Limi women learning to read

Children at the first school

Saving Tibetan Culture

An Interview with Deanna Campbell

by Randy Peyser

So many people want to “save the world". Deanna Campbell is one woman who is actually doing it. After a chance meeting with Khenpo Tashi Kailash, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, while in a cafeteria line during a meditation seminar, Deanna was shocked to learn that the region the monk came from had been without a school for two generations. With a degree in education and having served on various school boards, the retired executive thought there must be something she could do.

About a year after meeting the monk, and at his suggestion, Deanna hired a 4x4 and bounded off to “do the Mount Kailash Kora,” which involved circumambulating Mt. Kailash in the Himalayan Mountains. The Kailash Kora is considered to be the highest spiritual pilgrimage for both Hindus and Buddhists. After traversing 18,000 ft. passes during her spectacular experience, she crossed over the Tibetan border and made her way to one of the most remote villages in Nepal. There were no roads, no phones and no electricity, outside of the recent appearance of some hydro-electricity and some solar electricity.

Deanna refers to the villagers as “the forgotten Tibetans” because the Chinese consider them Nepalese and will have nothing to do with them, while the Nepalese will have nothing to do with them because they live so remotely.

Compelled to make a difference, Deanna founded an organization, and within the last five years, the “Antahkarana Society” created three schools, educates children, teaches the village women to read, and more. www.SaveTibetanCulture.org.

Randy Peyser: What happened when you first met the villagers?

Deanna Campbell: When I first spoke with the villagers, they wanted a school. They had very grand ideas. Basically, they wanted a replica of the schools in Dharamsala and other places in India they’d heard about. This was totally impractical because it’s not possible to get the same kinds of building materials that are needed to create a big school, and there were no teachers who wanted to go there, much less administrators.

I came back the next year and told them that for now, the best thing would be to take some children into the Tibetan schools that were established in Nepal by the Dalai Lama’s Department of Education. They would get a good Tibetan education and be able to go on to college if they so desired. Each village was divided into wards. We took three children from each ward in each of the three villages. It turned out to be about 28 children. We enrolled them in Namgyal School in Katmandu.

That year, I made a documentary film. The next year, we went back to the village to get more footage, but we got snowed out. When the villagers heard I was coming they thought I was coming to get more children to bring to school in Kathmandu. So, while we were snowed out from the direction of Kathmandu, several children crossed the border of China into India and back into Nepal to come to Kathmandu; it took them 30 days of walking!

When I arrived back in Kathmandu, there were fourteen more kids who had come to join our program. We managed to quickly rebuild our hostel to make it bigger to accommodate these kids.

One of the most marvelous things about the whole experience was that these kids came from villages that didn’t have schooling for two generations. Their parents were illiterate. We worked with them in our hostel in Katmandu for six months. We were able to bring them up in Tibetan, English and Nepalese to meet the entrance requirements into a very academically challenging school. After only six months of study, one-third of our children were performing at the top of their class. It’s an astonishing demonstration of the will to learn.

Randy: How did you teach them?

Deanna: We used fairly innovative techniques involving some Montessori and a lot of close attention. The following year, the Dalai Lama made a decision that the children in these schools should be 12 years old in order to be accepted into the dormitories. We agreed. Taking kids when they’re seven years old from their villages was very trying for the kids and their parents, although the kids were very happy because they’d never had such good food, comfort, and attention, and they loved being in school.

I can understand why the Ministry of Education would want kids to stay in their villages longer. So, that meant we had to build small schools in the villages. We now have schools in three villages and use the same teaching techniques.

Miraculously, the Tibetan youth who managed to get an education through Dharamsala volunteered to go back into the villages as teachers. Early on, our critics said: “You’ll educate the kids, but they’ll just flee the village. They won’t go back there.” We found this not to be the case. We have youth who are now going back to their villages as teachers. Others are working on tourism so they can bring groups to the villages in the summertime. They’re very entrepreneurial and they are reviving their villages. It’s a remarkable thing to see.

Randy: How old are these youth?

Deanna: Mostly 18-24. Some are in their 30’s. We pay them as teachers and with that money they are able to care for their aging parents. It took me a while to understand how things work. It doesn’t disrupt the pattern of life for the young people to leave the village, earn money, then go back in the summertime and help their elders with the planting, This has been the way of life for hundreds of years. In the wintertime the men do the trading. They were the traders on the Silk Road. They would leave the women and children to go trade during the winter when the villages were snowed in.

Randy: What were they trading?

Deanna: In the days before they were poverty stricken, they would trade wool and craft items made from wool, and other mostly agricultural products. Summertime they would stay in the village and help with planting then stay to help with the harvest. Now they leave in winter for work in India or Nepal. But some are staying in the villages as teachers. Eventually, we’ll get people trained as doctors and nurses and other kinds of professionals. And they will go back to their villages and serve. It’s amazing to watch the evolution of several villages coming back to life.

Randy: What other programs do you offer?

Deanna: We have a women’s literacy program. One time, I was doing a meditation and mantras with the villagers. I noticed the men would take out Tibetan scriptures and chant other things, while the women chanted the very simple, “Om mani padme om.” Afterwards, I asked why the women didn’t chant the other text as well. The village leaders looked at me and said, “The women can’t read.” I replied, “Well, we’re going to fix that.” I started evening classes for the women to learn how to read Tibetan so that they could participate at a higher level in their spiritual practices. We also have a tour program to take people on Buddha pilgrimages in India. The young people help as guides and managers.

Randy: How do you fund your programs?

Deanna: Mostly by founder donations – that’s me. I also do programs where I play our DVD, talk about the work, and invite people to donate or go to our website and sponsor a child for a very small donation every month. We’re actually looking for board members to assist us in reaching the next level of funding.

Randy: Do you speak all these different languages?

Deanna: No. I usually have Khenpo Tashi with me. He speaks English and Tibetan. Oftentimes, we have a third person with us who speaks Nepali. Most people in Nepal who are in public service speak English.

Randy: What was your background before all of this?

Deanna: Everything I’ve done in my life turns out to have paid off in the experiences I’ve had in this work. My undergraduate degree is in Education. Later I got an MBA from Pepperdine University. I worked as an executive for PacBell and other technology companies. When my children were young, I founded a Montessori School. As they grew, we got involved in camping and hiking with the Scouts. I also served on numerous school boards. Unexpectedly in 1989, my husband passed away.

We had just moved to Montana and acquired two horses. For grief therapy, I joined Back Country Horsemen, and spent two summers riding in the mountains and sleeping out under the stars or pitching a tent. I also held a high powered job. One day, I decided it was time for me to retire, and shortly after that, I met Tashi. Everything just came together; management, teaching, non-profit boards wilderness living – it’s all a fit. Just doing what was in front of me in life prepared me for this particular work, and I love doing it.

Randy: How frequently do you travel there?

Deanna: I go every year. This year, I am going very briefly because we have a staff of village youth who are managing the work very effectively. I also take a small group on a fund raising tour every year. This year, the group will tour China, Tibet, Mt. Everest and Kathmandu. I will meet with the staff and help them with the training and planning for next year. My biggest job right now is fundraising, and I can do that best in the United States.

Randy: What do you want to accomplish next?

Deanna: We want to raise more money for our schools. Every year we have to add new classrooms and more teachers as the children graduate to the next grade and younger ones enter.

Additionally, when I go to Kathmandu, people actually line up outside my office begging me to take their children or to come to their village and build a school. We can’t. We’re at a place where it takes all of our resources to fund the programs we have going right now. My dream is to build an endowment fund that would allow us to expand our programs from village to village.

Randy: Who builds the schools?

Deanna: Antahkarana Society funds the schools, pays the teachers’ salaries, and purchases the materials, but the villagers build the schools. They build them out of the stones in the village. Wood has to be brought in by yak from other areas because these villages are way above the timber line. Wood is very expensive, but the villagers help and we do get some money from the Nepali government for some of the construction. However, we don’t anticipate government funding will last.

Randy: Can you share a story about someone whose life has been turned around as a result of your efforts?

Deanna: A precious eleven-year-old girl named Trinley comes to mind. She was in the first class to come to Katmandu. She quickly rose to the top of her class. Had she not had the opportunity to enter school, she would have spent her life illiterate, working in the fields, and in her home, caring for her elder sisters and mother. She would have had no way to shine and she would have been married fairly young. Now she is a happy, bright young girl who is looking forward to continuing her education and returning to her village as a doctor. This is something that could never have happened, except that she has this opportunity to get an education.

Randy: Do the parents support the girls as much as the boys?

Deanna: They do. The Tibetans do very well by their girls. The boys are sometimes first to get an education if there is a choice to be made, but the girls are very well-supported.

Randy: Did you ever run into any problems with the government?

Deanna: Not with the Chinese or the Nepali, but there are Maoist insurgents. Nepal has been fighting a civil war for the past 10 years. The Maoists are guerrilla fighters and organizers. Nepal became a democracy in 1997, but democracy never got traction. The Maoists started a revolution and the insurgency lasted until two years ago when a truce was called. However, it was short-lived. Many NGOs curtailed their work during that decade. We didn’t. We continued working. The villages we go to are so remote, the Maoists never bothered us. However, if the Maoists call a strike in Kathmandu things really get disrupted.

Randy: What are you most proud of?

Deanna: I’m most proud of the youth who go back into the villages as teachers and tour guides. They’re spiffing up their parents’ homes to make them suitable as trekker’s guest houses. I’m also very proud of how well the kids do in school. They are driven to get an education. Their parents and their village elders know that education is the way out of poverty. They’re highly motivated and they work very hard.

Randy: What is the message you want to get out to the world?

Deanna: It’s important to preserve Tibetan/Buddhist culture in its native indigenous form. We know the plight of Tibetan refugees, and people respond very quickly to them. But people don’t know about these Tibetans. They are living in their villages and have a deep desire to remain there, but at the same time, they want to come into the modern world.

I don’t know of any other organization that is devoted to preserving indigenous Tibetan culture as is Antahkarana. The Dalai Lama said he was conceding the fact that Tibetan Buddhist culture in Tibet was lost and that the only way that it would be preserved would be to preserve the culture in the Himalayan region. That was his statement in 2009. We have been engaged in this work since 2005.

Randy: What does Antahkarana mean?

Deanna: Antahkarana means “inter-connectedness or network.” I chose that name because I was thinking of people all over the world taking responsibility for themselves and for others. We really are all one. With a sense of “Antahkarana”, you understand that you cannot let another culture languish without a part of you also languishing. That’s why I do the work. There is an immediate critical need and there is a greater purpose as well. I know we are right on the mark in terms of what needs to be done for Tibetan culture. I would like for the whole world to support this effort because we have a mission and a model that works. We just need more hands on deck and more resources. For more information, visit www.saveTibetanCulture.org.


Randy Peyser is the author of “The Power of Miracle Thinking.” She also edits books, writes book proposals, and helps people find literary agents and publishers. www.AuthorOneStop.com.

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