Jean-François has been closely involved with Auroville youth since he came to live here in 1998. Here he gives his views on the present youth scene in Auroville, the important role that youth can play and the challenges facing them.
“Almost my whole adult life I've been working with teenagers,” says Jean-Francois. Born in Grenoble in the French Alps, at the age of 17 he was already working in a summer camp, looking after young people. There was a brief diversion into business, “but even then, during my holidays, I was working with children. So I thought, Why am I lying to myself? If I'm happy working with kids, let me just do it.”
He got a job in a home for children. “Half were there for their own protection because of violence in their families, the other half were there because of delinquent behaviour. We, the adults, had to take care of them in the morning – get them up, make breakfast, get them to school – and in the evening when they returned. We were caring for them in the same way as would happen in ordinary families. The other part of the job was to take care of the relation with their families, because the aim of the project was for the children to be able to return to their family. Sometimes we could achieve this relatively quickly. In other cases, when the problems were very deep-seated, it could take up to five years for the children to return.”
After two years, Jean-François began studying for an appropriate qualification and finally received a diploma as an educateur specialisé. “It meant I was trained to work with people with every kind of handicap – mental, physical and social.” What was the most important lesson that he learned from working in the home? “The main thing you learn is that you're not in charge of the situation, you are just a tool. As long as you think you can change things by yourself, you're doing a bad job. But when you grasp that you are a tool to help the kids understand what they can do for themselves, you start to be more effective. For, ultimately, the only solution is their own. Similarly, with violent parents it's useless to come with judgements. You have to enter a process, to ask them why they are behaving like that and then help them to see the patterns and how they can break them.”
Jean-François spent six years working at the children's home. Some years later, to broaden his experience, he worked in a drug rehabilitation centre. “The approach with the children and with the addicts was the same. You don't judge, you don't force anything upon them. With addicts, you ask them what they think their problem is and their solution. Even if you think the solution won't work, you let them try it. Then, if it's obviously not working, you begin presenting them with alternatives. But the right solution has ultimately to come from them.”
While studying for his diploma, Jean-François met fellow student Kripa, who had been born and brought up in Auroville. After further work experience in the West, they now live together in Auroville. Jean-François began his Auroville career by giving maths lessons in Last School and the Centre for Further Learning (CFL). “One day some kids from CFL came to see Kripa and myself and said they wanted a residential youth community in Auroville. Would we help them make it happen? We said, OK, but because we're trained as social workers once we commit ourselves we won't just create something and then withdraw. We'll carry on the work. They agreed to this. So for two years we worked with their core group, making plans, raising money, finding somebody to do the construction. And in 2001 Kailash opened.”
Kailash, explains Jean-François, is based on a statement of The Mother: that young people, after they reach 14 years, should take decisions by themselves and only receive adult guidance if they require it. “We are not yet there because the adults still have an important role: we are the final authority if there is a big crisis. But the intention is to allow them to go as far as they can with their own process.” The Kailash project has rules and regulations which are agreed upon by everybody living there. “The rules, which we worked out with the original teenage core group, are that the age limit is 14 – 21 years, that all residents should have a daily activity, that they should respect their neighbours and participate in the collective life of the project. And no illegal drugs are allowed in the building. These rules are not open for discussion. The regulations, however, can be modified according to the age and evolution of the residents.
“As long as the rules are respected, I try to stay in the background. I'm often there, giving personal support, attending weekly meetings, liaising with the schools etc., but I've no more rights than anybody else. Working there, I've had very few conflicts because we work with the basic principle that if you respect others, they will respect you in return. It's also true, of course, that the youth of Auroville don't at all have the same problems as the ones we were working with in Grenoble . We don't have the problem of violence and I'd say we are quite safe in Auroville regarding drugs.”
What, then, does Jean-François believe are the main challenges facing Auroville's teenagers? “Adolescence is the time when you want to search, it's a quest for yourself. And all quests need opposition, the need to go against something to discover your own strength. So Auroville teenagers, like teenagers everywhere, do things which are not accepted by their parents or by society to test the limits. But discovering the limits is not easy in Auroville because it is not a society which reacts very fast if you challenge it.
“At the same time, when the teenagers experiment, they are in such a small community here that everybody will know about it; there's no privacy, no secret garden to go to. So it's difficult for them. It looks as if everything is possible here, but at the same time everybody seems to be looking over their shoulder.
“The other main difficulty is that the Auroville society provides no clear reference for them. Here we live in a mixed culture where many things are difficult to define. For example, if you claim to be an Aurovilian, what does that mean? So they get confused, they don't know exactly how to behave, they don't have something solid they can model themselves on or fight against. It's not easy to be a teenager in Auroville!”
How does Auroville respond to its youth? Is it supportive of their personal ‘quests'? “I believe,” says Jean-François, “that Auroville – with the fine exception of the schools – has never done much for its youth. Even when we wanted to start Kailash, the Development Group told us to build far away near Edayanchavadi village: they wanted us out of the way. It was only because Kireet Joshi, the then Chairman of the Governing Board, insisted that youth should be put at the centre of all activities in Auroville that we were finally able to build near the middle of the town. Then, when there was an incident involving a few Auroville youth at a New Year's party a few years ago, this created bad publicity for the community and people became scared. Suddenly they realized that the youth could affect the image of Auroville but, because they had been neglected so long, nobody had much control over them. So what to do?
“Some Aurovilians seem to think that youth between the ages of 13 – 20 have no place here: they should make their experience elsewhere. But I think there is a misunderstanding. Auroville is not meant to be an ashram. Auroville is a community, a society which includes families and children and, if we have a problem, we have to face it and solve it together and not just think of sending somebody away as the first option. Of course, the behaviour of our youth is not always nice, not always ‘spiritual', but that's part of the reality. If we as adults decide that acceptable behaviour is here (lifts his hand) and the youth are here (lowers his hand) then we all have to find ways of reducing the gap. But how?”
One of the ways being considered at present appears to be the closing of the Youth Centre or adults organizing activities there for the youth. The Youth Centre, which is run by the teenagers themselves, has had a chequered history. At present the core group is successfully bringing new energy into the Centre through organizing dinners and film shows, but a recent party reopened old controversies. “I'm not involved in the organization of the Youth Centre,” says Jean-François, “but while it's not ideal it's better than having no Youth Centre at all. Now, if there's inappropriate behaviour, I or any other adult who is there can intervene. But if the Youth Centre closes, some of the youth will go to Pondicherry and you'll have absolutely no control over what they are exposed to. It's also wrong to assume that the young organizers are not concerned or capable of changing things. They are very open to discussion, they've met the Council twice and come up with their own proposals which, by the way, are not popular with all their friends or easy for them to implement. They need all the time and support that we can give them to evolve their own solutions. But instead of that there's now a move to let the parents and teachers decide what will happen to the Youth Centre. In other words, we are telling the youth that they are not capable of taking care of the problem themselves. This shows a total lack of respect and trust.”
What, then, is the importance of youth to Auroville? Are they a constant challenge to the adults to re-evaluate their standards and the progress they are making as individuals and as a society? “I'm not sure about this,” says Jean-François, “because the youth here, like youth everywhere in the world at present, are not really rebellious: they are not really fighting against things they don't like. I think the importance of having kids in Auroville is the hope that they will grow up with a certain spirit: that even if Auroville is not yet materialising many of its ideals, the youth will understand how it should be and, eventually, will take up responsibility to make this happen. This is not happening at present. Those who return to Auroville in the 25-30 age range don't get much involved in the community process. They have a very bad image of the working groups as never-ending talk-shops but, more than this, there are the personal attacks – most of the youth are far more polite and respectful of minimum standards of discourse than some of the adults in these groups. Then again, the young people are often confronted with the judgement that Auroville youth are ‘immature'. This is not just disrespectful. It also blocks all possibility of communication.
“If we leave space and time for the youth to express themselves, if we are listening because we want their input and we use it as often as possible, then we are working with the youth. But as long as the approach is that we'll talk to their parents when we have a problem with them then, sorry, I think we're on the wrong path.”