Main Points

  • Youth Retreat for Dalit in India
  • Growth of the Youth Retreat
  • Dalit Youth Becoming Role Models
  • Leadership Academy
  • India Schooling System
  • India's National Languages
  • Success Stories of Leadership Academy

Dr. Sheldon Eakins: (00:00)

Welcome, Advocates, to another episode of the Leading Equity Podcast, a podcast that focuses on supporting educators with the tools and resources necessary to ensure equity at their schools. I have a special guest -- actually have two special guests -- with me today and today's episode is going to be a little bit different than normal, particularly because usually when we do episodes, they focus on challenges that are relative to the United States. And so I'm excited because we're going to talk on a global scale. We're going to share some information, particularly in India, and some of the education challenges. And especially with regards to equity. As we know, equity is not just limited to one specific area or demographic. That is a challenge that is facing a lot of our youth across the globe. And I'm so excited because I have two special guests with me, so I'm going to welcome them on. So I have Ms. Dayamudra Dennehy and Mr. Arun Bodh with me today, and I'm just going to say thank you so much for joining us today.

Ms. Dayamudra Dennehy: (01:06)

Thank you for having us. We're so happy to be here.

Mr. Arun Bodh: (01:09)

Thank you. Thank you.

Eakins: (01:10)

The pleasure is mine, and I'm excited because again, this is something that's a little outside of my expertise and so I want to start off, and between you, Daya, you said it's okay if I call you Daya. Right?

Dennehy: (01:22)

Daya's. Great. Thank you.

Eakins: (01:24)

Okay, so between Daya and Arun, I kind of want to let you have an opportunity to share how the two of you connected.

Dennehy: (01:33)

Okay. Maybe I'll start. Arun and I met in 2007 I was invited to India to a youth retreat. There were several thousand Dalit youth. These are youth from the community that was caste-oppressed, a system of caste depression that goes back centuries, and they're starting to organize and empower their own communities. And I was brought in to lead some English language workshops for this youth retreat and Nagpur, which is central India, and Arun and I met, and some other friends and we decided to start leading our own workshops for Dalit youth to be able to really master English. So we were doing sort of dynamic, fun lessons that they could start to really communicate, not just through grammar but in everyday situations, so that these young activists could tell their own stories and could connect with other social change leaders from other parts of the world. So that was the beginning of our friendship. I was invited down to Kerala -- to Arun's community -- and we led our first retreat in 2009 for 15 young men. And then they decided that they wanted to bring girls in and have more students. So they said, "Please come back next year. We want to have 50 students, and we want 50% girls on our retreat."

Eakins: (02:52)

So could you tell me about the retreat? Like what was the retreat about? Like how many days was it? I mean, what did it all involve?

Dennehy: (03:00)

So it was a 10-day retreat. Our connection is through Buddhism. A lot of Dalit activists have stepped out of the Hindu caste system by converting to Buddhism. They're inspired by the social change leader that -- in the early 20th century, Dr. Ambedkar, who actually was considered an untouchable, was sponsored by Iraj and went to Columbia University in New York and then actually ended up writing India's constitution and he was India's first law minister. So he tried to create legal change in India and then ended up just leaving government and devoting his life to Buddhism. So after 1956, a lot of Dalits have converted to Buddhism. So this is our connection through Buddhism. So we had a Buddhist retreat where we were meditating and reflecting, but then also studying English. So we had several sessions a day where we were just practicing vocabulary or the way that I would teach here in California: Getting up, walking around, introducing yourself, sentence prompts, different ways to really get more comfortable with speaking in English, developing vocabulary. It was active and fun. We had games, we had songs, we made our meals together. We lived together as a community for 10 days.

Eakins: (04:14)

Okay. And Arun, let me bring you into this conversation. What drew you to Dayamudra? Like what was it about her that kinda made you want to work with her and kind of see things go further with your community?

Bodh: (04:29)

We met at that youth retreat. So I think in our community is a [inaudible] community. So we have no facility to get the education. Kerala is known as more than 90% of the education, but especially our community. [Inaudible]. We are totally [inaudible] to the community, and we are not accessing good education. So in my observation, so if we could get a more English language and English education, we could express ourselves better. That is the main connection with Dayamudra, and she is an English data-based learner, so it was very helpful.

Eakins: (05:07)

Okay. So if I'm understanding correctly, you were drawn to her because you shared an interest of providing English support for your community and you felt that that would benefit the people within your community and being that she had a background in teaching, that was a natural -- I guess -- a natural gravitation for the two of you to connect.

Bodh: (05:30)


Eakins: (05:31)

Okay. Then Daya, what happened next? So you had the first retreat, and then you decided, "Okay, we want to make this larger, and we want to come back next year," and you want to bring in girls into the retreats. So what was kind of the next steps with how things kind of played out?

Dennehy: (05:47)

Well, it evolved very organically. You know, I was invited to Nagpur, then I was invited to Kerala. In the meantime, I set up a small nonprofit so that I could bring funds to keep these small projects happening. And I was really surprised that when I came back in 2010, they had 65 students, and I could feel that we were starting a movement here. So there were 50% girls and throughout our work, but it's a very patriarchal culture. So a lot of times when these social justice movements, they're led by men, they're majority men. But I do notice when you bring in women, things begin to spark. So in 2010, when the girls came in, it brought this level of energy and passion and excitement, and we were really moving forward. And so we worked together for the next four years. I just went once a year for these 10-day retreats that we led, and they got bigger and bigger, and then in the meantime, Arun and his team did these popup workshops.

Dennehy: (06:48)

They kept traveling around Kerala. I trained them to do what I do. I mean, I had really imagined that I would step out and they would take over the work. I didn't imagine that I would still be working with them 13 years later, but they were going around village to village leading these workshops and training teams of their own so that in 2014 they were ready to launch their own Academy and they were able to lead it and start their own team and start community programs. And then the next year we started a residential program.

Eakins: (07:19)

I want to highlight and thank Arun for the work that you did because often, and not all the time, but sometimes when we have cultural outsiders that come into a community, and they do work in the community, that they're supportive of the members involved and the people that were there that are the cultural insiders don't always get credit for the work that they did. And maybe they didn't have the resources at the time. And maybe there were some challenges that they were facing locally that, with the support of a cultural outsider, was able to kind of work together. And so I want to highlight the work that you did for your community that you're doing for your community as you're there 365 days a year and you're continuing to do the work. And I thank Daya for the support that you're providing and for the training that you gave as well. But I just wanted to allow you just to kind of share a little bit about some of the work that you did, Arun, and that you're doing to get, let's say the 65 students to come in for the next year and maybe some of the further recruitment that you and your team have been doing to really help with the students at this school that you work with.

Bodh: (08:30)


Eakins: (08:32)

Arun, did you want to share a little bit about kind of the work that you're doing, with you and your team.

Bodh: (08:38)

So after that retreat [inaudible]. After five years, we will have our own school or community center. So it was our goal. So after 2009, we worked hard. We went door to door to collect the students.

Bodh: (08:56)

for next year [inaudible]. So again, Ms. Dayamudra came by -- came down to Kerala, Daya conducted a [inaudible] with the 65 students. Then again, what we learn[ed] from that [inaudible], we practice[d] [with] the students. We went to village-to-village, and they collect students in their village, and sometimes we sit in the ground of the village, or sometimes we start in a forest somewhere. So we practice the [inaudible] we learn from that [inaudible], which Daya led. So throughout the year, we practice the [inaudible]. We got connection throughout Kerala. Then [in] 2014, we start as more community center in Kerala. Now it is growing and growing, and now we started one boys' hostel and our own boys' -- also we build our own boys' hostel with the support of the community. I mean parents and the students and the friends come together and build themselves with that [inaudible] I don't know, we can accommodate more than 50 students in that [inaudible].

Bodh: (09:58)

Also, we render a house for the girls. So now we are running both the girls' hostel and the boys' hostel. So last one -- Academy and then slowly we could develop a computer center. First of all, we start with three computer[s], then we got a donation from one of the -- as I use the computer, they gave a used computer. Then slowly, some of our friends from the US donated 10 laptops. Slowly, slowly, everything is evolving. So now, in 2014, we start on this community center with three students. Now we have 34 students [inaudible]. I mean in 2004 [inaudible] with three students, only boy students and now it is 2020 now we have 35 students with both more boys and the girls from all over Kerala except one district. So [in] Kerala, there are 14 districts. We have students from 13 districts and also one other highlight things -- after our course, our students are collecting and go back to their community. So our courses a 10-month course after our 10-month course our students go back to their community, and they collect, their younger sisters and brothers together under their teaching, they are supporting as a role model. So they are becom[ing] a role model of example to our younger students and parents. So some of our students can [be] able to stop their parents -- I mean, or father -- alcohol drinking character. So such a…

Dennehy: (11:38)


Bodh: (11:40)

That role model is [inaudible].

Eakins: (11:43)

Wow. I'm just listening to your story, and you're like, you went door to door, village to village, you were able to secure a space where they live for 10 months and then you had the girls section and the boys section, and then you got donations for computers and laptops. And did I hear correctly that you have about 34 students currently?

Bodh: (12:07)


Eakins: (12:08)

That's an amazing story. Again, I'm glad that we're sharing this information. Daya, I would love for you to talk a little bit about the students. Where are these kids? I know they're coming from various villages, but what is maybe unique about the students that are at the Leadership Academy?

Dennehy: (12:26)

Well, I want to just follow up on the last question you asked Arun. You know, I think it's really true about his leadership, and I think it's easy for Arun just to tell the story and sort of gloss over the fact that he has built such strong leadership skills and really able to inspire and recruit people and build a team. So I think you're right that on the ground he's really building such a strong program including, I'm not sure that you heard him say, but they physically built their own building. He got the fathers in the village to make the bricks and dig the ground and build the building. So we're really bringing in the community. So these are -- the Dalit community has been oppressed for centuries outside the caste system. The caste system has between 3,000 and 5,000 different castes in it, and the Dalit community is below the level of castes.

Dennehy: (13:17)

So they have physically been excluded from the village. They traditionally had to live outside the village. So I think when we think about caste, it's something that people don't like to talk about. And I'm doing my doctorate to sort of put caste on the map as an equity issue because like Dr. Joy DeGruy talks about naming race and naming the legacy of slavery. I think it's the same for this community, the legacy of this past depression, which is very violent, that has really resulted in these inequities. So 72% of Dalit students have dropped out of high school by 10th grade. And so that's the community that we're working with. And our students, Arun, has recruited students from some of the most remote areas of Kerala. So people living in forests, people living with a lot of housing insecurity, food insecurity. A lot of our students only eat one meal a day.

Dennehy: (14:13)

There are all the symptoms of oppression, which are domestic violence and sexual abuse and violence within the family and within the community. So these are the students that come to us, but they're also very motivated. And one of the things that's amazing about having a residential program is that first, the students' basic needs are met. So when you think of Maslow's pyramid of needs, that they're sometimes for the first time in their lives, getting fed three times a day, having a safe, secure place to sleep, having a regular routine. So having that really allows the students to flourish. And we had a student Vishal who couldn't even spell his own name, and now he's taking the exams to re-enroll in 10th grade. So within -- he was with us for 10 months, and then he came back for another 10-month program. So these are students that have just faced so much hardship but with the kind of structure but also with love.

Dennehy: (15:12)

Arun and I were talking before the program about this what Venezuela calls [inaudible], right? This community of care that that's really at the heart of this program that Arun and the team that he's built really love the students. And so that is the container within these students are allowed to flourish, and they're really celebrated. And there's also the community wealth. There's a very rich folk music tradition, very percussive, Kerala's famous for its drumming. And they have -- the Dalit community specifically has its own folk songs that come from agriculture, and they have these sort of embedded messages of liberation within these songs of agriculture and farming. And so we've really built our program incorporating that community wealth. And when we have gatherings, the parents will just sort of stand up and break into song. And our last retreat that we had in December, we were just all relaxing in a circle, and everybody just started singing. So there's this rich musical tradition, the storytelling tradition, even the street theater tradition that has been able to keep these stories of justice and activism alive for many, many decades now.

Eakins: (16:24)

I love it. So let's talk about, maybe -- again I'm coming from a mindset of how things are done in the US. So in India, the schooling goes up through 12th grade, or is it, does it stop at 10th grade or what happens after the students complete the Academy, I guess?

Dennehy: (16:42)

Right. Well, schooling goes up to 10th grade in India, and you can finish at 10th grade, and then they have what they call plus one and plus two.

Eakins: (16:51)


Dennehy: (16:51)

So 11th and 12th grades are sort of what would have called in the old days, like senior high school. So one of the things that happens in India is when you go to plus one and plus two, the education switches into English. And so this is where the caste system comes into play so that if you have money if you have privilege, you would have gone to what we call an English medium school, which is tuition-based, a private school, and your kids would have learned in English from kindergarten. But our students come from state schools where the teachers are not very well versed in English. Most of their curriculum would have been in [inaudible] or the regional language.

Dennehy: (17:34)

And then, after 10th grade, everything switches to English. And so our students are not prepared. They haven't had that English education. So they're really not able to continue studying. They -- just imagine if all of a sudden our curriculum in 11th grade went to 100% Spanish, even though maybe we studied a little Spanish, could we really graduate with 100% Spanish language? So it's like that. So that's one of the reasons that English is very important to be able to finish. And then in university, it's in English as well. So that's where the division happens. And in the village schools, they're just not prepared to teach English at the level that the students need to be able to do these state exams.

Eakins: (18:16)

I'm glad you explained that because that was one of the things I was wondering was the importance of English as opposed to the local language there. And I wonder if that has to do with colonialism or imperialism going back to years ago and the influence of Great Britain in India. And is that kind of how things have been structured since or I guess I would kind of love to know why? Why English is kind of the standard once you get to a certain level.

Dennehy: (18:47)

Well, Arun can give his opinion too. I wanted to say that I'm writing my thesis on this very topic, but one of the things about English is that it is a unifying language. So India has three national languages and English… there was a movement actually to make Hindi the national language. And in Kerala, there were actually riots over that, that they didn't want Hindi to become the national language because that's sort of the language of the North. And it's also -- Hindi comes from Sanskrit and the caste system is really embedded in the language. So for activists, they're very aware of that. And so in the South, they don't have the same access to Hindi, and they saw English as the unifying language. So it's true that it is -- it does come from colonialism -- but it's also all of the business in India happens in English. So the Supreme court happens in English, medical engineering, everything, all of the business is conducted in English. So without that access, this marginalized community becomes further marginalized. So access to English is actually a social justice issue. And then the second thing is when you talk about colonialism or imperialism, Dalit scholars really point to Hindu imperialism that they were colonized by the British, but they also have this legacy of being oppressed by Hinduism, by the Vedic caste system. So they've sort of been oppressed twice by both the caste system and by the British.

Eakins: (20:23)

Yeah, Arun, I would love to get your take as well. Just maybe you could share a little bit from your end as well.

Bodh: (20:30)

Yes, we are from South India. [In] South India, there are five steps. Each to stay [inaudible]. Our own language. Suppose I am from Kerala, Kerala house, my mother languages, Malala. In Tamilnadu families, their mother language -- that's such a different language we are using in South India but in North India even though their house or their own language but then everybody can speak at the same time. Even though our mother tongue is Malala but [inaudible] their own language. It means actually our mother tongue is not Malala, but we couldn't speak. We couldn't get a more recognized [inaudible] if we speak our own language in public, especially in [inaudible] how their own language. Totally different from Malala. So in this situation, if we are going to speak, we are going to study in our mother tongue in pliable language or the caste language.

Bodh: (21:27)

We never get a recognized section in the public community, but so we have to learn Malala [inaudible]. Also, we don't get any recognized section because we don't get any progress in this global [inaudible] the world because [inaudible] English is the global language. So same there. Also, we are going to [inaudible], so that's why I think English is more [inaudible] are the most important language for our development, if we are able to speak in English, we can communicate with the world, and we can access a good job and well-paid jobs and everything. Otherwise it is very difficult to get [inaudible] in this [inaudible]. I think so. So because our mother [inaudible] same times we each caste and each village and each group of tribes they have their own language. This is very controversial and a very difficult situation we are facing. So as a [inaudible] Hindi and Hindi languages and [inaudible], we think English is the most important language for our progress and development.

Eakins: (22:35)

Okay. And that makes sense from both of your perspectives. That makes a lot of sense because, like you said, I mean there's multiple languages being spoken in India, and then you said like North India may use certain dialects and in South India might use a different one. And if we're just trying to unite and not just in India, but if we're trying to be able to communicate with folks around the world, having the skill set to be able to speak English is helpful and supportive with jobs and upward mobility. So that makes a lot of sense. And I'm glad that you -- both of you -- were able to explain it because I was curious about that, so that makes sense. So I wanted to see if you had any success stories of maybe some of your students that have kind of made it to the plus one and plus two, maybe gone off to college. Maybe your Leadership Academy might still be too young to have some of those stories, but I'd just love to hear if you have any -- between the two of you -- if you have any success stories of some of the things that your students are doing right now.

Dennehy: (23:36)

Yeah. Arun, do you want to tell the story of Aneesh, maybe?

Bodh: (23:39)

Yes, yes, yes. Some of our students and one of my students, Aneesh, after our calls, he got in the last, when their mother was here in December, he came back, and he was speaking and in that [inaudible] he got a lot of integration and after that [inaudible], he got a visual of his future, and he was saying that still, he is having that notebook and still is sometimes he's [inaudible] that notebook, and he wrote his goals and the thing everything [inaudible], eventually he started lightening business, and it is improving, and now he tried to go to China for extending his business. Unfortunately, because of this corona, he was not able to go to China, but it was his planning. He was, he did everything for going out to China, just [inaudible] his business.

Bodh: (24:35)

And another few examples also here today also, I got a call from Malaysia, one of our students, he, after our course -- he was totally illiterate and after our course, even though he was not able to develop his language and the things, but he [was] able to develop his willpower, that was the point. After our course, he finds out his voice every day [inaudible], he becomes very strong. After our course, he got a chance to move to Malaysia doing some jobs. Now he is doing a job in Malaysia, and today I got a call from the [inaudible], he was talking about this coronavirus and the things, several things and one other story. It was very touching. And why -- a few years before, after our course, one girl called me, "Can you come down my village?" "Okay." I was [inaudible] agreed, and I went to her village, and she told me that "I will, I [inaudible] to my younger students and they kind of, you have to do some talk and inspire my motivation talks with them."

Bodh: (25:40)

So I was ready. I prepared, and I went there. When I went there, she collected all students in one [inaudible] forest, and she went near where this house was, and she door to door, and she collected two or three chairs from one house each from each house. She collected one or two chairs, and slowly she collected more chair[s], and she collected glasses for bringing tea, and the things, the glasses from different houses and there were students and she [brought] together all students, and they cleaned that up for us, and we sat, and 28 students were there, and we sat down, and I did a talk, and I told her to speak, and there was no hesitation from her. She told me her experience everything, so it means our program is more than [inaudible] with real leadership I think not only a language after our course they find their voice.

Bodh: (26:40)

That's a wonderful story. Maybe if you have time, I can speak one more story.

Eakins: (26:44)

Yes, go for it.

Bodh: (26:47)

Okay. Now, of course, there is one program, [inaudible] exit survey. After the course exit survey time, I was talking with one of the students I know. I asked him, "[Inaudible], what is your plan after the course? What do you want to do?" He was saying that "[Inaudible], I want to go to my sister or a school. My sister is studying, which is a very high standard school, and my sister got a scholarship from local government, and she is studying with the highest standard school with the high level with the rich people's children." So he was saying that "Before I came here I went there with my mother or parent-teacher association meetings," so he was saying that he never sit in front of that meeting and he was always sitting behind [in the] last chair with his mother, and he was having really inferiority complex.

Bodh: (27:44)

Now he was saying that "I want to sit in front of that row in front of that meeting, and I will speak with them in English." I know I asked him, "If they ask you to -- in English -- if you are not able to reply in English, what will you do?" And he was saying that "If I am not able to reply in English, I will tell them 'I don't understand your English. So can you speak in Malala?'" Such a voice he found! And he was saying that "If I am not able to speak in English, I will tell them. So please tell me in Malala, I will reply." It was such a confidence [inaudible]. So I think our course is more a [inaudible] with a leadership plus language learning.

Dennehy: (28:31)

I think the significance of this story, too, is this is a community that has been marginalized, has been told to sit in the back, to stay on the outside. So this young man wants to take his seat in the front row at this parent-teacher meeting and be able to speak up on behalf of his sister and be able to take his place in this school where he was excluded from himself but to advocate for his sister along with his mother. So there's something so meaningful about that story.

Eakins: (29:00)

Yeah. And I'm sure that there are more stories as we think and you know, "Oh, what about this person and that person?" It sounds like the Academy and like you said, it's leadership, it provides resources that some of the students wouldn't have gotten had they not been in the program. Sounds like there's a lot of positive influence that's happening there. I'd love to know is there a way if we want to reach out and donate or if there's a way that we can provide support or if there's things that you might need? I heard you mentioned computers earlier, laptops or if there's other supplies? What are some things maybe that we could do if we wanted to provide some sort of donation or support?

Dennehy: (29:41)

I think the easiest way is our website is blossomprojects with an S so, and people can always reach out to me on Twitter. I'm @SFDaya, S-F-D-A-Y-A. One of the things that we've loved the most is welcoming people as guest-teachers either in person or over the internet. It's going to be very difficult at the moment. We've had to close down the school because of COVID-19, so financial support will be welcomed as we get things back up and running again once this pandemic starts to stop spreading a bit. So yeah, we're always -- we're a very shoestring budget. All of our funding comes from friends and family, so we really welcome the support as not just the financial support, but as being part of our global community of friends, that it's friends that have been able to help us keep going directly. And we're just so grateful for people, especially like you, Dr. Sheldon, for listening to our story and believing in us and showing an interest in what we're doing.

Eakins: (30:45)

Of course. Of course. And can you shout out the website one more time, please?

Dennehy: (30:49)

Sure. Blossomprojects with an S, B-L-O-S-S-O-M-P-R-O-J-E-C-T-S dot O-R-G.

Eakins: (30:58)

Okay. Well, before we close, I always ask the question to all of my guests, and I want to ask that same question to the two of you. I consider both of you as providing a voice in leading equity. What is one final word of advice that you could share with our listeners? And let's start with Arun.

Bodh: (31:18)

Okay. Before, I was thinking that all of our critiques come from love and compassion. If there is no love and compassion, I think we are not able to provide equity and justice or anything. So I think to love our students and whatever we are doing now [inaudible] and approach with the compassion. Now let's bring [inaudible]. That's all.

Eakins: (31:42)

Okay. What about you, Daya?

Dennehy: (31:45)

Yeah, I love that idea of love and friendship, and I think that we really can have a huge impact with a small project. And I think our project was just Arun and I, and then our circle of friendship grew. So I think don't underestimate what a small group of friends can do and the impact they can have. You don't have to get big, you don't need a lot of money, a very small project grounded in love, grounded in friendship can have a huge impact and make -- really change lives.

Eakins: (32:15)

Yeah, I agree. Arun, are you on social media? Is there a way that people can contact you if there's someone that want[s] to reach out to you?

Bodh: (32:24)

Yes, yes, of course. Arun Lokuttara, it's my ID. A-R-U-N-L-O-K-U-T-T-A-R-A.

Dennehy: (32:34)

That's on Facebook.

Eakins: (32:35)

That's on Facebook?

Bodh: (32:35)

Yes, sir.

Eakins: (32:36)

All right. Well, again, it has truly, truly, truly been an honor. It's been a pleasure, and I really have enjoyed listening to your story, so thank you so much for your time and for sharing all the information that you shared, and it sounds like your Academy is doing some awesome things. Hopefully, this COVID-19 will go away soon and that you can continue to pick up your work that you're doing out there.

Dennehy: (33:03)

Thank you very much.

Bodh: (33:05)

Thank you very much. Thank you.


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