About Think Equal
Aristotle once said that “educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all”. Think Equal is a global organization that aims to empower change through education.
“We have been so irresponsible as the world and so negligent of our children, to leave them to all of the negative influences that teach them the opposite of what they need to know, to live a life in dignity and one that respects the dignity of others. And then we’re surprised when the number one killer of our young boys is suicide. We’re surprised although we have not given them the tools to learn how to express their emotions to learn healthy relationships.” – Leslee Udwin, Founder and Executive Chair.
From the red carpet to an Indian prison
Leslee Udwin, Founder and Executive Chair at Think Equal, was a BAFTA and multi-award-winning filmmaker up until eight years ago.Everything changed when she shot “India’s Daughter”, her last documentary. The documentary narrates the horrific story of the 2012 gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old girl named Nirbhaya on a moving bus in India, the ensuing public outcry both nationally and internationally and the stories of the rapists, their defence attorneys, and psychiatrists. India’s Daughter was banned by Indian authorities from being broadcast in India.
What truly resonated with me was the aftermath of this terrible event. Millions of people, both men and women, took to the streets of India’s cities for six weeks of protests. It was unlike anything the Indian authorities had seen since the partition in 1947, and they reacted with rubber bullets and water cannons. Despite the government’s efforts, the people continued to protest.
Reading the story in the news and experiencing the public uprising in India had a significant impact on Leslee. She believed this would be the beginning of the end of violence against women. In hindsight, she believes she was naïve at the time.
I arrived in India determined to document this historical moment for gender equality. However, upon landing, I realized that creating more awareness about gender-based violence wasn’t enough. We needed to understand the men who committed these acts and take action to prevent them.
Leslee’s own story is not void of sexual violence. At the age of 18, she was raped herself. Part of making this documentary was about facing her own fears. Being in the same room with people who committed such heinous crimes, interviewing them. Fearful that she may not be able to control her emotions, she interviewed other rapists and sexual offenders as well in order to practice and gain additional understanding of the drivers of these men (yes, they were all men) before interviewing the four men who were convicted by the court of the rape and murder of Nirbhaya. During these interviews, she made a perplexing discovery.
“Surprisingly, I didn’t feel any anger or the urge to hit them, because it seemed inappropriate. These men appeared robotic, devoid of any remorse, as they had been programmed to hate since birth. One of the rapists I interviewed, who had assaulted a five-year-old girl, told me that she was a beggar and therefore her life had no value. This revealed that the caste system in India went beyond gender and was also deeply rooted in culture.”
This is of course a problem that transcends national boundaries. The underlying problem of sexual assault is perhaps not that different from the problem of other forms of violence. The underlying problem is the discriminatory mindset that devalues other human beings, and their right to live, simply because of the colour of their skin, their gender, their ethnicity, their beliefs, or their age. This mindset is not innate nor genetically inherited. It is not a matter of nature, but one of nurture (or lack thereof). As Nelson Mandela said
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
This realization was transformational for Leslee:
I pledged to devote my life to changing the education system. I believe it should be compulsory for children to learn how to value others, themselves, and the environment. I am dedicated to building pro-social brains with empathy neural pathways in children up to the age of six. If children don’t have these pathways by that age, they can never develop them. I am committed to focusing on this critical window of opportunity to create a better future.
Kids need to be at least 3 years old before they can deliberately learn these important lessons. That means we have a 3-year window in the life of every child on earth to influence their brain in such a way that they will become better people. It’s a small window, but the impact we can have on society at large if we succeed is immeasurable.
How does the Think Equal Program work?
Think Equal teaches a special program three times a week for 30 weeks, just like any other serious subject. They provide classrooms with a large pack of physical materials instead of teaching online, as this program relies on building relationships between the teacher and their peers. The program is made accessible to developing countries through the help of individual or corporate sponsors because in those regions the digital approaches may simply not reach the majority of children in time. Since its founding, a lot of digital tools have been created as well, allowing the life-changing lessons and insights to reach more people faster. The program itself is developed by global experts including Sir Ken Robinson, Barbari Isaacs (Montessori Europe) Dr. Urvashi Sahni (Founder of Stdy Hall Educational Foundation), Drs Marc Bracket and Robin Stern (co-directors of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence), Dr. Richard Davidson (Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison) and many more.
The approach is tailored to each child, embracing, and celebrating their differences and uniqueness. The course pack relies on 24 storybooks that teach children about how the world should be, capturing their hearts and creating empathy pathways. The stories are filled with 25 important skills and competencies.
Think Equal teaches the teachers about how to use these books, these skills, and competencies, and works with them to develop lesson plans and resources to unpack the insights from the stories as much as possible. This creates a new collective narrative in the classroom, leading to remarkable changes in the children.
We empower teachers through online and face-to-face training, depending on their location and connectivity. The goal is to ignite their passion for teaching, which is crucial for the program’s success. Teachers often become emotional during face-to-face training, cry, and bond with one another and reinforcing their sense of purpose.
Think Equal’s Global Reach
At the start of 2023, the program had reached nearly 300,000 children, but the actual number could be over a million. Think Equal sells the materials to the schools and then the schools could easily use them for a decade. However, currently they only track the first usage in a region or a country. In three countries, the education ministries have made the program part of the national curriculum, achieving the system change we are aiming for. The program has been taught in 18 languages across North America (Canada, USA, Mexico), Central America (Belize, Trinidad and Tobago), South America (Colombia, Argentina), Europe (UK, Spain, North Macedonia and Ukraine), Africa (South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Madagascar, Kenya), the Middle East (UAE), South Asia (India, Pakistan), Southeast Asia (Singapore), and Oceania (Australia).
Leslee has received numerous awards for her work. She was awarded the Anna Lindh Human Rights Award in the Swedish Parliament (formerly won by Madeleine Albright); the UN Women for Peace Activist Award; Global Hero by Safe Magazine and Global Thinker Award by Foreign Policy. Leslee was also voted by the NY Times the Second Most Impactful woman of 2016, after Hillary Clinton. She has also won the UN Association USA Global Citizen Award and the Gandhi International Peace Prize.
In the UK, after seeing the negative effects of COVID on children’s development, Greater Manchester asked Think Equal to implement their program across 10 districts. This will cover 1,300 reception classes for four-year-olds and 1,500 nurseries for three-year-olds. The National Health Service of England and the Violence Prevention Unit of the police are funding this because they understand the connection between early childhood outcomes and future issues.
In Malawi, the Gender Minister and the Education Minister want to bring the program to every child in the country. Out of 36,000 early years teachers in Malawi, only 2,000 are paid, and the rest are volunteers. The Think Equal program provides them with a structured, step-by-step approach to teaching, similar to assembling an Ikea bookshelf. This allows them to effectively teach while continuing their own professional development.
Collaboration with Handprint
Handprint and Think Equal are joining forces to bring this program to the rest of the world. Currently, Think Equal is active in 28 countries. We are actively looking for companies that want to make a significant difference in the world and see this program brought to the children and grandchildren of their employees and their communities.