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Seminar on Stepping Down to Equality by Participatory Action Research (PAR) group

By John Tharakan
Father Thomas Koshy handing over the book ``Whale Done Parenting`` by Ken Blanchard to Father Thathireddy Vijayabhaskar, the Provincial In Charge of National YaR Forum to be presented to Mr. Biju Simon, PAR Research Coordinator from Trivandrum, Kerala, India.
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Hyderabad, Apr. 1. The second annual seminar on Participatory Action Research (PAR) for Transformation of Don Bosco Homes for the Young at Risk in South Asia was held at Don Bosco Provincial House on 27-28 March, 2017. There were presentations from 22 PAR research coordinators. Coming from 16 centres in 9 cities and 6 states of South India, they showed how the participation of children really made a difference. They were now part of the solution to problems that frequently occur in these centres. The centres were slowly but surely being transformed as child-friendly and child-directed. The same is now sought to be replicated in the entire YaR (Young at Risk) sector in South Asia.
The researchers shared their findings in the presentations. Children who have been bullying before are now protectors of younger and weaker children. Children ensure that no food is wasted. The demand for calling together the focus group is made by children so that certain immediate issues can be sorted out. Children are more regular to school. Rushing to grab food has changed to orderly behaviour and volunteering to serve. Specific needs of children are addressed. There is so much more listening to children with respect and concern. Children express themselves freely at the various fora being created for that.

The researchers demonstrated how in a hierarchical society, change is envisaged from down upwards to ensure justice is done. The Human Rights and Child Rights Approach function from this paradigm. Those in power may mouth the required slogans, but are often averse to their practice. Participatory Action Research, instead, proposes a peaceful paradigm for change. It is from top down, a ''Stepping Down to Equality,'' a voluntary choice by those in authority as promoters of change by initiating participation. They give up the privilege of unilateral decision making and involve all, particularly the children, with amazing results.

Father Thathireddy Vijayabhaskar, in charge provincial for the National Don Bosco YaR Forum, waxed eloquent at the conclusion of the seminar saying that Father TD John has not started participation. It is God himself who has started Participation and Partnership as His Way of dealing with us human beings. He was so taken up with PAR that he assured the group that he would take it up at the Salesian Provincials' Conference of South Asia and promote it in all other departments as well.

The Seminar was preceded on 25th and 26th March by the midterm Monitoring and Review. The Seminar, during which the latest PAR Manual was released, was followed by 2 days of training for the new Researchers facilitated by the Senior Researchers and supervised by the PAR Facilitation Team. They learned and practiced the SEVEN STEPS of PAR starting with the identification of issues 1-3), analysis (4), action plan (5), implementation plan (6) and distribution of responsibilities (7). It became evident during the training that the steps were not as difficult as some complained. The real difficulty was in stepping down to equality. The name of this difficulty as articulated by Sigmund Freud is resistance!

A number of participants expressed their anxiety that PAR began with identification of issues and seemed to be having a negative approach. It was difficult to clear this suspicion born of resistance. Ken Blanchard's famous book ''Whale Don Parenting,'' already introduced during earlier PAR trainings was utilised to dispel these apprehensions. The whole approach was to ''catch the children doing right'', ''Ignore and/or re-direct the negative and Give a Whale Done'' in terms of affirmation, appreciation and rewards. Every centre was given a copy of the valuable book.  

Appreciation for the PAR process has resulted in the Salesian Sisters initiating PAR independently at a centre of their own at Tiruppur, Tamil Nadu. The National Coordinator of YaR among the Salesian Sisters, Sr. Moksha fma, was also a participant. Father Vatti Balashowry, the Principal of Don Bosco Academy and Senate member of Mahatma Gandhi University, Nalgonda, came with 3 staff members to learn about PAR so that they too could initiate the same processes at their campus that has students from KG to PG.

The researchers had struggled to understand the resistance, opposition and even cynicism from various sources. Rather than understand from the stance of human rights defenders, they were feeling guilty when they faced resistance and opposition. These called for a special training session on the Tenets of an Assertive Philosophy and on understanding styles of behaviour such as passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive and assertive.

Ken Blanchard's theory of extinction burst in dealing with tantrums was ably demonstrated by one of the moderators during the seminar. This was coupled with the training in Five Freedoms popularized by Virginia Satir. The Research Coordinators wanted to be empowered people so that they could be models of empowerment for the children. The PAR practitioners are aware of the universal reality of power struggles and choose to stay out of it to empower and be empowered.

The seminar and the related programmes gave the researchers a sense of purpose and satisfaction at their own growing capabilities. The Directors too were willing to give up their resistance and agreed to scale up from just 2 or 3 researchers at their centres to everyone at their centres joining the PAR process. The facilitators were thrilled at the sterling performance of most of the researchers. PAR holds out tremendous hope for the Young at Risk in South Asia.
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