On February 14, 2011, Rev. Peter Morales, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), embarked upon a two-week journey to India to visit with several partners of the Unitarian Universalist Holdeen India Program (UUHIP) and with leaders of the Unitarian Union of North East India (UUNEI). This blog post by Rev. Morales is part of the continuing coverage of the journey. In this update Rev. Morales reflects upon his visit to a vocational school in Ahmedabad for Dalits and other castes, founded by Martin Macwan, a renowned human rights activist and champion for Dalit rights.
We arrive at the Dalit Shakti Kendra vocational school just in time for graduation. Actually, that is not the whole truth. One of the parts of being UUA president that I find embarrassing is that people make such a fuss. I know that it is for the office and not for me, but it still feels weird. So, the truth is that the graduation ceremony for these young women begins when we arrive. And, given the realities of traffic in India, we arrive whenever we get there.
These young women are mostly 17-20. They are smiling, proud, confident, joyful. This afternoon they will return to their homes, mostly villages, with skills that can help them rise one rung on the ladder out of abject poverty. They face tough odds—but more on that in a bit.
They have just completed a three month training course in a vocational skill—things like being a beautician, a seamstress, basic office computing skills, etc. There are a couple of dozen options. I, my assistant Dea Brayden, and a couple of volunteers from Jewish World Service are the “dignitaries” up on stage. There are special awards for writing, speaking, and even sports awards. These last are important, for most of these young women have never done anything athletic. Most have never worn a pair of shorts outdoors.
The school, now ten years old, was founded by Martin Macwan. Martin is a living legend. He was a Dalit child laborer who eventually won the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. This school began as a school for Dalits, but now accepts students from other castes as well.
In addition to being a gifted leader, Martin is a font of creative ideas. Take a look at the accompanying photo of “Gulliver.” Gulliver, still under construction, will be a tour of the interior of human anatomy. In his office he shows a clever but disturbing box that includes little cubes that show existing practices of untouchability and their prevalence. There are almost one hundred practices and many are prevalent in more than 90 percent of villages. These include such things as a Dalit woman having to prostrate herself before a high caste to beg permission to marry.
I was particularly impressed with Martin’s willingness to evaluate what his school is doing and make changes. For example, they have found that boys who attend the school are highly employable. They either get jobs or set up shop as a tiny independent business. But months after leaving only 20 percent of the girls are working. On further investigation they found that poor families were not willing to allow girls to leave the home for work and would not purchase equipment for girls. The school is changing so that every student will leave with the simple tool of her trade like a sewing machine or beautician tools. If they are not being used in six months, the tools will go back to the school.
This school has graduated more than 5,000 students. For many of them, this training was a godsend.
I find myself wondering why there aren’t thousands of schools like this and why the public education system is so indifferent to the poor. Of course, I have seen similar struggles in America’s schools.
Five thousand graduates. And the poverty in India includes several hundred million. There are more desperately poor in India than the entire population of America.
The arc of the universe may bend toward justice, but that arc is very, very long. I find myself wondering whether I could have the courage and sheer stubbornness to stay the course the way these human rights leaders have. My hunch is that the smiles of the graduates keep him going.
Rev. Morales was recently on a two-week journey across India to meet with human rights partners.