Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day Interview: Author and Daily Dump Founder Poonam Bir Kasturi

Many schools are celebrating  Earth Day today with poster contests, poetry contests, and art-made-out-of-recycled materials contests.  This is all very well and good.  But too often, our commitment to the Earth is just for one day--or even worse, just for one hour.  Turning off the lights, using more efficient bulbs, and learning to recycle and compost are all good things to do.  But unless they are part of an effort to transform our world into one that is sustainable, they will remain symbolic--and, to the extent that they mislead us into thinking we have done our part to solve the problem, they can even be counter productive.  

Poonam Bir Kasturi founded the Daily Dump in 2006.  The Daily Dump is based in Bangalore and its focus is sustainable waste management--composting, recycling, that sort of thing.  You can read more about them at their website, or at this case study.  What I like about them, is that they see their project as something more than a business.  And their efforts to educate prompt us to go beyond "light bulb environmentalism" and to think about what a sustainable world might look like.  On Tuesday, we ran a review of the Daily Dump's 5 Disgustingly Cool Books for Kids. We liked them a great deal, in part because they are unlike anything we've seen before.  For our Earth Day post, we thought we'd follow up our review with an interview with one of the main people behind these amazing books. 

If you feel like doing something Earth-friendly over the next few days, do check out the list of events that follows this interview.
I've read a lot of books for children and I've never seen anything like 5 Disgustingly Cool Books for Kids. What inspired this project?
I have always believed that for design to be truly meaningful, it has to intersect with society and sustainability. The primary design consideration for this set of books was that children today have to start thinking about issues related to ecology, democracy and sustainability very early on. Also, when I looked around for books that got kids excited about the Indian environmental and cultural intersect, there was not much. I guess, it was - well here is a need, lets see if I can help here.
How do these books fit with the Daily Dump's other work?
Our work with waste over these last few years has clearly shown that waste (mis)management is also a problem of human behaviour. And we strongly believe that if we can support children to develop a holistic and sensitive attitude to managing waste and understandings its relationship to their everyday lives, it is half the battle won! They are much more likely to influence their family and initiate processes of change.Whats more – when it comes from children, it is not perceived as threatening! 

These books tackle "big ideas" such as how and what we consume, and how and where we discard it. Are 8-12 year olds ready for these ideas?
The age between 8-12 years is critical as this is when children start developing their ideas of things around them. This is also the age when children are able to gradually move to higher levels of abstraction and an understanding of shared relationships between various phenomena in society and their own selves. 
Everytime I interact with an 8 year old, I realise, how much older she is than I was at her age.
It is therefore crucial that children of this age are supported in integrating this understanding within the right framework and perspective. 
It would be hard for a student to "mug up" the information in these books no matter how hard he or she might try. How do you think children will respond to this novel approach? 
Some kids like this open ended -"look for the answers" approach. Others have given us feedback that they would have liked each book to end with something they could do to solve the issue. 
One cannot negate the fact that today's urban child is exposed to so much in so little time. Their language and lives are so fast-paced and there is so much pressure on them to perform.
It becomes increasingly important therefore, that our messages to them and our interaction with them is in a language that the children speak and receive, rather than as a sermon or lesson to be learnt by rote.  And, at the end of the day, it has to be an enjoyable experience for the child if she has to learn from it.
For instance, the question 'why do pizzas seem cooler than rotis?' is something that most urban children today can easily relate to; immediately paving the way for a dialogue with the child.

What if any response have you gotten from schools and teachers?
Very positive. Since we have not yet marketed these books, all the schools and teachers who have picked this up have come to us through word of mouth.
And all of them are very happy to have something like this to use in class - and make the environmental science period an interesting one.

These books were designed by a three person team.  Could you say a little bit about the creative process that went into this project?
Pallavi Agarwal, then a student at design school, came in as the illustrator as part of her final project at design school.So with guidance from me, we worked on the format and then she created her versions and concepts for different titles. The decision making process was the most laborious, and we both would have these long raving meetings. She is an excellent illustrator and thinker. She contributed immensely to the form of the content and the look of the books.
Before actually designing the books, Pallavi observed the environmental studies classes in various schools and found that in most instances, it is not treated as a serious or main subject by both the children and the school.
In today's urban context, we found parents want to be more involved with their children's learning and thinking process. However, working parents often the lack time to do so.
The brief to ourselves was, thus, to make literature that is crisp and provocative; and that can serve as a conversation starter for parents and educators with the children.

After her project submission at school, we still had a lot of work left over - to tie up to make the product market ready. This was when I got in others to help refine the content and the activities - Nomita Khatri helped here and Waseem put the final print ready files together. 
This was a truely team project and the different perspectives helped the final product.

Any plans for future books? 
Yes certainly! There are a couple of new books on the anvil – both for a younger age group as well as for this age group.
Do keep your eyes and ears peeled! You could visit for updates!
Upcoming Activities:
If you are in India and would like to do something for Earth Day, you can look here to see if the Indian Youth Climate Network has an activity in your area.

Annie Zaidi is launching Known Turf, her new book of essays tomorrow (April 23) at 6:30pm in the IIC Annex in Delhi.  P. Sainath has given the book an extraordinary blurb. Annie has done a lot to support the Dhaba.  This book is a must-buy; and if you can make the launch, why not go? Facebook event page here.

On Saturday April 24th at 5:00pm, Toxics Link and Sage Publications are launching Our Toxic World, India's first ever graphic novel on the environment in India.  The launch will take place at the Oxford Bookstore on Barakhamba Road, Delhi.  The book's script is by Aniruddha Sen Gupta; the illustrations are by Priya Kurian. Panelists include Ravi Agarwal, Sarnath Banerjee and several other interesting people.  This sounds interesting!

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