Streetlight Stories 2: Education and Transformation

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Welcome back to the Streetlight Stories! We're so grateful for your help in making the Streetlight dream a reality, and wanted to share some of the magic of our time here. Today's story is from CEO Melanie Smuts about an extraordinary event on the Streetlight calendar.

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Heritage Day:
Education & Transformation

“At the century’s end, wars and rumours of further wars, devastation, and numbers of hungry and homeless people, including many child refugees and the associated social disorders, seemed to him to be the result of bad education. The poor were ignorant and suppressed; the rich miseducated and greedy and cruel; the schools and the want of schools, both together, separated people into hostile classes; and everywhere there was a lack of Christian faith, and hope and love.”

I read this quote in a book on the history of education recently. And it struck me: although the author was referring to visionary education reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and how he saw Europe in 1799, it may well have been written about the world we live in today. It certainly reminds me of South Africa, and in particular of Jeppestown, where our school is situated. 

But, just as this great man believed centuries before, we are convinced that the power of education lies not only in getting someone a job. Its real work is the transformation of society –– especially in places of fragility, conflict and trauma. When Pestalozzi began his schools for the poor, Europe was a devastated war zone with no public education system (the concept hadn’t even been invented). Towards the end of his life he despaired that education would never be understood as a common good for all, that could make destitute societies places of hope and love. Within another century, illiteracy in Europe had been wiped out and public education was everywhere, thanks largely to him. 

Pestalozzi started this great transformation with one school for the rural poor. Today, a world away, we begin his work again. Starting with Heritage Day. 

Heritage Day, September 24th, is a national celebration in South Africa. The idea is that everyone comes to school in their traditional dress and talks about their culture. Our learners and staff are remarkably diverse and everyone always dresses up in their full cultural dress. We have a traditional dance, and everyone shares their cultures and experiences. Since our School Leader, Heidi, is proudly Norwegian, and one of their traditions in Norway is to hold Children’s Parades; she suggested a mix of these two traditions so that we do a Heritage Day children’s parade through the streets of Jeppestown. 

For several reasons, this is an insane idea. 

Jeppestown is in a dangerous, industrial part of town. The streets are busy with taxi buses, hawkers, industrial factories, trash fires. I had a moment of panic right before we walked out: “Wait, we are taking 130 children aged under 8 into the street –– this is madness!” And then we went. And there is only one word to truly describe it: powerful.

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Schools are usually closed spaces: kids go in and you don’t usually see what happens there. But when the kids spill out, it does the kind of transformational work Pestalozzi described. People change when they see our children in public spaces. We closed roads so that the kids could walk through the middle, but the minibus taxis would stop and cheer, people would come out of their shops and stand on the corner and wave, old ladies would start dancing and ululating. Very hard men with very aggressive demeanours would become soft and start gushing as these kids walked by. Proud and happy children celebrating their heritage sent waves of love washing over a community normally full of fracture. 

Our children sang, danced and chanted (unprompted) for the full parade, which lasted nearly an hour. They raised their faces to every onlooker (and there were hundreds) and displayed their heritage, their voice, and their identity. It was an undeniable, indefatigable display of hope. It reminded me of the old Mandela quote about education being the most powerful weapon we have to change the world. A weapon –– not something cute –– but something dangerous and fearsome. Today, I fully comprehended what he meant by that.

Each one of these children is an example of the future we deserve: an arsenal of hope against the incompetence and irrelevance of the current state of education in the country, against the untransformed and irrelevant wealthy schools, against the xenophobia of the city of Johannesburg, against the sexism and violence reflected in our own societies. 

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When children grow up with this normal –– a non-violent normal, an inclusive and plural normal, a free and engaged normal –– it unlocks them. It’s an unstoppable force. A person once educated cannot be worn down, fooled or manipulated. They are free. And they are free to use that power to fight a world that doesn’t reflect their values. It is a fearsome thing to behold in a group of hundred-odd children, all younger than 8, together and empowered.

Imagine what country we would be living in if this was the norm and not the exception. Imagine how powerful we would be if this is what our education system did for all our children.

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