Kathmandu: Rene Johnke, Founder of Changing Stories.
René, who has been in Nepal since 2015, creates modules and remedial courses to strengthen the students’ education. Originally from Aarhus in Denmark, René tells us about his dreams and goals for Changing Stories. Kathmandu has become his home, where he has found happiness, above all else.
Hi René! Tell us about yourself.
I grew up in a typical suburban low-middle class family just outside of Aarhus, Denmark. My dad worked in the food ingredient business and my mom at the local municipality. I was never a good student. I used to spend the maximum amount of time on the football field and the minimum amount inside the classroom. My third grade teacher gave me the nickname “The Siren”, because of my shrill voice and the fact that I used to talk — a lot.
We moved to the United States when I was 10, where we stayed for two and a half years. Moving to another country where I didn't really speak the language was a transformative experience for me. I learnt how to adjust and gained a perspective of a world that was bigger than just Aarhus. Might have influenced my later choice of not living a life confined to Denmark, too. Looking back, I had loved living in the US, it was an adventure beyond comparison!
I learnt about you from Facebook, via a connection of mine whom I met in Kathmandu. It moved me the first time I saw it, which led to our collaboration in January. Tell us more about CS - how did it start? What is its main purpose? Why did you choose the name “Changing Stories”?
The idea for CS came after having worked with children and education for two years here in Nepal. I was incredibly frustrated with the “development sector”, especially organisations working with education. Their focus seemed to be exclusively on school infrastructure i.e. building new schools. But everyone also knew the problems with the public school system wasn’t about the buildings; it was what was (or wasn’t) happening inside.
The problem is pretty simple: children are simply not learning anywhere near what they are supposed to. So you have children who can’t read simple words in Nepali by the time they reach Grade 4 or 5. And that sucks. Because those children will end up in the statistics that say around half of all public school students who enrol in Grade 1 will drop out before they finish Grade 10. In other words, there is no safety net for students who, for whatever reason, fall behind in the early grades. They get lost. I decided to establish an organisation that would focus exclusively on trying to solve the learning crisis, a sole focus on running initiatives targeted at raising students’ learning levels. No handing out of school materials, no building schools. At CS, what we do instead is provide opportunities.
I was also motivated to build an organisation that was branded differently, and better, than most other “charities” I had encountered. I wanted an organisation that’s more than a typical charity. I wanted to create a charity that didn’t sell guilt, but hope. I wanted to communicate impact so those who invest in us know exactly what difference their contributions are making. I wanted to build what we now, instead of a charity, call a “for-impact” organisation, where we would be as cost-effective as possible in delivering impact to our students and for our donors.
The main purpose of CS is to help struggling public school students catch up and at the same time provide much-needed work, teaching and leadership experience to youth living outside the “bigger cities”. Our mission is to ensure every child enrolled in a public school can read, write and do math. That children believe in themselves and have parents who support their learning.
This interview appeared in Chemistry Issue. To continue reading, you can buy digital or print.