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There’s The Rub

Changing things

(I wish I could write more about the Pacquio mugging, but I’m winging my way back to the country. So I’ll leave you with this in the meantime—my second talk before Gawad Kalinga, this time in Toronto.)

Today is the day we toast another Filipino champion, a more impressive one that has been with us for some time now but has not gotten the same adulation as Manny Pacquiao. That champion has fought a foe far more fearsome than Floyd Mayweather, one that has never been beaten, one in fact that has TKO-ed every champion we’ve put up against it. That foe is poverty. And the one champion we’ve got that has locked horns with it, and will probably win against it, is Gawad Kalinga.

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Let me start from far afield to explain why. Let me start with a brilliant experiment in education.

In 2009, Efren Peñaflorida became CNN Hero of the Year. He became so by bringing the light of learning to the darkest regions of the minds, or the most benighted parts of Metro Manila. Specifically, he and his friends pushed a pushcart filled with books, pen and paper and other school materials and turned it into an improvised classroom in narrow alleys, dumpsites, and even cemeteries. They taught children reading and writing.

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Peñaflorida himself had come from the ranks of the poor. Unlike most poor, he did not take to a life of crime or to a career of getting rich. Unlike most poor, he took to making his fellow poor less poor.

His experiment became known as the “kariton classroom.” It was a stroke of genius, though Peñaflorida himself would say he just did what seemed the right thing to do. But that is how strokes of genius begin, by just doing what seems the right thing to do. Since then, I’ve wondered why the Department of Education doesn’t open up an entire Kariton Classroom Bureau.

At the very least, it should help push back a perennial problem every school year opening, which is an epic lack of classrooms. We saw that again only last Monday; the newspapers carried all sorts of horror stories about the kids trekking back to improvised classrooms under the mango tree. Which is not an idyllic picture in unpredictable global-warming weather.

At the very most, it strikes at the heart of the problem like slicing the Gordian Knot. Every administration in the Philippines has striven to come up with ways to lure impoverished kids to school, or since it’s really not the kids’ fault that they are not in school, to persuade or force their parents to make them do so. P-Noy’s administration has done so through the CCT, a requirement for obtaining a dole being that the parents send the kids to school.

The “kariton classroom” attacks the problem from the opposite end, a completely logical and natural way of looking at things which makes you wonder why nobody thought of it before. It brings the classroom itself to the kids. It brings school itself to the kids. It is far simpler, far surer, and far more direct.

If you can’t bring Mohammad to the mountain, bring the mountain to Mohammad.

Gawad Kalinga shares that same spirit. A couple of months ago, Tony Meloto became one of the recipients of the Skoll Award for social entrepreneurship. He became so by bringing the light of living to the darkest regions of death, or to the most benighted parts of the country. Specifically, he and other members of GK, which he himself founded, spent the last decade putting a roof over the heads of thousands of their roofless compatriots. Indeed, more than that, they have put hope in the hearts of their despairing compatriots.

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GK hasn’t just built houses, it has built communities. GK hasn’t just allowed the unsettled to settle for the first time in new homes, it has allowed the unsettling—many of them former toughies, drug addicts, and petty and not-so-petty criminals—to create for the first time new lives.

Meloto himself came from the ranks of the poor. I know this because we served as porters at night in a dorm in the Ateneo to pay back in part our free tuition and board and lodging. Unlike most poor who studied at an exclusive school, he did not take to making himself rich, or worse, corrupt. He took to making his fellow poor less poor.

If putting a roof over the heads of the roofless, or building homes for the homeless, were all Gawad Kalinga has done, it would be marvelous enough. But it has done something even more marvelous. Over the last few years, it has also blazed trails in social entrepreneurship with Human Nature in particular, a company making organic products that is giving the competition, namely foreign-based companies, a run for their money. That is so because Human Nature products are relatively inexpensive while being world-class.

Its impact on the country, quite apart from the consumers, is monumental. At the very least, that is so because it uses completely local materials. Tony himself is astonished that we need to buy foreign products when we can produce them locally. He cites the example of a foreign fragrance that is sold locally at prices that stink when its active ingredient is sap from the pili tree. Human Nature reverses that trend. It uses local materials and in the process gives its villages a whole slew of livelihood opportunities.

Its impact goes beyond economic. Way beyond. By using local materials, local labor, and local ingenuity, all of which have lurked like a gigantic but largely untapped mother lode among us, this brand of social entrepreneurship is unleashing an equally gigantic but largely untapped wellspring of self-respect, self-confidence, and faith in ourselves. You look at something like this, and your heart swells with pride.

You get to be proud to be a Filipino. You get to be grateful to be a Filipino. You get to be privileged to be a Filipino. (To be concluded)

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TAGS: education, efren penaflorida, featured column, Gawad Kalinga, housing, kariton classroom, tony meloto
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