From the issue feature, "Empathy Fire and Spades: Design for Social Innovation."
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Photography by Reza Ravasian

flying classroom students

During origami workshops taught by The Flying Classroom, children learned to make cranes out of paper.

In 2013 I joined The Flying Classroom, a volunteer project started by designers passionate about social activism and art. Through the program, designers travel to underdeveloped parts of Iran to hold arts workshops for children.

For The Flying Classroom’s second project, 11 of us from Tehran went to Tokhme-Baloot, a rural village in Ilam, one of the most neglected provinces in the country. Ignored by the government both in terms of infrastructure and cultural support, Ilam has a high rate of unemployment, poverty and drug use. People there used to make their livelihoods farming and ranching, but now this way of life is threatened by constant famine. The situation for children there is poor. Boys who don’t do well in school must start work after eighth grade. In Ilam’s patriarchal culture, where women have no say in society, girls who don’t do well in school stay at home doing chores or get married.

The name Tokhme-Baloot means “oak seed.” Because our research before the trip led us to believe there were massive forests around the village, we planned our project concept around oak trees and squirrels, and fostering the children’s appreciation for the beauty of the environment.

However, when we arrived at the village and stepped down from the bus, we saw that where there once had been huge trees, there now were only flat, dusty grass fields. We also found that Tokhme-Baloot was far less developed than we had anticipated. The village of 1,200 had only gotten gas and electricity four years earlier, and it was sometimes interrupted in the winter. There were two grocery stores, one mosque, two schools, a small clinic and no recreational facilities. After seeing the village and the surrounding area, the best concept for the project that we could think of focused on respect for nature.

flying classroom ilam

Vast, bare hills in place of forests in Ilam.

On our second day in the village, we began working with the students. Children started painting the school equipment in bright colors. In workshops, they made fabric squirrels and origami cranes. We led a storytelling session in which students worked together to create an improvised narrative about trees and nature. My colleague Zoya and I cut a dead branch we found that morning into pieces and painted it to recreate a tree inside of the school, a symbol of nature saved by children, and on it we hung the squirrels and cranes.

flying classroom tree for hall

After cutting a piece from this branch, we painted it white and put it in the school’s entrance hall.

flying classroom workshop

In a doll-making workshop, students learned to make fabric squirrels.

flying classroom dolls

Squirrels made during a workshop.

flying classroom before

The entrance hall of the school before our workshops.

flying classroom after

We left the school in bright colors with objects to inspire the children’s imaginations.

During our time in Tokhme-Baloot, we learned that girls do much better in school than boys and, if their parents let them, continue to higher education because it’s the only way to change their social situation. At one point I spoke with the schoolteacher’s 22-year-old daughter, who had studied her whole life while also fulfilling a village woman’s duties and fighting with a patriarchal society. Now that she was getting her BA in economics, her father had decided that she must marry her cousin, a farmer living in the same village.

On the third and final day of our visit, the director of Ilam’s Ministry of Education was there watching us finish, along with people from the educational system, the schoolmistress and teachers. He told one of our group members that when we left, he was going to knock the tree down.

Projects like ours are viewed skeptically by Iran’s government, and during our trip we were interviewed twice, once by the army and once by Basij, a paramilitary militia. They came to the school with no prior notification and talked to our group’s founder, Reza Bahraminejad, about the project, questioning him about its purpose, who supported it, who our members were, etc. After the trip, we feared that The Flying Classroom might be stopped, but fortunately, it wasn’t.

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The work we did on our trips through The Flying Classroom had the immediate effect of exciting the students and bringing life to their dull environments. The children were engaged, met new people and were exposed to new ideas and attitudes. Yet I can’t help but wonder—are we fully aware of the consequences of our work? The Flying Classroom is praised for working against ignorance, oppression and injustice, but will the children of the school have to pay for what our project delivered? What if, after we left Tokhme-Baloot, the director of Ilam’s Ministry of Education had destroyed the students’ tree, as he had threatened to do? How would that have affected the children?

The children we work with have no prior knowledge of the concepts we provide. How can it help them that after only three days of exposure to new ideas and experiences, we then leave them in their critical, ill-informed situation? I’m not saying that just because a society is parochial that we should leave it that way. But what is the use of exposing people’s minds to new possibilities and ways of understanding if there is no follow-up or support afterwards? Do we create expectations that cannot be met and might create greater disappointment?

flying classroom student

A student with the squirrel she made during a workshop.

What does The Flying Classroom do? It teaches children how to make their environment look more beautiful, helps them recognize their abilities, engages them in a productive activity and opens their eyes to a new world of ideas they didn’t know before. What should The Flying Classroom do? To be honest, I don’t know because I believe that there are questions yet to be answered, such as, “Is The Flying Classroom currently doing what it’s supposed to do?” and “In trying to solve problems, does The Flying Classroom actually create new challenges?”

We, socially responsible designers from big cities where our basic needs are met, think of lofty goals and problems to solve. We want to bring cultural growth to people living in a neglected village while they are still in need of fundamental essentials. After this project I was left wondering whether designing for underdeveloped parts of the world is so complex that it’s very difficult—if not impossible—to know what’s best to do.

We never followed up to see what happened after we left Tokhme-Baloot. Did our tree and our statement on the wall about nature make any difference in the way the students treated their environment? Did they ever talk about it at home with their families? Do they even remember it?

What’s the use of all of these temporary joys and responsible acts if we don’t know the results of what we’ve done? If we don’t take responsibility for our work, I would call it “design for feeling good” instead of “design for social good.” I’m not trying to degrade what we did in The Flying Classroom. We believed in what we were doing. The sensitivity of the situation is what I want to draw attention to: the thin line between helping people and feeling good because you think you are helping people.

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In Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber’s “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning," a 1973 paper on the difficulties of confronting social policy issues, they describe “wicked” problems as those that are difficult to resolve due to their complex, interconnected, hard to define natures.

There is always a chance for designers to do better because, as Rittel and Webber point out, the nature of wicked problems is that they need to be discovered in order to be solved. This learning and solving cannot happen separately.

The Flying Classroom is a young project—about two years old. To be frank, it’s one of the few of its kind in Iran. It takes a lot of courage to start such a challenging project and a lot of effort to do it at such high quality. I think that after two years of hard work, The Flying Classroom has a great portfolio to review as the group reflects more about what it should be doing.