who are we to say he needs to do that? It is our stupid idea, you see, and that we try to force on the kids. Shivraj is now accommodated in a school in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, a school where he fits better as they employ experiential learning techniques. He is currently happy and settled.
These victories are great, but there must have also been disappointments?
Why be disappointed? The trick is, you have to look at it as a game. The state approvals, the paperwork, the rigid approval systems, the political models, the complications… you cannot let them bring you down. We do our homework, and we know that results will come – now or later. The idea is not to give up, and not to let it upset you. We are building toilets. We are setting up solar power systems, which will ensure supply of drinking water all twelve months a year. In mid-November 2016, Nyjah Houston who is the world champion in street skateboarding came with his team of thirteen people to visit and collaborate at the Janwaar Castle. They also worked on addressing the drinking water issue in the village of Janwaar. The project is called “Let it flow”.
How do you see the village changing, as you work with them?
When we had just arrived, the welcome was sceptical. They did not know what we are up to. They thought we’d perhaps take out something, from this. Also, there were other things. Like many other villages in India, the caste hierarchy was pronounced in Janwaar when we had set foot. It was therefore not surprising at all that the earliest kids to join the park were the Yadavs, while the Adhivasi kids only watched from a distance, nervous and eager. Now, it is a very different scene. Here the Yadavs and Ashivasis, and girls and boys are treated similarly, and they know that. They are learning. You see, the poorest family is also happy when their kids are happy. And, their kids are happy! Today, Janwaar the village is in a transformation mode. The children are no longer just surviving, but thriving. Energy has been infused. Scenes are changing. They are ready to take their futures in their own hands. There is an African proverb which says: it takes a village to raise a child. In Janwaar we say—It take the children to change the village.
Do you plan to showcase Janwaar Castle as a model?
No, why should I? If someone is interested I am happy to help them set it up in their village. But I am not going to go out looking for people, no.
How do you link this back to yourself, this kind of silent revolution?
As a teenager, I saw the entire Europe taking to the streets every week in some demonstration, some protest, some rally. Be it on gender rights or social issues, or something else. I have grown up with that. Standing up for issues also becomes a product of a kind.
But to fight for rights, you accomplish… you need to begin with a common ground, don’t you?
Why do we need to find common grounds, why do we need to group people? I do not think in clusters. Everyone is different, they have different needs, different sets of challenges and disadvantages. You have got to value that. You have to work with them, and observe. No tight controls, no roadmap as we commonly understand it to be, no. Just observe. Add value, empower, and provide people a platform. But do not try to formulate, do not try to define what they want, where they ought to go. It is on them where they want to go, not on me. I only help them in their purpose. I gain perspectives as I work, I observe. But I will not impose my purpose on them.
What are you plans for the future?
I am very relaxed about it, she says. Let it move on its own, let it flow. I am there to only help, to provide support. I have a vision, yes, and a vision of the overall thing. But no, I would refrain from defining a road map. I do not want that. It is not about me; it is about them, these children. Every day they are earning, they are overcoming new hurdles. Frankly, I do not know exactly where we are going. But then note, the idea is not to know. The idea is to propel, and see it move, to find a new balance.
What gives you this kind of a life force?
The children. It has always been the children.
We are almost at the end of our long conversation, and Reinhard turns to check her phone as it beeps. “Yay! We are getting dustbins,” she beams, childlike in her enthusiasm. Reinhard’s story is the story of a new beginning, yes, but it’s also perhaps a lesson to uncomplicate and straighten things out—to deconstruct and reconstruct and how to let go of control, even as you put everything at stake. Sorry, skate!
Images courtesy Vicky Roy