American schools know caste-virus now

11May07

1000 American High School Students Learn About Caste Discrimination and the Dalits

In American public high schools, the caste system in India is briefly studied and given only cursory attention. However, in Highland Ranch, Colorado, over 1000 high school students at ThunderRidge High School (TRHS) attended a Dalit Awareness Day Assembly where speakers from the Dalit Freedom Network (DFN) gave a detailed report on the horrors of modern day apartheid. The 1st annual Dalit Awareness Day was instrumented by Elle Sweeney, a senior at ThunderRidge, as her Senior Project. Elle, 18 years old, came up with the idea after visiting India with her mother, a physician, in 2002. They had traveled to Orissa to put on a medical camp sponsored by the Operation Mobilization India. There she first noticed the inequalities that were part of the Indian culture and it remained ingrained in her memories. Her mother has gone back every year since then and her father is one of the founding board members and current Director of Operations of the US-based Dalit Freedom Network. When it came time to come up with an idea for her required senior project at ThunderRidge High School, it was a not hard for her to decide.

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Pic01: Nanci Ricks and Moses Parmar present the plight of the Dalits
“I knew about the Dalits firsthand and the suffering that they encounter in their everyday lives in India”, said Elle. “I also knew that 99% of my fellow students had not even heard the word ‘Dalit’ and most of the teachers also were not informed of the plight of the Dalits. I knew I wanted to do something to raise awareness at TRHS.” She lobbied and got permission from the school administration to hold a Dalit Awareness Day with an all-school assembly.

The all-school assembly was optional for students and teachers to attend and Elle worked hard to promote and advertise the event. “I began three weeks before the assembly date and sent all the teachers a ‘Save the Date’ postcard with the photos of Dalit children on it. Two weeks before the assembly, I gave all 135 teachers a clay cup, the symbol that DFN uses as reminder of the discrimination in India. The week of the assembly, I emailed every teacher with the recent article from India about the upper-caste teacher sprinkling ‘gomutra’ or cow’s urine on 20 Dalit children. That really hit home for the teachers at TRHS.’ She also placed three photo-exhibits on the walls of the hallways of the school.

Still Elle was worried that no one might come.

When the time for the assembly came around, to Elle’s relief and amazement, almost the entire student body of TRHS came to the gymnasium for the assembly. “I almost cried”, said Elle. She fought back the tears to introduce the two speakers, Nanci Ricks, the Executive Director of DFN, and Moses Parmar, a leading Dalit activist from India. The students and teachers listened intently to a detailed explaination of the caste system given by Mrs. Ricks followed by first-hand stories of Dalit atrocities given by Mr. Parmar.

“I had never even heard of the Dalits,” said Kristin Gundy, a senior student, “And I can’t believe the world is letting this happen today.”

“I’m going to sponsor a Dalit child to go to school,” promised Anna Bird, a 9th grader.

Many teachers remarked how this would influence their teaching of the Hindu caste system and Indian society. They were grateful to have the speakers come and most importantly, were amazed at how intently the students at the assembly listened. “We went back to our classroom and had a discussion for the next 45 minutes on the Dalits”, said Mr. Jim Dollaghan, a social studies teacher.

Elle closed the assembly by saying, “We live in Highlands Ranch and take for granted that we can eat where ever we want, drink out of any cup that we want, go to school without discrimination, and get any kind of job that we can dream about. It is good for us to know that there are millions in this world who don’t have these rights. I hope that you all don’t forget what you heard here today and choose to do something about it.” Elle hopes to pursue a career working in Human Rights issues, perhaps in law.

For information about having a Dalit Awareness Day at your school or work, please contact the Dalit Freedom Network at info@dalitnetwok.org or calling 866-221-133



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