Last year, when the newly nominated Miss World Punjaban was asked in a press interview to describe the state of India’s youth, her reply was - “we are a confused lot.” There is no wonder really. The social and political messages projected through India’s mainstream media channels seem to lend to the image of ‘shining’ India – the one that politicians want the world to see. Equality and liberty for all Indian citizens, 33% reservation of seats in parliament for women, the practice of gay sex endorsed by the Supreme Court…. But the "real" India that young people encounter on a daily basis is somewhat duller. Social status is still defined by caste, sexual harassment cases are regularly dismissed with a "she was asking for it" attitude. And although gay sex is becoming more acceptable, it remains largely tolerated as long as the two individuals still commit to heterosexual marriages and ensure their rendezvous are kept under the radar.
The level of uncertainty that young people experience as they are hit with these conflicting messages is something that Hutokshi Doctor - a journalist who’s been working in Indian media for 25 years - and John Samuel – a leading social activist - sought to address by setting up Open Space. Based in the city of Pune, 100 miles from Mumbai, Open Space was set up in 2004 with a clear mandate of encouraging debate, dialogue and clarity about social and political issues amongst India’s youth. Not only does it provide a physical open space for young people to gather, it also supports and encourages the exploration of intellectual and emotional development spaces too.
A significant part of Open Space’s work is to get young people to take an interest in the social and political context that exists around them. Working in partnership with local educational institutions, Open Space has trainers who undertake "curriculum enrichment programmes" with students focusing on topical issues like social exclusion and human rights. Using interactive games, knowledge building exercises and different forms of media, these programmes aim to stimulate and encourage young people to discover their own voice and role in the country’s development. The NGO also encourages young people to drop in to the "open space" office that lies in the heart of Pune’s student area, which contains a wonderfully comprehensive library crammed full of modern literature, magazines, films and documentaries from all over the world. The comfortable and welcoming open space provides a place for young people to read, use the internet and converse with others to explore different perspectives and attitudes.
Open Space also encourages young people to find creative ways of coping with the emotional challenges and identity problems they encounter in everyday life. They host regular events with special guests and artists who come ready to inspire audiences with fresh perspectives and non-conformist attitudes. Recently the famous techno DJ Ma Faiza was invited to Open Space to talk to young people about what music means to her and how it has helped her live her life in a way that is somewhat different to that of the "typical" Indian. It is a well known fact that Ma Faiza is a lesbian - she doesn’t keep this a secret, but she also spends a significant proportion of her time as an activist promoting social justice issues across India. On a slightly different note perhaps, Open Space also recently held an expressive dance and poetry reading workshop to explore the use of language and the body as a way of helping individuals connect to personal identities and the natural environment. Although this may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it stole the imagination of a number of poetry enthusiasts who decided to initiate a regular poetry reading and discussion group in the city.
As one would expect, the staff of Open Space are open minded individuals who recognize the important role that young people have to play in the future development of the country. They interact regularly with young people throughout the city, and strive to nurture those with specialized interest areas. Just last month Open Space held a ten day workshop with twelve young people called "Unbuilding blocks, Unblocking building." Working alongside a trained architect (and self-professed "anarchitect"), the participants built a school classroom using only local, sustainable sourced materials. The group, which included engineers and architects amongst others, were taught through hands-on learning about environmentally sustainable building techniques, natural earth construction and green roofs. This sort of forward thinking and skills based initiative is a valuable way of developing the skills of young people living in a country where new concrete blocks are strung up everyday with little consideration for the surrounding environment.
Open Space is a fantastic initiative. In addition to creating new spaces for young people to discover and engage in debate about identity issues and social and political development, it also helps to create networks and build bridges between young, socially conscious individuals. Personally, I think the ideal scenario would be for Open Space to set up a franchise and create hundreds of Open Spaces all over India… Hopefully such a trend will catch on, but for now, people can continue to watch this space for more inspiration.Dialogue, NGO