How World Class Innovators Create the Unexpected
Sister Cyril integrated:
- education & social programs
- rich & poor
- Indian castes
- students with & without disabilities
"See that bridge over there?"
"I'd like you kids to go find out how many poor children there are under the bridge who need schooling. Survey the area and find out how many we can serve."
Sister Cyril Mooney had just become Principal of the Loreto Sealdah School in Kolkata (Calcutta). She had 700 paying students in her well-regarded school for girls (some would say "elite" school). She also had 100 non-paying students, since it had been a tradition to educate poor Catholic children for free if they couldn't pay, because the school was run by the Loreto order of Catholic nuns (the same order as Mother Teresa, also of Calcutta, and who knew Sister Cyril, being in the same order of nuns). However, Sister Cyril wanted to do more and reach out to educate any child in need. First, she needed to know how many there were. Perhaps they could start with some homeless children she knew were living under a bridge nearby.
The girls came back excited from their journey, but seemed disappointed, too.
"Sister, there weren't any poor children under the bridge. They're all quite fat."
Because they hadn't learned the signs of advanced malnutrition, when the body swells, the surveyors couldn't "see" the poor children, who were so poor their bodies were swelling from lack of food.
"Oh. All right, then. I suppose we'll have to find children-in-need some other way. Thank you — go ahead to your classes and recess."
For their community service projects, the girls taught in villages that were short of teachers or had no school — also an important need to be served. Three years after the survey at the bridge, some girls approached Sister….
"Sister, why do we go so far away on a bus to teach when there are poor children nearby?"
"Oh, really? Where?"
"Just under the bridge — over there."
So she let them start a program to teach the poor children under the bridge. The new inquiry had come after the kids had been working with poor kids in villages and had learned something about poverty and hunger.
With something new in their heads, they could "see" opportunities they couldn't see before.
Then Sister's eyes were opened one day when she heard of a four-year-old girl who was raped at night, nearby, while the school was empty, the doors were closed, and the gates were locked. It shook her. She asked, "Lord, what are we doing here — what am I doing here — if this is to happen nearby?"
She opened the gates and the doors and let the children sleep in the empty school, where they'd be safe. Later, she added food and education, and the Rainbow Program was born, providing education to 350 poor students (250 of them housed in the school full-time). The school remained at 700 paying students but grew the non-paying cohort to 700 and took special care to ensure there was no difference between paying and non-paying.
In fact, when the issue came up, Sister responded, "Which of you here pay your own fees?"
A girl chimed in, "Our parents pay."
"So you don't pay, then?"
"No — children don't have any money."
"So everyone here is sponsored by a parent or someone else, so you're all equal and there'll be no more of who pays and who doesn't pay?"
"That's right, Sister."
And that was the end of that. No more boundaries.
She opened more than gates to the school. She opened floodgates of creativity. Over the course of 35 years, she, her teachers, volunteers, and students founded and grew 15 programs for the poorest of the world's poor — Kolkata children living in streets, slums, villages, migrant brick-workers, domestic child laborers, and more. She gave her students and staff freedom to explore, experiment, take risks, make messes, grow, and make a difference. They made a difference in themselves, growing more confident and creative, and their impact on the world grew.
Her staff describes her as a powerhouse, one who breaks down walls, a fighter, compassionate, a listener, faithful, always-available, risk-taker, incredibly strong and energetic, courageous, with vision of the potential in others and willingness to let them try. Her door was always open, and she remembered and cared about everyone.
She was told it would be impossible to mix different castes in Indian society, and that as an Irishwoman, she couldn't possibly understand the caste barriers. She understands children, and they mix just fine. She was told it would be difficult to mix handicapped children into the healthy cohort. But they mixed just fine. If a student needs special support/assistance they receive it, and for the bulk of their education, they mix and learn.
One of the students noticed, thought, and asked about child domestic workers (CDW's), so they started a CDW program. With the Sister's permission, the students went to their neighbours and asked if they could play with the neighbouring workers — perhaps play learning games. Many employers said no, but eventually they said yes (after repeated visits — just try to say no to a neighbour child), and some allowed the children to pursue more learning programs. They've worked with over 1,000 CDW's, admitted over 300 to school, provided vocational education to over 200, health assistance to over 650, rescued over 50, and provided advocacy for nearly 30,000.
It's hard to notice people who are hidden. But once noticed, they are hard to ignore.
Sister noticed more and more poor children haemorrhaging onto the streets day after day, in growing numbers. With growing concern, she traced them through to the Sampurna Eastern Bypass to a migrant area that had just opened up, with 1,200 schoolless children. She asked them what they needed. With no electricity and no running water, they asked for school. Sister's school now serves these children with teacher training and new schools.
We don't always notice who's on the street, much less pursue where they come from. But again, once found, they are hard to ignore.
I was so fond of saying to my children when they were little, "No, no, we see with our eyes, not with our fingers." But that's not true. They were right. We see with our eyes and fingers and feet and hearts and everything we touch, hear, see, taste, smell, and empathise with (I count six senses there, not five), but seeing so much can be overwhelming.
Kolkata, for example, is an amazing place of sights and sounds and smells and traffic and people going to school and work and eating street-breakfast and drinking tea and shopping and doing a thousand other things within any space you might choose to rest your eyes, which will not rest while you're on the street. A very human instinct is to shut it all out and become aware of nothing. But that won't help you get where you're going, and it won't help anyone see opportunities to make anything better.
How do we restrict our vision (and other senses) to what we can handle, yet remain open to opportunity?
Sister Cyril both expanded and restricted her vision by creating the lens, "We educate children." I kept hearing her say yes to everything and asked her does she ever say no? She said, "No, I never say no." To illustrate, she told me that when speaking with a poor mother one day, Sister said, "Would you like your child to sleep here and go to school here as a residential scholar?" The mother, relieved and elated, said, "YES!" I noticed Sister didn't invite the poor mother to sleep in the school and asked her about it. She said, no, of course not — she doesn't provide housing to the poor in general and work on anything big outside of "We educate children."
So, she says yes to everything inside her lens and no to what's outside. In fact, some of the children initially taken in were boys, yet her school is for girls. The vision of Mary Ward, the school's founder, was to empower women, and the primary means was to educate girls. So, the boys' needs were noticed, and were not ignored, but Sister transferred them to an affiliated school for boys.
Sister Cyril has seen through open eyes for many years, but increasingly through a lens that she developed herself, and which both focused and expanded her vision. She focused on her mission yet remained open and noticed things (like new kids on the street) because of that lens. Having noticed, she investigated, took action to help, and offers one piece of advice to others:
"Just do it."
She didn't have all the resources or grand plans when she started anything. She saw a need and did what she believed would be right in her eyes and God's eyes. Along the way, when people heard of the needs and the good works, resources came, and they grew and served. It's happened every time.
And now, 450,000 lives are the better for it.
Many of us think we see — analyse — act. But so often we can't see. Without data, we don't analyse. Without analysis, we won't act. Is it better to: act — see — grow?
Will you act?
What will you see?
How will you grow yourself and others?
1. one who innovates across domains of industry, field, country, social class, etc.
◦ s radical innovator, interdisciplinary creator, T-shaped person, borderless freethinker, boundary-crossing integrator, oddball;
Sister Cyril Mooney served as Principal of the Loreto Sealdah School in Kolkata, India for 35 years and continues to serve, as an Education Consultant, internationally. The programs she founded have been collected into the Kolkata Mary Ward Social Centre and continue to grow. She's "from" India & Ireland (lived 6 months+, countries listed in alphabetical order) and was featured in INKTalks' Journey to the Extraordinary. For more information on her work, see: Loretosealdah.org, kolkatamarywardsc.org, and YouTube videos such as "Circle of Empowerment."
Photo/video cuts courtesy of Sister Cyril Mooney, Depositphotos, and our own creative team.
For more Fusion profiles & articles, click here.