By Sophie Kelly
Dr. Urvashi Sahni is the persistent and brave trailblazer behind Prerna Girls School in Lucknow, India. She is a social entrepreneur, women’s rights activist, and a leading expert in school governance, curriculum reform, and teacher training. As the founding President and CEO of the Study Hall Educational Foundation, Dr. Urvashi Sahni has achieved massive impact throughout Uttar Pradesh, India. To date, SHEF and its offshoot, the Digital Study Hall, have provided high quality, dialogue-centered education to upwards of 2,000 children, most of whom come from impoverished rural and urban areas. In addition to her work with education, she has also founded DiDi’s, a social enterprise restaurant that offers sustainable and honorable livelihoods for graduates of the Prerna Girls School and their mothers.
While all of Dr. Sahni’s enterprises are notable, the heart of her career lies in Prerna Girls School. Students from Prerna come from economically low backgrounds, many living in neighboring slums, having little to no spare income to fund education. Most of the girls work as domestic helpers to provide support to their families. Thus, Prerna schooling is held in the afternoons, allowing girls to continue their work. The school’s tuition is also extremely low and affordable, and for nearly all students the tuition is covered or supplemented by SHEF, following a sliding scale payment model. The Prerna Girls School itself is funded by the tuition of the traditional private school held during the mornings, for students in middle income class. Dr. Sahni speaks about her “girls” with deeply resonant compassion, care, and hopefulness. Her presence is commanding and intriguing. But after spending two days with the Prerna girls, it became clear that the girls themselves are the face and the voice of the school. Outspoken, eager, curious, passionate, seeking, and kind, the girls of Prerna are in every way, a force to be reckoned with; a beacon of hope in a society that often neglects them and forces them into lives as child brides and homemakers.
By utilizing a Critical Feminist Pedagogy throughout the Prerna Girls School curriculum, the girls are able to take a feminist stance in their life. For the Prerna girls, this means being enabled to resist discrimination and rise above it. The first step for the girls is understanding the oppression they face and developing a deeper understanding of their subordination. The second step is recognizing their worth and internalizing the belief that they can accomplish anything they want. And the third step, as championed and encouraged most vehemently by Dr. Sahni, is learning how to transcend their oppression through the ability to communicate their reality. The curriculum utilizes multimodal tools like dialogues, theatre, digital stories, and music, all skills that the girls can then use to tell their stories in a meaningful way.
What Dr. Sahni and the Study Hall Foundation is doing for education in India is revolutionary. Rather than focusing solely on preparation for exams, a method that is common throughout preparatory schools in India, the Prerna Girls School roots its curriculum in connection and empathy. The girls’ ability to communicate with one another and with their communities is the platform upon which the learning takes place. Within a larger world context that explores gender, race, and economic dynamics, the girls are better equipped to understand themselves and how they can achieve their dreams.