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Childrens' Participation, a way of BEING 'Servants of the Young'
By Father T. D. John
Hyderabad, Mar. 21. The first regional Participatory Action Research Seminar held on March 14 and 15, 2016 at Don Bosco Navajeevan, Hyderabad, was the culmination of a yearlong endeavor to learn by practicing. The teachers were the children at 27 Young at Risk (YaR) centres situated in nine cities and six states of South India. The whole exercise was an effort to shift roles from being the bosses and teachers of the young to seeing them as subjects and as teachers of what they are and what they wish to be.
The 14th and 15th March 2016 were exciting days for 30 researchers who presented their first report on Participatory Action Research (PAR) among the young at risk in India. This was a seminar with a difference: The participants were the presenters; the resources persons were the facilitators; the directors of the centres and the facilitators of the year long process, along with a few special invitees, were the anxious observers.

The year from 18th March 2015 to 17th March 2016 has been the toughest in the lives of these enterprising researchers. They were under graduates to post graduates, 20 to 55 year olds. They were all working with children and young people between 6 and 22 years. They were volunteers who took child care seriously. They also understood that for too long the right of the child to participation remained merely in statutes and text books. The experience that required transition was tough for the researchers even though their co-researchers, the children themselves, were very open and supportive. To change a dominating and all-knowing mentality was tough indeed for these adult researchers.

The facilitators for the PAR Regional Seminar were Fr George Kollashany, himself a veteran PAR Researcher and founder director of Mandala, Kalaburgi, Karnataka,  and Fr Ajoy Fernandes, a PhD holder in Clinical Psychology, Director of the Don Bosco Research Centre, Mumbai and facilitator for the Mumbai group of PAR researchers. They interacted with the presenters and facilitated the entire process together with Prof Dr Dev Manti, Director of Institute of Rural Studies and Administration, Guntur, Andhra Pradesh and Faculty Member of Department, Conflict and Development Studies, Gent University, Belgium.

Participatory Action Research began by addressing issues that the children and care administrators face at the centres. These issues are addressed in the focus group where all concerned are able to understand the issues better and come to their resolution even as they are participants in the decision making process. The goal of the research is to embark on a path of making the centres child friendly, child centred and ultimately child run.

In the various presentations, the shifts taking place in the lives of the researchers who are also the care administrators at the various centres was very visible. Issues ranged from disciplinary problems, aggression, addiction, anxiety to be connected with their families, dealing with their own disabilities or bullying by others. Being open to the children and enabling them to make their own choices made the researchers realise the great potential of the children that they had not taken into consideration earlier. Children who were reluctant to talk were taking initiatives now. Other staff members who took all the decisions by themselves were now consulting the children. The so called aggressors or bullies were more friendly and willing to accommodate.

The entire process was voluntary. The directors offered to send researchers. The researchers had willingly joined the PAR process. But they did struggle with the discipline of research as the year went by. But as the days of the seminar presentation approached, they were at their best, giving their best. After all they had so many good teachers, the children and they taught them what no adult could teach them.

The seminar concluded with an address by Father Thathireddy Vijayabhaskar, the new Salesian Provincial of Hyderabad.  After the seminar, the researchers had two days of de-briefing. They saw how far they had to change their attitudes and even their language and behaviour if they were to enable the children to think, act and behave in a participatory manner. They were happy to enter into the second year of PAR with real confidence and great enthusiasm.
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