heArtwork: One shredded paper at a time

Published: March 31, 2013
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Behind each intricately designed product of ‘heArtwork’ is a story of an artist.

Behind each intricately designed product of ‘heArtwork’ is a story of an artist.

In a school in the heart of Saddar, students of ages four to over thirty-five tear papers into smaller scraps. Others pick up the shredded bits, turning it into pulp that can be plastered onto the walls and dried. Still more students gather the dried paper, and use it to make greeting cards, photo frames and notebook covers. This process, included as part of their curriculum, will produce revenue for these students, all of whom have some kind of physical, mental, or emotional impairments.

The driving forces behind this project, known as ‘heArtwork’, are passionate twenty-somethings from NOWPDP, Pakistan (Network of Organisations Working for People with Disabilities, Pakistan). Sarah Ansari and Razee Khan, along with their teams, are committed to enhancing social inclusion and economic sustainability for people with disabilities. Their most recent project, heArtwork, is a model in both innovation and sustainability. Much like the Karachi-based group ‘Kaghaz Key Karnamay,’ the ‘heArtwork’ team is recycling waste paper and other products, and utilising them creatively to make crafts that are sold to corporate and consumer markets.

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Each intricately designed product is replete with its own story of the students behind the art. These inscriptions are largely done by students with hearing impairment.

“The idea is to impart knowledge,” explains Ansari, the Programme Manager for heArtwork. “We try to give them tools for when they leave school and want to do something on their own. There is no investment in this; it’s all skill-based.”

According to government mandate, Pakistan’s total workforce must include 2% people with disabilities. But this law is relatively unknown. And where it is known, it is largely ignored.

Out of a population of 180 million, over five million persons are officially considered to have some kind of disability and actual numbers are likely to be higher. Considering this, the fact that many people are unemployed because of physical or other impairments is a matter of grave concern. NOWPDP Pakistan is hoping to change these numbers, one person at a time.

Ansari explains that the project has been instituted in schools in accordance with the requirements of the funder, the Planning & Development Department of the Government of Sindh. The four schools in Karachi include ACELP, iKVTC (a vocational school), IDA Rieu and the Special School for Children Bahria Karsaz, while the fifth partner school, Hayat-e-Nau, which is less well-established than the others, is in Hyderabad. The requirements also stipulate that the project must include a total of 200 children (50 per school, although the numbers vary) and 10 teachers.

In each of these schools, the teachers are trained and then oversee students until they are able to go about the process themselves. Thirty to forty papers are made per day using a range of materials that can be seen scattered in their classrooms: paper cane, mulberry leaves, corn, coconut, tissues and recycled paper.

“It [the project] is environmentally friendly and requires fewer resources than what a corporate endeavour would,” adds Khan, who is the Business Development Manager of NOWPDP and also provides support to heArtwork’s corporate sales.

So far, the paper comes as donations from corporate partners. HeArtwork has also installed boxes at local universities, but the response from that end has been disappointing. Now streamlining paper supplies by partnering with local organisations is their immediate goal.

Revenue from the products sold is given as a financial reward to students at a fixed percentage. “A lot of these children have learning and emotional disabilities, so age doesn’t matter,” Ansari elaborates. Some students, despite being much older, are only able to tear paper while some younger students can go through the entire papermaking process. Still, they are encouraged to break boundaries where they can. “Empowerment is key in our project,” emphasises Ansari.

Khan admits that financial constraints exist. Since the project’s 18 month funding from the Sindh government will expire in December 2013, they are banking on revenue from the handicrafts to sustain the project in the future. But Khan is hopeful that this may change with time, especially once heArtwork has expanded across schools in different cities. In the meantime, heArtwork is also looking for socially conscious and committed ambassadors, locally and internationally, who can assist in creating awareness for their products in the retail markets.

What started out as a pilot project has now evolved drastically and come a long way. From limited digital artworks of paintings and handicrafts that were pitched to corporate buyers, heArtwork has grown to offer an entire range of products. Handbags, pillow cases, notebooks, cards, photo frames and paintings with gallery quality framing, are now sold locally and internationally using social media, and placed at popular spots in the city such as Neco’s and Liberty Books.

Ultimately, the goal is to help students with disabilities develop skills and gain access to the market. By imparting practical skills, heArtwork hopes to instill the value of self-sufficiency, even once NOWPDP is out of the picture.

Ansari and Khan repeatedly emphasise this goal of reducing dependency. But heArtwork is not just about financial independence, they say. It is also about providing some form of contentment and happiness to the students through their work. And surely, looking at the vibrant designs and the intricate patterns on handbags and greeting cards painted, one can sense that these are the fruits of a labour well enjoyed.

Their other initiatives include rickshaws that have been re-engineered for people with physical limitations, recruitment drives to increase employment numbers (NOWPDP has placed jobs for over 350 persons of disability, where they enjoy a retention rate of 88%), and programmes that train young adults to advocate for social and behavioral change. “You do not seclude people with disability,” Ansari says, “They have to become a part of normal society.”

Although the name ‘NOWPDP’ may suggest that it is a network of organisations, Ansari clarifies that that isn’t the case. Eventually, they do wish to evolve into an umbrella organisation, but for now they are taking baby steps. According to Khan, they are now at a stage where there is a great scope for expansion. Even then, their focus will remain the same: the creation of an inclusive social society through behavioral and physical change. Like the rest of their team, Khan and Ansari are both products of the Pakistani education system, and are determined to give back to their society.

Khan explains this by drawing a graph, where he labels the x axis as revenue, and the y axis as social impact. Claiming that revenue will always be a by-product of social impact, he draws a line towards the x axis. “We will always choose social impact over revenue,” he says.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, March 31st, 2013.

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