This week findingEducation spoke with Ajit George, director of U.S. Operations for the Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project located in Edipalli, in the Dharmapuri district of Tamil Nadu, India. The boarding school was founded by his father, Abraham George. Ajit George lives in New Jersey, but frequently visits India. He has been working for the Shanti Bhavan school “on and off” for the last 14 years. He says, “It’s easy to believe in a mission, when I feel like we’re getting results.”
India’s lowest caste, the Dalits, have been historically persecuted and are often among the country’s most impoverished. For a Dalit from the rural village, even crossing in the path of a person of a higher caste is forbidden, because of concern that the shadow of the Dalit would “contaminate” the other person. Because they are so poor, many Dalits take out loans at exorbitant interest rates from moneylenders, and as a result become trapped as indentured servants. Even in the cities, subtle discrimination against Dalits continues to exist in the workforce, where they are often relegated to menial jobs and hard labor. The result is a cycle of unending poverty that Abraham George’s father describes in his book, “India Untouched: The Forgotten Face of Rural India.”
Enter the Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project, a comprehensive education program that aims to give India’s poorest children the same opportunities as their wealthier peers.
Ajit George in India.
fE: Your father, Abraham George, began the Shanti Bhavan Children’s School in 1997. What do you think inspired him to want to help the dalit?
My father grew up in a Ghandian era. He took to heart a lot of Ghandi’s principles, including his belief in an equal society within India. After serving as an officer in the Indian military in the 1960s, he came over to the U.S., earned his doctorate, started his own company, and became a very successful businessman. He has always been interested in the plight of the impoverished. But it wasn’t just about helping dalits, it was more about wanting to tackle poverty within India. Depending on which standards you look at 50 to 75 percent of India lives on less than a dollar a day. During his career, he wanted there to be greater meaning to what he was doing. He always felt that money is a means to an end, but shouldn’t be the end. He was pretty happy to retire and sell his company and begin what he thought was the more important, more meaningful part of his life.
fE: On your blog, readers see stories about Halloween celebrations as well as Holi (a spring festival where people attack each other with colored sand). There are videos of traditional dances, as well as alternative rock songs. Has there been any pushback from the local community regarding the Western aspects of the school? What other challenges has your organization faced?
AG: Initially, the village elders were really not happy with us educating the children because they were no longer going to be working for them in the fields. There was also this idea that the poor should be learning more traditional things and that we shouldn’t even bother with English. And some people worried that because my family has a Christian name—Kerala where we are from is a very Christian part of India—that we would try to convert their children. But the same people who said that were sending their children to the country’s best schools, a number of which are run by Catholics or other Christians. On top of that, while they’re saying our students should be taught only Tamil or Hindi, they’re teaching their children English. I found that hypocritical. They have the notion that India’s poor should be relegated to a living museum to preserve what India’s culture was in the past, while their own children are going forward and becoming part of a global community.
The other real major difficulty, as we’re entering a really tough period economically, is to convince people that a program like ours is worth it. People often ask, why does it cost $1,600 per child when another program asks for only $300 per child? If you wouldn’t have succeeded in your life as a professional with just a basic literacy program, how do you expect a poor child to get out of poverty with only that? A lot of the parents of the children that we serve went through basic literacy programs or secondary education programs 20 years ago and they aren’t out of poverty now. Those programs failed their parents. I don’t ever want to see that happen with our students.
fE: Even when students enter your school as four year-olds, the dalit in particular, must recognize that others treat them poorly. How do you build their confidence?
AG: It takes a lot of work. They have a lot of emotional, discipline and nutritional issues to work through. Even simple things like learning how to use a toilet and properly brush their teeth are new to the children. But they are able to adjust to Shanti Bhavan because of three factors: First, the intense and attentive care of house-mothers, the administration and the staff; second, the structured environment– while the children have a lot of freedom, it’s a very organized school, which gives them focus; and third, because we’ve been operating for 13 years, they have a lot of role models. The older students really help the younger children coming in.
fE: What are the criteria for choosing teachers at Shanti Bhavan?
AG: Teachers must have their bachelors in education and a degree in their specific field. Most have masters degrees. Because our school is a hybrid of Eastern and Western teachings, we can be very focused on discipline and following certain patterns. But we also try to instill some of the Western patterns of creative solutions and giving feedback. We try to find teachers who accept that balance.
We take teachers who are really understanding and empathetic, and who really want to work in a more liberal environment. Most importantly, we look for teachers who understand that almost all the children are dalit and who won’t treat them any differently than other students. We’ve fired teachers who were acting poorly towards the children because of their background.
fE: When the first class of graduates returned to the school they were treated like such celebrities. It was fantastic! What was your response to seeing these students graduate? How did their parents respond?
AG: It was an incredibly moving moment. I saw these kids when they were four years-old and they were just tiny, beautiful rambunctious kids. They were full of life and energy. To see all of them graduate was so powerful. I couldn’t have imagined it. All of the struggles that have happened between now and then have really paid off.
Graduation was a three-day celebration. On the first day, they did performances with the staff and gave gifts to their teachers. On the second, we had more than 30 volunteers come back and visit. And the third day was for the parents, who were really ecstatic too. In many cases, it was the first time anyone in their family had even gone to high school. And all 14 of our graduates are going to college. (Shanti Bhavan is different from any other program in the world because it pays for children’s schooling from age four to high school and then also pays for their college education.) The children have become leaders within their families. The children’s professional success means financial security for their parents . They’re really in awe about what the future holds.
(Watch a video of graduates visiting Shanti Bhavan)
fE: Can you describe what it’s been like to see one of these students change and grow?
AG: I’ll give you two examples. We have one student whose mother had been gang-raped. Afterwards, her husband left, and the locals ostracized her. They thought she had brought it upon herself. The mother committed suicide by burning herself alive. Her son tried to save her, and in the process was badly burned.
He had a really rough childhood, to put it mildly. He wet the bed until he was maybe eight. But he grew into this very confident and brilliant young man. He’s at St. Joseph’s University. I talk to him on the phone pretty regularly. And I found out that he and the others boys from Shanti Bhavan are actually now the “cool kids” at the college. Other boys from upper-class and middle-class families come to their dorms to hang out with them and to learn from them.
Another student, Sheeba, wrote about her own life very movingly in a recent newsletter. She was sold as a servant when she was very young, beaten in her first home and sexually abused by her “step-father” in her second. We weren’t sure if she could handle Shanti Bhavan. Now she is this strong-willed, defiant, young lady, who is bright and eager and full of energy. I talked to her this morning on the phone. She says she loves college and loves where her life is going now.
* Though not yet a graduate, a twelfth grade student at Shanti Bhavan, Shilpa Raj, has also written a very moving account of her experiences there.
New York Readers: She’s The First, an organization dedicated to educating young girls around the world, will be hosting it’s anniversary soiree on November 1st. Proceeds of the event will benefit the Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project. See invitation for details.
Ajit George’s favorite sites: