On Kiran Bir Sethi, Design Thinking, And Saying Yes
Kiran Bir Sethi is founder of Design For Change, a global initiative that empowers children to express their own ideas for a better world and put them into action. Since beginning in a single classroom with one teacher at Kiran’s Riverside School in Ahmedabad, India, the movement has spread to more than 25,000,000 children in over 35 countries.
“Superheroes are not in fairy-tales. They are in every child who says I can.” – Kiran Bir Sethi
In fact, there’s a superhero residing deep in every one us, but it often takes a teacher we meet in school or encounter in the world before we realize the power we have to create positive change in ourselves, our communities, and our world. Such a teacher unleashes our powers by believing in us. That belief not only empowers us to do and be more, but also calls us to in turn believe in and empower others. This is how we change the world: one teacher, one student, one community at a time. Kiran Bir Sethi helped me understand this.
I first met Kiran the same that way millions of others have. I watched her TED talk “Kids Take Charge” in which she asks, “when are you going to wake up and recognize the potential that resides in every child?” I woke up. It was 2 AM on a winter night during a shadowy time of my life. Lost somewhere between dreams, I was clicking on random Internet links when Kiran turned up explaining how she took an idea she started in her own classroom, spread it through her school, then her city, and later all across India and into the world. The idea was Design for Change and the model was so brilliantly simple that anyone could do it.
Feel. Imagine. Do. Share. As I watched again, I became so excited and so infected with the I Can Virus which Kiran describes that I rose out of my funk, did some Googling, got Kiran’s contact information, then cold-called her and essentially said, “I can and I will, just please let me work with you.” The first thing Kiran said was, “Fantastic, let’s Skype,” and then my life changed forever. I tell that story in my own TEDx Talk but what’s important to know is that I’m no one special. I’m just a person who said yes. Each one of us has the power to change the world. In the largest sense, it works like this:
Ask others, “What change do you want to see in yourself or in your community?” Listen and encourage. Then ask, “What can you do to create that change?” Listen and encourage some more. Then say, “I know you can do that. I believe in you.” At this point the people you are working with will probably ask, “Really?” Say yes, then prove it by giving them the space, time, and tools they need to work that change. Keep encouraging. Meanwhile, provide a platform on which they can share their story of change, learn more, and connect with and encourage others. Does this sound familiar? It should. That’s a big part what iTDi does.
One thing I learned working with Kiran is that the Design Thinking that drives Design For Change is an incredible tool that helps teachers unleash their superpowers, too. Once that begins to happen, teachers often feel empowered enough in their own practice to then unleash the superpowers within their students. That’s how we change the world.
Not all that long ago I interviewed Kiran about the ideas that drive Design for Change, and asked what advice she’d give to other change-makers. Here’s some of that conversation.
When did you first realize that ordinary people have the power to do extraordinary things?
It’s an ongoing realization. It’s more like seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary. The goal is to keep seeing the potential that resides in people and then to keep opening up avenues for them to realize that potential.
What principles underlie Design For Change?
We don’t advocate a particular cause. We work with whatever bothers children and consciously focus on empathy. When children interact with life and empathize, they see they have the tools to make a situation better. Listening to children and sharing their designs is what’s behind it.
What’s the most life-changing advice you’ve received, Kiran?
The greatest investment you can make is in yourself. If you invest in yourself first, then you can invest in others. Still, my father taught me that nobody and nothing is indispensible. Living in the present, if you live it 100%, is more important than holding on to what you might have in the future.
What skills helped manage Design For Change?
The way this spread so quickly forced us to put aside fancy management ideas. The most important thing is to respond to requests immediately. We let partners know they’re part of a larger idea, and explain why they should do it, not how they should do it. Initially, we handhold, but we want them to say, ‘This is now our story, not Kiran’s story anymore.’ That’s an important construct.
What advice do you have for future change-makers and social entrepreneurs?
Start with empathy. You cannot change the world for somebody else. It has to start from within.
In a recent article in The New Indian Express, Kiran says …
“I teach because I love learning and no two days are ever the same – so, everyday I can become an explorer, or an artist, a magician or a storyteller. Teaching design thinking cultivates the design mindset – building empathy, ethics and elevation. To see the children and teachers look at situations as ‘opportunities’ instead of ‘problems’ is the greatest joy.”
If you feel the same way, I encourage you to get involved with Design For Change. Learn more about Kiran’s work, The Riverside School, and why all of this is so important here. Whatever you do, please know that you too have this power to change the world. Say yes.