Organizational Spotlight: Collaboration with Vidiyal

After visiting schools and organizations in Karnataka and Kerala on our upcoming Education for All: South India workshop, we will travel to Tamil Nadu, to work with Vidiyal, an organization that promotes the rights and inclusion of youth from disadvantaged backgrounds in Madurai. Vidiyal offers a vibrant after-school program, and as part of our workshop we will have the opportunity to collaborate with some of Vidiyal’s students.

Entering an Upside-Down World

I’ve had the great fortune to be involved with Vidiyal for over 10 years. When I was a junior at Bowdoin College, I spent my third year studying in Madurai with the SITA Program. In my second semester, I conducted ethnographic field research while volunteering at Vidiyal.

Book CoverIn addition to teaching spoken English with the other volunteer teachers, I led the sixth-grade group in a collaborative story-writing process. Together we wrote a story—with a coherent plot, colorful illustrations, courageous heroes, a moral, some humor, a frightening bad guy, even a few little plot twists. The premise of the story is that the two young protagonists, Meera and Shiva, enter a magical ‘upside-down world’ where the rules of wealth are reversed: the rich become poor and the poor become rich. The two young heroes, suddenly finding themselves glamorously wealthy, are tested through a series of moral escapades and in the end opt to return to the (imperfect) world that they come from – where they feel empowered to seek success through education.

Child Rights As A Paradigm

Since it began in 1996, Vidiyal, which means “dawn” in Tamil, has expanded to include several drop-in centers, a school, a Reception Home where children from the juvenile justice system in Tamil Nadu receive services, and a center for working children.

Drawing of GIrlThe director of Vidiyal, Jim Jesudoss, has spent most of his life working with youth. Jim is a busy man; there are usually at least two phones ringing for him at any given moment. Pictures of children, at karate and dance performances, on picnics and other excursions or just acting silly fill his walls. His door is always open and no matter how busy he may seem, there are usually several children standing beside his desk, telling him about the day. When Jim founded Vidiyal, Madurai had few services for out-of-school youth. At that time, he told me, many of the children were working as street beggars or rag pickers. The program at first was open: the children would come and talk, and Jim would listen. They had dance programs on Fridays. Some of the children who came each evening were runaways, in need of shelter, so Jim applied for more funding.

Vidiyal now has a computer center and a cultural team, which puts on dance and theater performances. There is a youth leadership board and youth sit on all decisions for the organization. There are weekly forums on social issues in Madurai. The organization uses a child rights based framework (read more about this here) to guide its decision-making structure, and representatives presented to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva on conditions for children in India. There is now an alumni base of college and university graduates.

Making Room for Creativity


New authors check out the finished product!

When I first started volunteering at Vidiyal, I was struck by the visible poverty of children. Some had mismatched uniforms, small tears in their shirts, dirty smudges on their faces. I felt overwhelmed by my inability to communicate in Tamil, and what felt like my ineffectiveness as a teacher. After a few frustrating days of ‘teaching’, where simple games of Simon Says degenerated into pure anarchy and I had to be rescued by other teachers, I had nearly given up on my planned storytelling project. But I had underestimated the kids, and the organization. My initial lessons were boring. Once I introduced a real project, the kids were attentive, engaged, and proud of their work. The result was one of the most inspiring projects I have ever been a part of.

Vidiyal’s strength as an organization lies in the trust they place in their youth. The children who attend Vidiyal’s after school programs are not there to passively collect information. They are participants, leaders, educators, storytellers, critics, advocates, writers, artists, aspiring innovators. Most of the children there come from poor households: that does not make them poor children. Through its emphasis on youth leadership, Vidiyal has created a program with room for creativity and collaboration—which is why I am once again returning to work together with Jim and his team.

Jenny as a college student with her Vidiyal class.

Jenny as a college student with her Vidiyal class.

Our workshop in South India will culminate in three days of collaboration with a group from Vidiyal. Together, we will create a ‘toolbox’ for after-school educators based on best-practices we have identified through site visits with schools and NGOs in South India.

We’ll be sure to share the final results once we return!

– Jenny