Republished from the Rutland Herald
By Patrick McArdle, Staff Writer
BENNINGTON, VT – A Bennington College sophomore, using a $10,000 Project for Peace grant, hosted a community action workshop for students and restored a local library in her native Pakistan over the summer, all before she reached her 21st birthday.
Maliha Ali, 20, who said she is taking classes on public education policy and political economy at Bennington, worked with a group of 16 high school students, teaching them about taking action in their community, and then put the lessons to work through the restoration of Sehba Akhtar Library, a defunct and neglected public library in the city of Karachi.
Ali said the idea started as a way to teach students about being members of a debate club or a Model United Nations and then evolved after she spent time working at a school in New York.
“I think all of these experiences sort of culminated in me thinking that I wanted to work with high school students. And what I want to teach them was critical thinking skills, being a little bit more aware of what was going on around them and how they could realistically be part of it. Not lofty, grand ideals of ‘save the world’ but how they can actually contribute to solving problems around them,” she said.
During the first part of her project, Ali met with students four times a week for four hours a day to teach thinking and leadership skills. The group decided that libraries were an exceptional public resource and worked with Ali’s team, which included three friends who had volunteered to help, local officials and area residents to find the right resources.
Although they only had two weeks to accomplish their goal, the group’s work included painting, plumbing, repairs, decorating, adding books to the catalogs and shelves and adding more than 2,000 new and donated books.
Ali, who said she has recently decided she might want to be a lawyer, said she enjoyed working with the students, even though it was a lot of work on top of fighting indifference and institutional inertia to get permission to fix up the library.
“The politics bit of it was extremely frustrating, painful almost, but also a necessary part so I had to find a way to make that work as well,” she said.
She admitted that it was intimidating to be a young person trying to lead a big project.
“I would ask myself all the time, ‘No one’s going to take me seriously. I’m 20 years old. What makes me think I can advance peace and fix public institutions and change the way that young people think?’ But I tried to remind myself all along that just because these things seem laughable for a young person to do almost … just because I find them difficult, does not make them unimportant,” she said.
Already thinking ahead to next summer, Ali said she hopes to do a follow-up project encouraging residents to use the renovated library.
“Old habits die hard. If people weren’t visiting the library, they’re not suddenly going to start simply because it’s a beautiful place now and there are new books there. Maybe that’s going to encourage a few people but not most of them,” she said.
Students who took part in the workshop are staying engaged, however, visiting the library and sending Ali a report on its condition and how they’re using the facility. Local officials have also gotten on board, adding computers and promising to engage the community.
Ali’s grant came from the Davis United World Scholars Projects for Peace program started by philanthropist Kathryn Wasserman Davis in 2007. More information about Ali’s project can be found on her blog at www.kuchkaro.weebly.com/about-us.html