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How One Person Can Change Everything

I remember an anecdotal story I've read several months ago about the American actress Tippi Hedren, one of Hitchcock's muses, who had a significant role in the fate of exiled Vietnamese women during the 1970s. If you've ever been to California, and decided to get a mani-pedi, you'll probably notice an interesting trend in which many nail salons are Vietnamese owned. This is a curious observation that I never gave much thought to, but there is actually a reason for that, and that reason is: Tippi Hedren.

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Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock's The Birds (1963)

In the 1970s, Tippi had been part of an organisation to help Vietnamese exiled women acclimate into the United States. As she was interacting with them, the story unfolded that they all became enamoured of her Hollywood style manicured nails, and she flew in her personal manicurist to give them free lessons and educate them on the art of nail manicures, and helped them find jobs in nail salons all over California. Tippi's single action lead to the entire changing of the landscape in nail salons all over California and the United States that still persists to this day and it was all because she provided them with one thing: free education.

Despite all the occasional griping and moaning I have about the US and California in general, I am also aware that I had been lucky to have had access to an exceptional and free education, and attended one of the top public high schools in my area that had taught me so many valuable lessons about history, economics, science, mathematics and calculus, psychology and American literature. It was the first time I learned that history books don't always tell the truth and where we even had transsexual guest speakers come to talk to us in psychology, and as co-editor of the school newspaper, I often interviewed many different social groups within my school that provided me with insights into group sociology.

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The AltSchool, leading the trend in privatised education in California

However, due to budget cuts and lack of teaching talent, California's educational system is becoming more privatised and education is becoming a business in that the average California family probably cannot afford to send their children. Recently Mark Zuckerberg and Pricilla Chan have opened a non-profit private school with free tuition and healthcare for children in East Palo Alto to counteract the rising costs of education and healthcare in America. However, the trend is clearly moving towards education as a business, and if we examine such schools such as the progressive AltSchool, the tuition is $19,100 or £12,474 per student per year from grades K-12. 

The UK has some of the best schools and universities in the global world- private or public, but it has been something in the making within the last 200 years, and there had been a dark, Industrial era when children had been used as labour in many industries. What ultimately changed the fate of the UK was the development of free education.

In the UK,  The Factories Act of 1802 was passed by Parliament to limit the number of hours worked by women and children in the textile industry, then later, all other industries. Many children aged 15 and younger worked in workhouses or factories to such a degree that it wasn't until Charles Dickens wrote about the conditions of poor children in factories in his ground-breaking novel, Oliver Twist, that would eventually begin the dialogue to lead the nationwide reformation in education for children in favour of children's rights.

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Children working in factories in early American history 1912

Thirty years after the publication of Oliver Twist, the UK Government passed the Elementary Education Act of 1870, in which the National Education League was established to promote free elementary education for all children and all children between 5-12 years old had compulsory school attendance. Then, in 1891, the UK Government enforced the Custody of Children Act, and effectively removed poor children from workhouses, industrial schools, reformatories and private care facilities.

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Victorian Child Labour Farm, where children were sold to apprentices to begin their employment. The British lead the way to abolish child labour and enacted a system of free education for children in 1870. 

Although the British Colonial Era is often looked at with disdain, and certainly no one will argue against some of the atrocities that all nations often commit during times of empiricism, and we only have to examine the trail of war crimes to point the finger and demand reparations from countries such as Japan, China, Israel, United States, in addition to the UK. However, one thing that the UK integrated during the Colonial Era was strikingly different from that of its peers. During the British Colonial Era, a man named Frederick Stewart had been the Colonial Secretary and was the first head of the Government Education Department in Hong Kong in 1865 and he had integrated a modern, British style educational model into the Hong Kong school systems. Within a time frame of 15 years, he had completely altered the fate of Hong Kong youth, so much so that even today that legacy is felt by many Hong Kong nationals. Whereas mainland China is still an unending bricolage of factory workers and people living in abject poverty (despite Alibaba's Jack Ma's influence into the transformation of China into a startup hub), Hong Kong became a center for education, has the most percentage of women in corporate management positions and has a thriving financial metropolis.

A few months ago, I happened to have watched the Oxford Union's debate on if the UK should pay reparations to India, and two arguments caught my mind's eye: The first was Dr. Shashi Tharoor's eloquent argument in favour of paying reparations, and the second, was by a Hong Kong student currently attending Oxford, Alpha Lee. The latter gave some compelling reasons why the UK does not owe reparations and although, he is not as eloquent and charming as Dr. Tharoor, the reasons for his argument were based on a case study of Hong Kong, and the sentiments of the people of Hong Kong, who preferred its British rule over being given back to China in 1997, simply because Hong Kong nationals found the Chinese government more oppressive than its British Colonialists. Instead, Alpha Lee suggests that the true way for reparation is via the UK's intervention in foreign policy, and not by a monetary lump sum that only served to inadequately symbolise the compunction of its Colonial Era injustices.

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Dr. Shashi Tharoor at the Oxford Union

Again, education was what had ultimately changed the fate of the people of Hong Kong.

Over the past weekend, I had seen a documentary webisodic series by a Norwegian filmmaker who had recruited three popular fashion bloggers in Norway, aged 17-20, to go to Cambodia and work in the garment district. 

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Ludvig and Anniken listen to a Cambodian textile worker as she tells them how her parents did not have enough money to send her to school

In the series, the trio, Frida, Ludvig and Anniken navigate their way through Phnom Penh, and are sent to work in a textile factory and meet many people on the way.In January of last year, the Cambodian government opened fire on striking garment workers who only wanted a minimum living wage of $160 a month from $100/month. Luvig, who is the most introspective in the series, decides to get a tattoo on his ankle signifying the strike as a symbol of solidarity. All three agree that the large retail chains such as H&M, Mango et al, do not pay these garment workers enough to survive on a living wage.

However, I wonder if we can so easily blame these retail chains for the ills that the Cambodian government have failed to give its citizens? As the trio is interviewing many garment workers, the recurring theme seems to be that these women did not have an opportunity to attend school because their families did not have enough money to give them an education. The plight of the factory workers in Cambodia, Thailand, China, Vietnam and India very much resembles the plight of factory workers in early American and British history. It wasn't until both nations integrated a system of free education that changed the lives of all.

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Ludvig gets a tattoo on his ankle signifying the Cambodian textile workers strike for a $160 monthly minimum wage

I wonder though if the Cambodian textile workers would really benefit long-term if their living wages are upgraded from $100/month to $160/month? Or would they not benefit more if they were given an opportunity for education? What if the US and the UK 's influence in foreign policy affected Cambodia so that education became free and mandatory for all? Governments may be slow to act, but we are living in an entrepreneurial era. And what if there was a startup that could give free education to these women?

What these Cambodian textile workers lack is the opportunity for education, and the means to remove themselves from living in poverty. What kind of people would we be if our families couldn't send us to schools, if we never had access to smartphones, tablets and computers as youths?

If we examine our own collective histories, the single factor that connected us and changed our own lives was the integration of free education. Education changes everything.