“The poorest of the poor do not need degrees or certificates, they just want work,” Bunker Roy, Barefoot College founder and social activist, told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.
Eyeing some of the poorest, least educated communities, Barefoot College was founded in 1972 to provide practical education and solutions to break the cycle of poverty.
The college’s name is inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s approach to self-sufficient communities. It does not have chairs or desks. It trains students on dirt floors for a more comfortable experience.
Barefoot College has trained more than three million people in 93 countries, transforming lives and teaching skills including dam building, goat herding and building maintenance.
Roy, who is in Israel for two days, spoke at the DNA Education Conference held by the ORT College Network at the Jerusalem International Convention Center on Tuesday, which addressed holistic and unconventional approaches to education.
“We should have a much broader definition of education, beyond the classroom and the four walls of a school,” he said. “There’s much more to education than that, especially if you are targeting the poorest of the poor, and there are very few schools that are targeting the poorest of the poor.”
Taking an out-of-the-box approach, Roy insists that “illiteracy is not a barrier toward gaining a useful skill.”
“What we are doing on a global level is training illiterate grandmothers who has never left their villages in their lives, and after six months through sign language, they become solar engineers,” Roy said.
Calling this group of women “solar mamas” he proclaimed: “They go in grandmothers, and come out tigers.”
“Over 1,000 solar mamas have been trained from 93 countries from around the world, and have benefited over 600,000 villages that haven’t had light,” he said. He told the Post he is looking to recruit two “solar mamas” from Israel’s Beduin community.
Roy, who has decades of experience working with the poorest communities in the world, said this hands on approach to education is changing the world on the micro and the macro levels: “We are already seeing a spike in literacy with the children and grandchildren of these “solar mamas.”
“Solar electrifying a village is also a family planning tool – because you have more to do when the lights are on,” he said.
In addition, the Barefoot College is helping to bring about practical solutions for gender inequality: “These women who are our students become role models in their villages and become real agents of change. When they come back, their husbands are in total awe.
“For the first time, they have to become more responsible in the home and present in their children’s lives. This builds a sense of appreciation and respect for their wives and the women in their community that was lacking before the college.”