Searching for Social Justice

Today one of my favorite Lower Primary students (4th standard), Ashwati, came into the office with tears streaming down her face. She had a toothache. I had previously told Beena Miss, one of the teachers, that I wanted to visit the homes and meet the families of my students, so she invited me to join her to take Ashwati home in an auto-rickshaw. We drove off the main road and onto the tiny dirt path that winds through the Dalit colony. Her home is a few yards from the dirt path. A hut made with cement walls and a holey thatched roof that leaks in the rain. Three small rooms, beds everywhere to fit the entire family; Ashwati and her two sisters, her mother who is a heart patient and her grandmother who works as a cook for three families (I cannot fathom the time it must take to cook for three families). Ashwati told me once, “Father illa” (No Father), so I responded, “Njaan Father illa” (Me no Father). Ashwati’s father left her mother for another woman, my father passed away when I a bit younger than Ashwati.

Ashwati dances. She calls to me, “Miss! Miss!” takes my hand in hers and leads me to an open area of the school or to the shade of the one large tree in the schoolyard. She brings me a seat or points to a spot to sit and then she dances. The children soon form a circle around her, the boys pop their heads in and show off a bit (but no one can dance better than Ashwati) and the girls clap their hands and play with my hair. All of these children are Dalits. All of these children live in tiny cement homes with a roof that leaks and an outdoor latrine.

I am angry. I am angry about the bribe my friend feels obligated to pay to ensure she’ll receive future paychecks from the university burser. I am angry that some Christians feel evangelism is a necessary part of “serving” the community; a bowl of rice isn’t really free. I am angry that the elementary student with down syndrome will face years of abuse from his peers under the eyes of oblivious teachers; I am angry, more than anything else, because no one else seems to be.

I have taken people off-guard with my forcefully announced opinions, but in the past I have also sensed disappointment from others when I sat silent and unmoved. Passionate believes must simmer before they erupt. I am struggling with how I can teach my students about “leadership,” “vision,” and “social change,” themes throughout my high school and college learning that helped me in my path to self-actualization. I sense a lack of social duty on the part of many students with whom I speak. Their college experience is not one where they debate and discuss “burning issues,” rather they listen to lectures. They are not expected to critically analyze what they study, they are supposed to memorize it. Is it any surprise then, that that on Gandhi’s birthday, the college’s National Service Scheme (NSS) chose to clean the front lawn of the District Court instead of installing fans in the local Lower Primary school (though they did receive from the attorney’s a pretty plaque and “points” for their NSS team). When NSS ate a snack at the District Court, they left their paper plates strewn on the lawn to the left of the kitchen. Where is the thought connected to their intended service project? I was asked by one of the District Court judges if Americans have programs such as NSS, but his mind was already made up when he asked, “Americans do not do things like this, do they?”

My brother built houses in Appalacchia. My mother has the wisdom only possibly attained during a career as a social worker. My college mentor inspires young people to discover “where you true passion and the worlds deep hunger meet.” My pastor spent time working on a Southside Ministry in Madison, WI with a community forgotten by the self-heralded city of which it is a part. My previous boss teaches the first service-learning class at the John Felice Rome Center, where up to twenty-five Americans volunteer through out Rome, experiencing a Roman reality that all tourists obliviously miss. I am proud of the Americans I know who are doing service all around the globe.

My college students are pressured by their parents to study a topic that will earn them the best prospects. One student is studying a science but would much rather study Social Work; she said she must convince her parents to let her. My students define “leader,” as someone who is politically active, like Sonia Gandhi, but stared blankly when I asked in what ways they consider themselves to be leaders. They are never asked to consider that.

Ani DiFranco, the American folk singer, says it bluntly, “If you’re not angry, you’re just stupid, you don’t care.” Anger, maybe especially in the United States, is a red-hot “no-no.” Emotions that are associated with tension are repressed. Men shouldn’t cry and women who are angry are just being “hysterical”. But what drives hunger strikes? What impels hundreds of people from all backgrounds to march across the countryside for hours in protest until they reach the guarded site of the Narmada Dam, which will submerge their farmland and homes in water? I think it was anger; anger that encourages positive, constructive action. Anger that inspired change. Untapped anger undoubtedly can be a dangerous, explosive emotion. But let us not deny the positive power of the kernel of anger that allows us to act, to sing, to read, to write, to organize—in order to make change.

I am glad that I feel anger; if I was not angry about some of the injustice I witness each day, I would be horrendously oblivious to my surroundings and my neighbors. My anger, not violent, aggressive anger but rather anger based on my compassion for the injustice my neighbors face, fires my faith into action.

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