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No Barriers Podcast Episode 140: Social Change Makers Sabriye Tenberken and Paul Kronenberg



Today we meet the founders of Kanthari. They train individuals on how to start and run impact making organizations; aka: social change makers. They specialize in students who’ve overcome adversity and are situated on the margins of society. They’ve addressed problems from disability to alternative education, empowerment programs for the marginalized to the protection of the environment, and social entrepreneurship.

It all started with Sabriye Tenberken, who is blind, embarking on horseback ride through Tibet as an extension of her studies of Tibetology and Central Asian Sciences. There she met eventual co-founder Paul Kronenberg and together they started the first school the the blind in Tibet’s capital city of Lhasa. This school formed the foundation of Braille Without Borders, an organization that empowers blind people to take their lives in their own hands.

 

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Episode Transcript

Sabriye Tenberken:
Last two years, we understood that nobody can foresee the future and everything can change with one little virus, right? Now, what we, the blind are normally good at is visualizing the non-obvious. So why not becoming problem solve for the future? Why not starting to understand that we have some skills that we can bring into society and change it?

Erik Weihenmayer:
It's easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I've gotten the chance to ascend, Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the grand canyon and I happen to be blind. It's been a struggle to live what I call a no barriers life, to define it, to push the parameters of what it means. Part of the equation is diving into the learning process and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way. That unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in and the summit, exists the map. That map that way forward is what we call no barriers.

Didrik Johnck:
Today, we meet the founders of Kanthari. They train individuals on how to start and run impact making organizations, AKA social change makers. They specialize in students who've overcome adversity and are situated on the margins of society. They've addressed problems from disability to alternative education, empowerment programs for the marginalized, to the protection of the environment and social entrepreneurship. It all started with Sabriye Tenberken, who is blind embarking on a horseback ride through Tibet as an extension of her studies of Tibetology, and Central Asian sciences.

Didrik Johnck:
There, she met eventual co-founder, Paul Kronenberg and together they started the first school for the blind in Tibet's capital city of Lhasa. This school formed the foundation of Braille Without Borders, an organization that empowers blind people to take their lives in their own hands. This is the No Barriers Podcast. I'm the producer Didrik Johnck, and I do hope you enjoy this episode hosted by Erik Weihenmayer and Jeff Evans with guests, Sabriye Tenberken and Paul Kronenberg.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Everybody, welcome to our No Barriers Podcast. Hey, Jeff Evans. Thanks for co-hosting tonight.

Jeff Evans:
Hello, sir.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Morning in India for Sabriye and Paul, excited to have you guys on, and we're good old friends from many, many years back.

Sabriye Tenberken:
Thank you so much for having us.

Erik Weihenmayer:
I know this is an awesome personal excuse, just to catch up with you guys. So, Jeff, do you want to explain how we met Sabriye and Paul?

Jeff Evans:
Well, yeah, and it has a lot to do with you fielding an email if I remember the story correctly. So in '01 we climbed Everest. Eric got a little bit of a notoriety from that and as a result, I'm sure it was one of the... so back in '03, '04, Eric your mail inbox was probably consistently full of, "Hey bro. Good job, man. You're such an inspiration blindy climbed Everest. This is great man. Awesome. Awesome." I'm sure half of them, you deleted because this is before you put together your stuff. The cool thing is that the most important one of that era rose to the top and you didn't delete it. It was an email from Sabriye, who was maybe saying the same thing, but she had some street cred.

Jeff Evans:
We're going to get into, I think the details of Sabriye and Paul and how they came to be. But the initial introduction took place over an email just saying, "Hey, I think it's great, Eric, what you did. By the way, we're doing this whole thing over here in Nepal or in Tibet. Why don't you come over and visit?"

Erik Weihenmayer:
I still remember Jeff the first part of the email. I think it was verbatim something like-

Jeff Evans:
Do it.

Erik Weihenmayer:
... when you summited the top of the world, our Tibetan neighbor came into our center and told the kids what you had done. At first, they didn't believe it, but then there was a mutual understanding that if you could climb to the top of the world, that we could break through our own borders and accomplish great things as blind people. I was so hooked.

Jeff Evans:
How does representation of the email, how does it stack up to reality, Sabriye?

Erik Weihenmayer:
I know because she has a verbatim memory. She has a photographic memory.

Sabriye Tenberken:
No, actually I think Eric remembers very well. I don't remember it so much anymore. I just remember the neighbor coming in and the kids who were listening very carefully and we had a big fight right before when the kids were selling pears in the street of Lhasa and they didn't take their canes. Then with this occasion, I told them that Eric has even two canes and he's taking them all the way up to Mount Everest. That of course was very, very... how to say... impressive for the kids to understand, yes, there is no way to be ashamed of being blind and we can do something.

Erik Weihenmayer:
You invited us over for a visit. We said, "Hey, how about we go and train six of your kids. We can't take them all, but maybe your most motivated, more mature kids, let's train them to climb and then let's do a mountain climb. So that's what we did. We went over, I think, in the spring and we trained the kids and then we went on a cool trek and then the next fall we came back and we climbed Lhakpa Ri. We didn't make it to the summit, but we had an amazing experience. Do you remember where we reached Sabriye and Paul. Do you guys remember the ice palace?

Sabriye Tenberken:
Yeah, that was beautiful.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah. Sabriye or Paul, do you want to describe the ice palace that we reached with the six teenagers young team members?

Sabriye Tenberken:
Yeah. I think it was your suggestion to go there. You heard about it and we went there together and what was so amazing was it was so tactile. So everything was almost static. So you could feel everything, nothing would change except a few would take your finger and destroy things. It was just a little fairytale, I think for the kids.

Erik Weihenmayer:
There's this movie in the States it's called, well, it was like the old Superman and it was with Christopher Reeve and he had this ice palace that he would go to and talk to his relatives. So we named it, the Superman's ice palace. Because I remember on that trek, the days were really hard and the kids had to keep climbing and climbing and they had no time to really explore and be kids because it's pretty serious stuff on a mountain. So eventually we decided, "Hey, better idea than the actual summit is to reach the Superman's palace and go in and explore." I remember the kids sitting on ice horses with ice swords.

Sabriye Tenberken:
Ice elephants.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah. Ice elephants fighting ice dragons. If I remember Gyenshen was the king and I remember Dachung was the princess. I don't know, maybe he got the raw end of the deal or maybe he got the good end of the deal. I'm not sure. So then we played in the ice palace all day long and you're right. It was so incredibly tactile. Then the kids came back as conquering heroes, down and telling all the younger kids at the center what they had done. All the little kids were around just totally mesmerized by these older kids stories of adventure.

Sabriye Tenberken:
But also what nobody really knew, we had this only day of sun. You remember there was a storm and we were pretty much capped for a couple of days in the tents and it was freezing cold and-

Erik Weihenmayer:
Freezing.

Sabriye Tenberken:
... we didn't know, we didn't know what to do. We made our potatoes and we had a few leftover things that we could eat, but in a way then to get out and to get out in the sun and to experience this ice palace, this was double magic, I think.

Jeff Evans:
One of the really cool dynamics that played out was you had a whole group of Western climbers, mountaineers with a particular mindset. Our mindset was, we were going to go climb this mountain and hell be high waters we're just going to go and go and go and go. It took a couple weeks of this journey for, I think me particularly, and I think Eric as well, and the rest of the team of us realizing that you were teaching us a lesson. The kids were teaching us a lesson. That was to pump the brakes a little bit and slow down. The point of the whole thing was really this experience and this comrade, this fellowship that we only get when we're out in these wild places, that you really get to embrace when you're in these wild places.

Jeff Evans:
Once we slowed down and weren't quite as obsessed on the summit, suddenly we enter into this ice palace and then have all these amazing deep memories. I mean, if you really think about that whole trip, there were a lot of memories involved, but what was the biggest one of all, what's the one we immediately go to, it was that one. The one at the end. It wasn't about the summit. It wasn't about the mountain. I think I learned something really dramatic that trip.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Well, we called that the blind summit actually. Remember? The kids were absolutely amazing. Gyenshen is like a genius and Tenzin, I remember so strong and the girls were so smart and beautiful and everyone had personality. Tashi, has a crazy story, sold into slavery. Anyway, but we won't rehash the whole experience because everyone can see that on the film Blindsight, which is still out there online. If you really are interested, you can go check it out. It was shortlisted for an Oscar and we were all psyched to screen that film all around the world.

Erik Weihenmayer:
So well, Sabriye, let's start with you. So you grew up in Germany, you studied Tibetology and I know you've told this story a million times, and now I know you run this incredible organization Kanthari and we'll get to that. But let's start with Braille Without Borders at first. Because I know in Germany as a kid and I will even want to focus on this a little bit later, you felt boxed in and you really wanted to go out and adventure and make your impact in the world.

Erik Weihenmayer:
So you studied Tibetology in college, and that was amazing to be able to actually translate the Sanskrit language into braille dots. So that blind kids in Tibet could actually be literate with braille. Then you made your way over to Tibet. So tell us the origin story of Braille Without Borders.

Sabriye Tenberken:
Well, a lot of people ask me why Tibet? My only answer is I was not a very spiritual or I am not a very spiritual person. I was not so into religion or into all this magic. I was more into adventure. I just wanted to get out of Germany. I wanted to leave everything behind, especially what you just said to be boxed into where sighted people know exactly what blind people can do and what they cannot. For me, it was important to live and to understand that I'm living and live independently and travel independently.

Sabriye Tenberken:
So for me, it was also important to travel on my own and to feel that I could do things on my own. That's what basically led to studying, first of all, Tibetology. Because I thought if I go to Tibet, I need to at least know the language. Once I had a little bit of a ground understanding of the language, I went there and then it went very, very, very fast. I mean, I met Paul.

Erik Weihenmayer:
But you Sabriye did not just decide as a blind person, "Oh God, I got to get out of Germany. I'm going to go take a railroad trip through Europe." You went as far as you could go in the world, like as far to the frontier as possible. That's pretty ballsy.

Sabriye Tenberken:
No, I traveled a lot before. I really must say also, I stayed in America for one year and even there, I traveled quite a bit on my own. The thing is, when you are traveling on your own, you meet completely different people. When you're traveling with a sighted person, normally the sighted person is addressed. But when you're traveling and you must know this, right? When you're traveling on your own people directly address you. The interesting part is that you meet very interesting people.

Sabriye Tenberken:
I mean, you meet curious people and normally you meet the more intelligent people who really have interest in you. I think I'm a people person and I'm a experienced person. Actually coming to the title of your podcast, in a way I like barriers. I like to climb them and I like to overcome these barriers. Every time I have overcome a barrier, it feels much, much better.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Let's get to your love story with Paul in a minute. But first before that, what were the barriers that you faced in Tibet? What did you experience when you rode horseback across the Tibetan plateau?

Sabriye Tenberken:
So, first of all, a lot of people didn't believe that I was blind, which was one barrier. So I had to do a lot of convincing power. Then people thought I'm a magician and I could make blind people see. Somehow there was a really big misunderstanding. Then I got confronted with a lot of very conservative thinking or a lot of almost hostile thinking towards their own blind people. Not necessarily towards me, but towards their own blind people. So a lot of people that I met parents, for example, aunties, uncles of blind children, they were telling me how they were unlucky to have a blind child and how they were basically cursed and what caused them to be cursed.

Sabriye Tenberken:
They felt so, so bad about it. They didn't feel bad about the blind child, that the blind child maybe doesn't have education or interesting life, but they felt bad about themselves. That was a big, big worry for me because sometimes I was doubting my own actions and I was thinking like, "Can I actually change something? Can I change a very, very traditional conservative society so that they really perceive blindness in a completely different way?" Luckily it was possible. It is possible because the Tibetans, they have gone through so many changes and they had to climb so many barriers in their lives. That actually, it became a little bit easier for them to climb barriers or to overcome barriers and to change skepticism towards blindness into curiosity

Erik Weihenmayer:
Sabriye at a basic level, do you think though, that because in Tibet, I mean, I don't want to generalize, but a lot of people are scrapping for survival. You know what I mean? It's a hard existence. So if you have a blind child who can't herd the yaks, can't watch the yaks, can't do X, Y, and Z to keep the family alive and flourishing, then you are a burden. Doesn't it make sense that attitude would crop up?

Sabriye Tenberken:
Yeah. Maybe, but it's also easy to hide people away or to just forget about them and this is what I saw. I saw children that were tied to a bed. They were five years old, but they looked like infants. I saw children also later, we had children that we took out of a room and they were captured in this room for more than 11 years. We took them out of this room. The first time they were actually outside and were breathing fresh air. So it's also easy.

Sabriye Tenberken:
I mean, there are two ways, right? You can either say, "Hey, why not starting something for the blind so that they become an additional fortune for the family?" Or to say, "Well, forget about them. We just have to give them some food once in a while, just like a hamster in a cage and just don't bother. Luckily maybe also, because the fact that I am blind myself, I could convince a lot people that yes, it is possible. Especially later through the examples that we had, through the kids that we had, who were really adventurous and who were traveling by themselves with their white canes through all over Tibet and who are now very successful, by the way. You know Tenzin, Tenzin is one the entrepreneurs, he got a national award for entrepreneurship.

Sabriye Tenberken:
Not for entrepreneurship for the blind, but for being an entrepreneur because he's a wealthy young man now. So the fact that they have fought themselves back into society also gave the society and understanding, "Yeah, it is possible." This is something I appreciate very, very much about the Tibetan society that they let this happen.

Erik Weihenmayer:
For both of you, maybe you could answer this. Again, I'm always careful because I don't want to indict any kind of Hinduism or Buddhism because every religion has its pluses and minuses. But part of the Buddhist religion is the idea that karma, you have karma. So if you are born blind or disabled or imperfect, there's got to be a cosmic reason why. Therefore, it's because of karma. It's because you've done a horrible crime in your past life and now you're attorning for that sin. Correct? So there's that extra layer of stigma on top of the lives of blinded disabled people in Tibet.

Paul Kronenberg:
Well, the additional part is that some of the parents believe that the children are possessed by demons and they wouldn't even touch them. Just imagine that. Especially when we started the integration program, when our students went to regular school, other kids, they of course were bullying them. It was only that by to talk with them and to see what they were able of doing, because we prepared them very well before they went into regular classes. Our kids they were basically kicking butt. They were better in English, in Chinese, in Tibetan. Then the other children, they saw that. Then only they understood that blindness it's not related to religion or being possessed by demons, but that it's just a condition.

Erik Weihenmayer:
We saw that Jeff remember, a woman spit on one of the kids I remember in the street. Right?

Sabriye Tenberken:
But Eric, one thing about religion. I mean, when I became blind at the age of 12, I met a priest who told me, "Yeah, that's because your parents left the church."

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah, of course. No. I mean, in the Christian religion, for sure. I've seen that in the Bible that it's quoted somewhere, that the kids take on the sins of the parents and blindness is actually even mentioned, I believe. So Paul, where did you come into the picture?

Paul Kronenberg:
Well, sometimes in life, you at the right place, the right time. I had that luck in Tibet, 1997. That was one year before we started. But as the first person I met was Sabriye in Lhasa. The first question I asked her is, "What are you doing here? Are you here for sighting?" Of course, Sabriye said a very firm, "Nope." Then she told me her story and how she grew up, how she became blind, how she dealt with all that, and that she wanted to start a first school for the blind in Tibet. I was fascinated. So I said, "Let me know when you're going to start and we do this together."

Paul Kronenberg:
So about eight and a half months later, Sabriye raised some funds. Suddenly the phone rings at my working place in the Netherlands and it was Sabriye. Then she said, "Promised to call you next week. I'm going back to Tibet." I didn't see anything. She said, "Well, don't cry. We don't know each other that well, at least you can wish me luck." She got a little pissed. I said, "You know what? I'll join you." So the next day I quit my job and five days later we went to Nepal. We got a visa and got back to Tibet. That's where a lot of difficulties and challenges started. But that's all in Sabriye's book, My Path Leads to Tibet.

Erik Weihenmayer:
It's a Danielle Steel novel as well.

Paul Kronenberg:
But that's Sabriye's book. That's not, but the story, yeah. The love story, everybody says, "Oh, you fell in love and that's why you joined Sabriye." That part came later.

Sabriye Tenberken:
What?

Jeff Evans:
Hey Paul, now you got the mic for a second. I think the name Kanthari can actually flesh out a little bit of the color of the energy that the two of you have put behind your work. So maybe give us a definition of Kanthari and tell us how that name was ultimately chosen and what it means to you.

Paul Kronenberg:
I think it would be good for the listeners to know how we got from Braille Without Borders to Kanthari. So maybe I'll give that a very brief part. So what we did in Tibet, we started a-

Erik Weihenmayer:
Because you guys just started with a few kids and then you built this center into an amazing cultural, social change organization. So definitely tell us about the progress, Paul.

Paul Kronenberg:
So Braille Without Borders, the name was chosen that it's not about physical borders, but mental borders, right? It's like the no barriers. It's not just the physical barriers, but the mental barriers that we want to overcome. I think in that sense, we're very much the same. We have the same aim of empowering people to well move forward and to overcome barriers. So with Braille Without Borders in Tibet, we created four different programs. We had a preparatory school for the blind, where they learned Tibet in Chinese, English, mathematics, computer skills, basically everything they need to know. So they're able to integrate themselves into regular schools.

Paul Kronenberg:
We had a braille printing press where we printed Tibetan, Chinese and English braille books so that they had books to take to schools. We had a vocational training farm and she got to about 250 kilometers west of Lhasa, where we had about 12 professions that were not done with blind people anywhere in the world. We had a cheese factory. I'm a son of a baker. So of course we had a bakery. We had-

Erik Weihenmayer:
Horse raising.

Paul Kronenberg:
Horse raising, animal husbandry. We had market gardening, kitchen management, knitting, carpet weaving, bunch of other stuff. Well, I think where Braille Without Borders became known for was the self integration or proactive integration. So this meant that the children knew one's self-confidence, they went back to regular school and told the neighbors, "Hey, you tell me what's on the blackboard and I helped you with your English homework." So that the proactive sub-integration means that they would independently off sided people. They would go and integrate themselves either in schools or in professions. So that all went very well and over the years, a lot of documentaries have been made.

Paul Kronenberg:
We knew at some point we're going to be having to hand over this project. That was always the goal as well, that we would not stay there till the end of our lives. But we would like to hand this over to our students. So we are looking to train some of our students so that they could take over our role leading the organization. So worldwide, we looked at international institutes where they could learn the skills, leadership, management, project planning, etc. But then we found out there was not really anything out there that was practical and that would allow students without any pre-education or degrees to be, I would say accepted. So that's why we said we do our own.

Paul Kronenberg:
That's how we ended up with International Institute for Social Entrepreneurs, IISE. This was 2004, when we came to South of India in Kerala. Then the name was terrible. So we started off with the name and the first two years we had ISE and it was not a good name. Luckily one day we're having lunch. Sabriye's suddenly jumping up and she's like, "Ah, gee, what was that? What was that?" Then she's jumping up and she's on fire. You know Sabriye, she's always on fire, but this time she was really on fire. So I said, "What's wrong, what's wrong?" Then she said, "Oh man." Then one of our colleagues started smiling and they said, "Ah, you just bit on a kanthari. Kanthari is one of the smallest chilies in the world, but it's one of the spiciest as well.

Paul Kronenberg:
For us at that moment, we knew this the perfect symbol for a change maker. Change maker, the word is two words and it's complicated to explain that, but wouldn't it be beautiful in a 5 to 10 years from now that everybody in the world talks about a change maker, not using the word change maker, but says Kanthari Eric Weihenmayer or Kanthari Mandera or Kanthari Gandhi, right? So kanthari, this chilly has medicinal values, qualities. It lowers your blood pressure, purifies your blood. It wakes you up better than coffee can. It's a fantastic symbol and that's how we got to the name.

Sabriye Tenberken:
It's really ripe.

Erik Weihenmayer:
It grows wild too. So the ideas that these these change makers grow wild, they just spread, they proliferate through the world, make these powerful changes.

Paul Kronenberg:
Exactly. How it is.

Erik Weihenmayer:
By the way, footnote in that you guys had an incredibly successful Braille Without Borders project by the end. How many kids did you have, were you educating?

Paul Kronenberg:
Altogether I think about 600 went through the entire system.

Erik Weihenmayer:
600 and they were the best educated kids in Tibet. Because I remember they learned computers. They learned braille in three or four different languages. They were hiking, walking independently through Lhasa, which is not an easy city to navigate. Big construction like holes without tape or fences. Streets with no traffic lights, just insane. I was scared crossing the street and those kids were just cruising around-

Paul Kronenberg:
I think they just walked around.

Erik Weihenmayer:
... and kids would come up to them and say, "You're lucky to be going to that school. You're lucky to be blind." So in like a dozen years, you guys did really turn blindness on its head and make huge headway in that culture. Right?

Paul Kronenberg:
One quick thing, one anecdote. I think you remember Cumy. Cumy was his little kid in our school and he was about-

Erik Weihenmayer:
I remember Cubby.

Paul Kronenberg:
Cubby was a great singer and a great showman. He was the-

Erik Weihenmayer:
I think he's sang in Blindsight.

Paul Kronenberg:
Yeah, and he sings happy together. So Cubby is in the choir chair. He was with it for one half years or two years and he's in the choir chair and he's smiling from ear to ear. I said, "Cubby, what's up? Then he says, "I'm so happy." I said, "Why?" He thought, and he said, "Because," and he was always like very importantly. He says, "Because." He was thinking, he says, "Because I am blind." I said, "But why?" He says, "Well, I'm the only one in my family that can read and write. I'm the only one in my village that speaks three languages, Tibetan, Chinese and English. I'm the only one in my area as big as Holland is in the Netherlands that knows that the world is round and that surfs on the internet and all that because I am blind."

Erik Weihenmayer:
Amazing. The other cool thing, I think that was so amazing, and again, maybe I'm oversimplifying it because maybe this isn't why you guys went there originally. But I thought there's a real simple economic kind of, I don't know, theory here that, so these blind people are "cursed" and everyone looks down upon them. But now if they're the most educated kids in Tibet and they can get jobs and they can make a living wage and they can send money back to their families, then how can you be unlucky? Like you're saying, right? If you're the breadwinner, how are you cursed? So isn't there a big economic equation to this as well?

Sabriye Tenberken:
One thing that is also very important, actually, a lot of them didn't get jobs, but they created jobs. This is also something that I always try to talk to blind people about. A lot of blind people they stop at the point, "Hey, I have a job and now I made it." We are always asking, "Hey, how about creating jobs?" Now in Tibet, it was a necessity because nobody wanted these kids or nobody was having confidence in blind people. So they started their own entrepreneurship. A lot of them, they have their businesses. They're running tutorships or little schools. They are running all kinds of, I mean, one has a restaurant, tea house, an orchestra. Dachung is running an orchestra. He's a very, very famous flute player now. He has a whole traditional orchestra and they're going all around China.

Sabriye Tenberken:
Nema Wando, he is running his own talk show and writes books. Tenzin has huge clinics and is having a great success with his massage clinics. Then there is one Norbu, he has a cheese factory. So these kids are actually becoming employers and because they don't or they have overcome the barriers and they don't have barriers anymore in front of them to really live a very, very fulfilled life. This is something which I feel we need to talk more to blind people. Don't get just too satisfied with the status quo that you have right now, here and there. Why not trying something new. Yesterday we talked to one blind young person who loves to do sports and he loves to travel. He says, "Well, but the problem is in India, it's so difficult to travel." Then I say, "Isn't that much more interesting. Isn't it much more interesting to travel as a blind person than as a sighted person and how much more perspectives, how much more experiences do you have traveling as a blind person?"

Sabriye Tenberken:
I think we have to change sometimes the perspectives of blind people, not just to sit, celebrate the status quo. But actually to go further and to say, "Look, the future is unseen. Nobody knows what the future is or what the future provides to us." Last two years, we understood that nobody can foresee the future and everything can change with one little virus. Now, what we, the blind are normally good at is visualizing the non-obvious. So why not becoming problem solvers for the future? Why not starting to understand that we have some skills that we can bring into society and change? Then we come back to Kanthari actually, where we say those people who had to overcome barriers, who had a lot of barriers in front of them, but who became stronger through overcoming them, we call it the pinching point.

Sabriye Tenberken:
Who have overcome pinching points in their lives, they are probably the much more resilient, much more intrinsically driven personalities in this world to actually really change something in this world. I think also, you wrote a book, The Adversity Advantage.

Erik Weihenmayer:
The Adversity Advantage.

Sabriye Tenberken:
Yeah, exactly. I think this brings right to the point where we can actually see, look, the adversity that we had should not put us down. The adversity actually makes us much, much stronger. Barriers don't have to put us down or scare us away. Now when I talk about no barriers or overcome barriers, if we have a little child and we constantly take the barriers away, how will this child grow? So I think we need to be the ones that take the barriers away, and we need to encourage our core blind and core disabled friends to say, "Hey, the barrier is not the end, the barrier is actually the start to overcome and push it away."

Erik Weihenmayer:
So with the idea of Kanthari you had success with Braille Without Borders in Tibet, and then you say, "Okay, well, let's create exponential growth by setting up this facility and this project in Kerala, India. Instead of just working with one project, we'll train people all around the world, mostly from developing countries to start their own projects for social change in the world. Spread this idea like wild weeds." Correct?

Paul Kronenberg:
Yep. That's absolutely correct. So what we do is we bring people from around the world here to Kanthari for a seven months, very, very intense hands-on experiential learning experience. We provide them with skills and tools that are needed to start, run and manage a sustainable organization. Of course not all of them that we have trained over the years have become successful. But we know from the 242 participants that we trained from 50 countries, 130 plus have started their organizations. On a daily base, that results in several thousand people benefiting, who are positioned on the margins of society.

Sabriye Tenberken:
They're running their own schools. They're running their own centers. I mean, some of them they have 3 to 5,000 beneficiaries. They are now celebrities in their own countries and get awards. But it's not about the awards. It's really about creating sustainable change. For us it's also very, very important that they overcome their own, "Okay. I have to leave a legacy in this world." No, that's not important. What is important is the focus on the change, the focus on what could make the world better, on the impact. Not only social impact, but also positive environmental impact. Lots of very, very interesting stories. We had some blind people of course here, but most of them are not blind. We would like to have more blind people. That's for sure, because we do feel that there's a power and focus, but a lot of people have, for example, gone through racism. A lot of people have gone through violence, through war.

Sabriye Tenberken:
We have people from Cameroon where there's right now a war. We have right now here, a person from Afghanistan who cannot go back because he talked quite honestly about the Taliban in the media. So he will never be able to turn back probably most likely. For example, he's also disabled and he is running a workshop on crisis management for people with disabilities, because what he says, and this is quite interesting also. What he says is in crisis situation, and we have a lot of these crisis situations right now. We have floods and fire and storms and earthquakes and wars, of course. In all these crisis situations, there are no disabled people. In the media they're completely deleted. Where are they?

Sabriye Tenberken:
Of course there is a logic about it because everybody is so involved with themselves or concerned about themselves, that they don't think about the disabled. So what he is now doing is he starts a crisis management camp where he goes around the world or where he wants to start like a mobile camp throughout the world where he trains people from certain crisis area, mainly disabled people, blind people, physically disabled people, deaf people, how to react in crisis and how to help yourself when nobody helps you. Right now, we have four blind people here and they're learning swimming, first aid, how to make fire, how to survive after crisis situations.

Sabriye Tenberken:
Because we had a lot of floods and a lot of people drowned because they couldn't swim. A lot of people were bitten by snakes because they were moving uncarefully through terrain. So these are interesting and very, very important projects that people can only do if they have been in this situation, in the problem zone.

Erik Weihenmayer:
It's so crazy looking at your website, seeing the people was amazing from Bolivia to Cameroon, as you said India, to Afghanistan, to Uganda. It was insane to see the scope of the people that you guys have trained all over the world. It's really staggering.

Paul Kronenberg:
Well, the interesting part for us is that, normally if you have a school for one particular group of people, it's a repetition. For us every year we have different people from different countries that address different kind of problems, right? We have women that have faced domestic violence, that have been raped. Just the strength of having overcome that. Then to say, "I'm going to start a women empowerment program in Zimbabwe." That's amazing. Right? So these people are inspiring us. We have Jane Waithera from 2009, she was one of our first participants. She is a person with albinism from Kenya.

Paul Kronenberg:
In Kenya, you probably know people with albinism, they are being chased and killed and chopped up in pieces. Their body parts are sold as good luck charms and that's happening today. So four days before she went home, a four year old girl in her village was killed. We said, "We can't let you go." She says, "I've got to go. I've got to stop this." Now she became one of the well, most known faces of fighting this discrimination of people with albinism in East Africa. So we work with pretty amazing people and that keeps us fresh and motivated.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Amazing.

Paul Kronenberg:
We can't wait for the next batch to come.

Jeff Evans:
I think about you guys with what you're talking about here. I mean, for our listeners who don't know you, I mean, we know you, we know how amazing you are and we know your thought provokers. But you're shifting paradigms and you have for decades now. But for the people who are just getting turned on to the Sabriye and Paul show, I mean, you can't help, but hear the things that you're doing, the attitude that you bring to these projects and how you're in no way imposing any expectations or limitations on anyone. That's refreshing and empowering.

Jeff Evans:
The thing that occurs to, I think a lot of people who maybe just hearing about you is how many kids. Then obviously, I guess, the elder statesmen and whatever, whether it's Tibet or if it's India and all these other places that you branched out. How many people just don't buy into what you're selling, because they feel it's too inflated, or perhaps it's just out of reach or it's so oppositional to maybe the cultural norms, because it's never been seen or done before?

Jeff Evans:
I know you've touched on it. I know you both are pioneers to a certain extent, but you can't help but hear what you're saying and doing, and think, "How the hell have they not just been shut down?" Or run into plenty of people who are just saying, "This is nonsense. This is is pointless. Why even allow this to go on?" So where does that fall into your parameter of how you continue to operate with this sort of mindset?

Paul Kronenberg:
See, the good thing is that we have a selection process and it's a very stringent one because we don't let anyone come here. See, the measurement of success that we have as an institute in Kerala is not how many people we train, but how many people actually start and run organizations. Leadership is not everyone. If you're not a leader, you're a follower and that's fine. So we have to make sure that we got the right people. For us, what is very important is that it's intrinsic drive and motivation. It's much easier to educate or to train people that are motivated than to motivate people that are educated.

Paul Kronenberg:
For us, if there's one that's really great and I use it a lot, it's like, if I have to becomes, I want to, that's where the magic begins. So the people that we have here, they're all people that say, "I want to do this." So it should not be somebody that you have to push. They should drag us along and say like, "Listen, I'm need these skills to start and get organized, get structured, get officially registered and run my organization."

Sabriye Tenberken:
I think Jeff, you are completely right. I mean, from the outside, there are a lot of these skeptical doubters, which is absolutely fine. I think they have a point too, because if you think of a chili and a chili is really spicy. If you have too much spice in a soup, you don't taste any of the other ingredients anymore. So therefore we have to be careful with the spice. Not everybody can be a chili and doesn't have to be a chili. We need a few chilies only to make the pot a little tasty, but too much is too fire.

Jeff Evans:
You two are the ultimate chilies, by the way. You guys are the ultimate chilies.

Erik Weihenmayer:
I die if I eat one of those chilies.

Jeff Evans:
Oh my Lord.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Jeff ask what the skills are that they teach these folks. I'm really curious about the mechanics of what people need to know when they go back to their countries.

Paul Kronenberg:
See, every organization and as a name says, needs to be organized. So what skills we provide are basically everything that you need to start, run an organization in a sustainable way. So on one side, people need to have policies in place. They need to learn how to communicate properly. They have to have great agreements in place, officially registered. They have to learn how to do accounts, how to present themselves verbally on a website, so the website design. There has to be a logo, a name. There have to be bookkeeping as such report writing, proposal writing, fundraising.

Paul Kronenberg:
It's a very wide spectrum of stuff. The good thing is anyone that starts an organization and it doesn't matter if you want to empower women, or if you want to start an environmental project somewhere, you need to have that in place. The organization has to be in place, in a place where they can lead.

Sabriye Tenberken:
But it sounds a little bit like any other leadership school. I think where we are a little bit different is first of all, we don't take people with a pre-education. We have people with PhDs and we have people with hardly any education. What is really necessary is that they are talented, and that they have creative skills that they are really top on, smart enough to actually do what they really want to do, and curious and brave enough. So why do I say this? Therefore, we have to create completely different curriculum. That is not based on theory learning, but based on experiential learning.

Sabriye Tenberken:
So everything they learn, they learn by doing. There is nobody, there is no teacher who's telling them about project planning before, they have to do, they have to fail. They have to really understand that they have no clue what the heck. Then we are picking them up slowly, but steadily, and they learn through the mistakes they made themselves, through crisis they went through, through bad speeches they have made and were videotaped. I mean, we all know nothing is more embarrassing to see your own speech, right? Until you become a professional, maybe then you can bear it a little bit easier.

Sabriye Tenberken:
But it is very, very important that they learn while they are experience, because the best teacher is life as you also know. Very, very important for all of them is that they have a backpack in the end, a virtual backpack with everything they need to know to start and run their own organization. Most of them have started already here and have done some substantial fundraising already here. So once they're out, they are not jumping into cold water. The water is pretty warm already. So it's nicely temperatured.

Paul Kronenberg:
They're not beginners anymore.

Sabriye Tenberken:
They're not beginners anymore. Exactly.

Jeff Evans:
I was under the impression that Kyila actually started at least with the intention of taking over the outfit in Lhasa. Did she do that for some time? Then if so, who's running it now and how are things going and how often do you check in with that place?

Sabriye Tenberken:
That's a very, very important point. Kyila has run our center for two years. Then it was taken over by Nema Wandu and she started her own kindergarten. The first integrative kindergarten for blind and sighted people. Now, the very sad part of this whole story is we were expelled from China in 2017, which was somehow foreseeable. I mean, all the NGOs were more or less asked to leave the country. We were the last ones.

Paul Kronenberg:
One of the last.

Sabriye Tenberken:
Ones of the last ones and we were okay with the fact that we had to leave, but we made a condition.

Jeff Evans:
How did they tell you, Sabriye? Did they just say, "You've got a week to get out and shut the school?"

Sabriye Tenberken:
Well, they didn't say this friendly. They just didn't extend the visa or they didn't extend our contract. So for us, that's also why we started a new project also, because we said like, "Look, we will not be forever in this place." It's also needed that our blind people are taking over and they did run this perfectly. It was really run well. The farm was running very, very nicely. We had 80 people in the farm at this time. We had 30 children in the project.

Sabriye Tenberken:
Now, when we came to 2017, we knew that we would be kicked out and our students knew that also. They made, especially the adult ones, all that you know. They created a huge farewell party in the mountains, which it was heartbreaking on one hand, but it was also so nice. They were talking about all the things that happened. Of course, the whole tour with the both of you and all the other mountaineers came in there as well. It was a huge stage with video. There were media. There was a huge buffet. They financed all that privately. You can see, I mean, they are wealthy little guys.

Sabriye Tenberken:
Now, we left and then it started to crumble down. It's not because we left, but it's because I feel the Tibetan Chinese government at this point felt, "Well, why not fusing the blind school with the other school for disabled? Why having two projects?" They didn't even consult our successors. One year later, well, Kyila's kindergarten was closed, which was really, really sad because it was one of the most beautiful kindergartens with so many colors. It was for sighted and blind children where actually a lot of sighted children learn braille as well.

Sabriye Tenberken:
It was very much a model kindergarten, which was famous in all over China and they closed it. Closed it mainly because they said, "Oh, it's too foreign, or it's too westernized." Now, one year later, they closed our project without any reason. They clearly told the German government, "Well, it was not because Paul and Sabriye were on any list or whatever, but we can now do it ourselves." Now, what does it mean, "We can do it ourselves?" Well, they took the blind into a different school where they don't learn mobility. They do learn braille and luckily there's one of our old teachers, Neemar Choper she is a teacher there, which is good because they learn Tibetan braille and Chinese braille, but they don't learn mobility skills.

Sabriye Tenberken:
They have not this sportive skills, which we did with them. So for example, whitewater kayaking and rafting and horseback riding and climbing on trees and whatnot. They don't walk through the city anymore. They don't go to integrated school systems. So basically it's a big step backwards, which is actually, it's very sad because the Chinese Disabled Person's Federation is much more progressive than this. They are going against their own benchmarks so to say. This is the sad part. They're cutting the head off of a very good racing horse.

Sabriye Tenberken:
Now, luckily, a lot of our students were still in integrative school systems. So they finished the schools. They are now going to universities. At least these students were saved. Of course our former students, they are making their way and they are doing tutorials. They are doing school summer camps for the blind. So in their own little way or little or bigger way they are doing or continuing Braille Without Borders.

Sabriye Tenberken:
Kyila is running a big foundation. So people do understand that these kids or these people have skills and they are doing their own thing. But the fact that the school is closed is really heartbreaking and we are still not done. I mean, we still need to, because we have a contract which is still open, that has not been closed. The German government is also still in it because they say, "How can you on one hand say that this was your favorite project? How can you on one hand say that this is one of the glory moments of Tibet and especially the blind people are role models in all over China, and then close the school? There was even a movie made about these blind key kids, which was shown all over China.

Sabriye Tenberken:
Some of our blind kids played in this movie. It was movie with actors where four of our blind kids escaped to a China's got talent festival. It was a very, very successful movie. Now, there was a storm in the media, in the social media of China about the closure. I do feel this is not the end of the chapter yet. The continuation is there at least the blind adults are doing whatever they can to keep up the understanding that blind people don't have to be hidden away.

Jeff Evans:
I mean, a 18 years later, I know it had to have been heartbreaking to to know that in 2017 or 2019, that eventually had to be dissolved. But it's got to be comforting, at least it is for me to know what a legacy that the two of you created. Because now these kids, 18 years ago are now grown ass successful, amazing adults that carry on the pioneering spirit that you brought to them. So at least it needs to be somewhat comforting to you and I hope it is.

Paul Kronenberg:
Well, we're grateful for having been able to be there for 19 years, but in the end of course, the sad part is that the future generations could have benefited so much from the generation that were with us at the time. That's gone.

Sabriye Tenberken:
I think that the officials, they also lose a big, big chance by breaking down a model project, which could have been a model for the whole world. Luckily now, through the Kantharis we have, of course, a lot of blind people who are running centers all over the world, which are inspired by Braille Without Borders. They have also their own programs, their own philosophy. But the understanding that blind people can do much, much more than just celebrating the status quo is of course, spreading around the world.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Sabriye, when you were a kid in Germany, you had told me this one point that you felt very regimented. Like German society wanted to push you into very specific careers. I remember maybe you saying like maybe a lawyer or a massage therapist maybe. I can't quite remember, but there are very specific career paths for blind people. So it really made me think about this idea of like, "Okay, we're in the first world." But how do you compare and contrast disability from Germany to the US, to Tibet? Where would you rather be growing up? Because in certain ways isn't like the countries that think they have it dialed, but are just as frustrating. Isn't that almost maybe more frustrating?

Sabriye Tenberken:
Yeah. I feel there's a difference between Germany and US. I think in the US you are celebrated for trying something new. Whereas in Germany, people are skeptical. The Tibetans of course have a huge advantage because nobody is expecting anything from them. There's nothing to lose. If people don't expect anything from you, what's there to risk, right? I mean, whatever you do is a plus. Therefore, the Tibetan all blind children are probably much, much more adventurous and risk takers than many people elsewhere in the world.

Erik Weihenmayer:
What about India?

Sabriye Tenberken:
India is much, much more like Germany. In India the biggest problem is that parents are so overprotective that even sighted children are completely controlled. I mean, you are controlled about with whom you have to play with, what you are going to study, when to marry, who to marry, especially also, and when to get children and how many and so on and so forth. So if you see that for sighted people, for blind people it's even worse. Then of course, the stigma of karma comes on top of it, which we were discussing with the blind kids here that are right now here for a small camp for risked camp. But in a way maybe it's worse than Germany I would say.

Jeff Evans:
Man, you guys have led such an extraordinary life and as you said, Paul, you're sometimes the right place, right time. But two great forces colliding in Lhasa that one afternoon and just inquiring and saying, "Hey, what are you up to? What are you doing? Hey, let's go change the world. How about that? Let's go change the world." And you have and it's just a remarkable feat. For those folks who are not familiar more than just this episode of the podcast with these two and all the work they've done, take the deep dive because it's extraordinary.

Jeff Evans:
They are both pioneers and they are changing the world every single day. I think I really have to reinforce this. You said that the school is no longer in Tibet and that's a sad thing for sure, but those kids will then pass it to the next generation or the next generation. Long after the four of us are long gone, the after effects, the ripple of Sabriye and Paul will be long felt. So the world's a better place because of the two of you and we're very grateful for the time you spent with us today.

Paul Kronenberg:
Thank you.

Sabriye Tenberken:
Thank you.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Sabriye and Paul, we'll promote you guys in all kinds of ways in the show notes, but if people want to learn more about what you guys are doing, if they want to get involved, if they want to donate, what should they do?

Paul Kronenberg:
Best way is to just look at our website. It's www.kanthari.org and Kanthari is spelled with K-A-N-T-H-A-R-I.

Jeff Evans:
Amazing.

Erik Weihenmayer:
On that, there are these amazing videos because your students at the end of the seven month project, they're training, they give a talk like a Ted Talk. So there are tons of those Ted Talks on the website as well, right?

Paul Kronenberg:
Yes. Correct. Kanthari Talk.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Those are beautiful. So go check those out everyone.

Didrik Johnck:
The production team behind this podcast includes producer, Didrik Johnck, that's me, sound design, editing, and mixing by Tyler Cotman, marketing and graphic support from Stone Ward and web support by Jamlo. Special thanks to the Dan Ryan band for our intro song, Guidance and thanks to all of you for listening. We know that you've got a lot of choices about how you can spend your time, and we appreciate you spending it with us. If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it, and give us a review. Show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com. That's nobarrierspodcast.com. There's also a link to shoot me an email with any suggestions for this show or any ideas you've got at all. Thanks so much and have a great day.



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