In late 2015, when the Asian Institute announced the Richard Charles Lee Big Ideas Competition – calling on University of Toronto students to develop big ideas for social entrepreneurship in Asia – the three of us began brainstorming what would eventually become Xiangshang (Upward), an education program for migrant children in Beijing. After months of research, planning and networking, and two rounds of written submissions, we were thrilled that our project received full funding from a panel of experts at the competition’s final pitch competition in April.
By June we were on the ground in Picun (literally: Leather Village), a peri-urban community on the outskirts of Beijing. While technically part of Chaoyang, the largest of Beijing’s five urban districts and home to embassies, foreign bars, and the Central Business District, Picun’s unpaved roads, low-slung concrete tenements, and neighbouring farmlands belie the modern infrastructure found elsewhere in China’s capital. The majority of Picun’s 30,000 residents are migrants from China’s vast countryside who have moved to Beijing in search of higher wages and long-term opportunities.
They represent but a fraction of urban China’s “floating population” of 250 million rural migrants. Despite China’s significant achievements in poverty reduction since the onset of economic reforms in 1978, inequality has grown steadily in recent decades. Among the worst affected by widening socio-economic gaps are the country’s floating population – expected to double by 2025 – who continue to face barriers to wellbeing and social mobility. China’s household registration system, or hukou, regulates access to public services based on residency status. As a result, people with rural status in urban China are often excluded from critical public services like education and healthcare. And since hukou status is typically inherited, this exclusion extends also to China’s 35 million migrant children.
In Picun, many migrant children are in fact not migrants at all, having been born and raised in Beijing. Many have never set foot in the rural hometowns to which their social status is fixed. Others return only infrequently. Nonetheless, children with rural status in Picun and across China are disadvantaged relative their urban-registered peers through hukou restrictions that force them to cease their education prematurely or enroll in low-quality, unlicensed migrant schools outside the state system. Not all migrant schools fit this profile, however, as we learned from our partner in Picun, the Tongxin Experimental School.
Founded in 2005, Tongxin provides affordable kindergarten and primary education to roughly 500 migrant children. When we first arrived at the school, we had an insightful and informative discussion with Ms. Shen, from which we gained better understanding of the school and surrounding village. The experimental nature of the school is captured by the innovative, learner-oriented activities that supplement the core curriculum. Alongside basic literary and numeracy, students at Tongxin take courses in gardening and home economics; frenetic recess hours are balanced by disciplined school-cleaning periods; and a small workshop on the school grounds produces new clothes out of recycled materials. In a sense, our project was merely one of many Tongxin experiments.
The pilot project we ran with help from the Big Ideas Competition and the dedicated staff at the Asian Institute was a multi-faceted program for children (especially the new arrivals at Tongxin) and the migrant women associated with the school’s workshop. On-site at the school, we planned and led courses ranging from English to science, cultural exchanges, and financial education. In addition to the camp, we applied skills we’ve refined as graduate students at the University of Toronto by collaborating with Tongxin on a number of side projects such as data analysis of student surveys and online promotion of Tongxin’s clothing and apparel workshop. Most importantly, the kids had fun.
Looking ahead, we plan to expand our pilot project into a sustainable partnership in which the broader U of T community – and students especially – can play a role year after year. The University has longstanding though under-acknowledged ties to China, to say nothing of its current linkages through a large and diverse body of overseas Chinese students. We’d like Upward to become another of those linkages. In the coming year we hope to share our experience in Picun on and off campus and create opportunities for U of T students of all backgrounds to assume a leadership role in our partnership with Tongxin. Interested U of T students will have the chance this fall and winter to participate in online English classes for Tongxin’s students and teachers. And by spring, we’ll be ready to recruit and prepare a small group of U of T volunteers to run next summer’s iteration of the camp in China. If you’re curious for more information, or if you’d like to get involved, please visit us at www.upward-project.org.
David Tobiasz (Political Science) and Zitong Li (Public Policy), both students in the Collaborative Master’s Program in Asia-Pacific Studies at the Asian Institute, will be convocating in November 2016. Melody Liang is in the second year of her Master of Social Work program.