Learning from Katha

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The goal of the art of city-making is to create more liveable places with decent services, good housing and the possibility of a livelihood. If these are missing, not to mention the basics like shelter, food, drinkable water and elementary security, there is the danger of falling back into chaos in spite of the selfless and courageous acts of individuals.

I want to conclude the geography of misery with the story of an organization I know well. It stands as an exemplar for all the other creative projects around the world that attempt to grapple with ordinary and dramatic misery in cities. It reminds us how the worst can be turned into something better.

It is called Katha and it works largely in Delhi's largest slum, Govindpuri, where 150,000 people live. Katha is now at the epicentre of activities that are transforming the Govindpuri slum cluster. Katha supports people's movements in over 54 communities with the aim of turning 'the slums into the gold mines they are - the powerhouses of creativity, entrepreneurship and drive'. Its slogan is 'uncommon creativities for a common good' based on an 'uncommon education' (visit www.katha.org for more information).

The word katha itself means story or narrative. It started with a simple idea 'to enhance the joy of reading' and to foster storytelling. India has always been a land of storytellers. It honed over centuries the fine art of telling the story - in epics, mythologies, folk tales and more recent writings. Stories can transmit values, morals and culture. Founded in 1988 by Geeta Dharmarajan, Katha started as a small publishing house translating stories from the different Indian regions. But the story idea has had greater impact. The organization then started schools and income generation projects in Govindpuri.

Its educational ethos is centred on developing a story each term. There are no discrete topics such as biology or maths. Children learn these through the story along the way. I was involved when the theme was 'Transforming the City, Urban Stories'. In its main school and 12 smaller ones the whole curriculum was focused on the city and all the rooms had city themes. They surveyed sewage conditions in their own slum and so learnt about safe water, biological processes, bacteria and diseases. In bringing together the results they grasped proportions, percentages and statistics and so got to know maths. By interviewing residents and writing up impressions, they learnt to articulate and craft language and learnt how to create presentations on computers. By building models of how their slum can develop, they learn how to design, paint and make models. And they get to know their community: every day their urban story gets added to through talking to their parents, friends and neighbours.

Since the Katha schools started in the early 1990s, over 6000 children have benefited and over 1000 have gone on to higher education, this in an area when illiteracy runs very high. But in order to get parents interested in sending their children to school, Katha started a women's entrepreneurship programme, which in 1995 evolved into the Katha School of Entrepreneurship, to develop leadership, mentoring and work. The idea of '[SHE]2' is at its core, meaning that any investment in women brings double the results.81 Hundreds of women in the last decade have gone out into the community and entered full-time employment as home helps or office workers or started businesses as stallholders or tailors earning up to 20 times what they did before. Many have gone on to take further education courses. There is an in-house bakery at Katha that employs some of Katha's beneficiaries. This education and employment provides women with resources with which to send their children to Katha schools. Parents pay a small but, for a slum dweller, significant fee (£4 a year) - Katha believes this personal investment increases commitment and motivation. Yet it is possible to recoup all the fees through results attendance and the involvement of parents in schooling. Additional costs (£50 per year per pupil) are obtained from grants and sponsorship.

Katha has now added city development to its repertoire. Again, its ethos here is poor-friendly, taking the ideas and aspirations of the impoverished into consideration. It asks them how they want to improve their environment and to bring themselves decent lifestyles. It seeks equitable growth, with more people involvement, as only then will growth be viable or sustainable. From 2007 onwards Katha will begin to help redevelop a part of Govindpuri through a process of co-designing and co-creation with the local community.

The Katha philosophy has grown organically over the years, yet at its core is a desire to stimulate an interest in lifelong learning that will help children grow into confident, self-reliant, responsible and responsive adults; to build social capital; to empower; to help break down gender, cultural and social stereotypes; and to encourage everyone to foster excellence and expand their creativity.

Katha's '9 Cs' slogan, based on what they believe helps form character, is embellished on a main column in the principal school. It could stand for what The Art of City-Making is attempting to promote:

Curiosity Creativity Critical Thinking

Competence

Confidence

Concentration

Concern

Cooperation

Citizenship

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