A Noteworthy Social Justice Celebration

Dartmouth alumni explain some actually worthy social justice causes.

Dartmouth alumni talk about some actually worthy social justice causes.

In a period of myriad protests, (dis)orientation guides, and Twitter trends in the name of a rather hazy conception of “social justice,” the Olga Guss Lewin Fellowship’s Social Justice Celebration dinner came as a noteworthy and rather refreshing event. The October 27 banquet, held at Collis Commonground, featured a three-course dinner and presentations by three recent alumnae and former Lewin Fellows. Each speaker gave a presentation on the social justice projects that they had undertaken after graduating from Dartmouth as part of their Lewin Fellowships.

For once, the College got to experience an event in the name of social justice that was not incredibly disruptive to its media image and meaningful in a real world way. All three presentations were about their respective presenter’s social justice project to help underprivileged people in underprivileged parts of the world – low income South Asian youth in urban New York City, the impoverished residents of the slum-like Colonias of South Texas, and the neglected children of the orphanages of northern Ukraine. The oppressiveness of the Ivy League was never once mentioned; instead, the event offered a refreshing look at the good work Dartmouth’s daughters have done in the world beyond the Hanover bubble.

The Presentations

Ms. Sindhura Kodali ’08, a South Asian American herself, gave a presentation titled “Creating Social Change Through South Asian Youth Action Mentoring Program.” Her work brought her to New York, where she worked with SAYA!, or South Asian Youth in Action. Kodali tackled a stereotype of South Asians as a “successful” minority and explained how a significant inequality exists between a high skewing of wealthy, white collar South Asian professionals and an underbelly of poorer, blue collar South Asian cabdrivers, cashiers, and retail workers. Low income South Asian is one of the fastest growing demographics in America due to changing immigration patterns. The result is that one out of four South Asian youths in America live in poverty – and it is this low income demographic to whom SAYA! reaches out. Given that this impoverished group is relatively concentrated in urban centers, these South Asian youths are also plagued by the same socioeconomic problems that manifest themselves among urban black or Hispanic populations.

Issues of culture particularly affect these youth. Urban schools and teachers are often ill-equipped to properly teach and handle immigrant children with poor English skills; a lack of South Asian pop culture role models incentivizes acculturation and the adoption of fashion and music trends that are popular in poor urban areas. Kodali described SAYA!’s initiatives to combat these issues. SAYA! provides tutors who are fluent in South Asian languages for normal schoolwork as well as for the SAT exam and for the college admissions and financial aid processes. SAYA! Also runs a South Asian version of Big Brothers and Big Sisters by pairing up disadvantaged South Asian youth with older, accomplished South Asian role models.

As part of her presentation, Kodali screened a brief video of some teens who have or are currently going through SAYA!’s various programs and initiatives; from their emotional testimonies of how SAYA! helped them overcome their socioeconomic and academic distress, it became clear that SAYA! was enacting meaningful social change.

Ms. Rebecca Wehrly ’06, a graduate of Harvard Medical School and current psychiatry resident, delivered a presentation titled “Improving Healthcare Access in the Colonias of South Texas.” Her social justice project brought her a few miles away from the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, to a town populated mostly by Mexican immigrants and their children. Most of these people lived in what are called “colonias,” meaning “neighborhood” in Spanish. In a twenty-first century context, however, colonias can be redefined to simply mean “slums.” In the area Wehrly worked in, most impoverished families congregated together in colonias that lacked basic utilities like electricity, running water, water, and paved roads. Most new immigrant families started off in small makeshift shacks in a colonia and gradually built up to a larger and larger makeshift home.

Wehrly spent significant time in a colonia to better understand the very real health and human issues that affect them. She recognized health issues like diabetes among the colonia’s residents and accordingly organized mass workshops about health education with the colonia’s residents. More significantly, Wehrly got to know individuals within the colonias and better understood their plight. She researched existing social services and programs and helped their residents better access the benefits of such programs.

Ms. Alexandra Heywood, valedictorian of the Class of 2011, delivered a presentation titled “Fostering Youth Education and Empowerment in Ukraine.” She began her remarks by giving poignant examples of the tormenting emotional and physical challenges of life as an impoverished Ukrainian orphan. As part of her Lewin Fellowship, Alexandra worked with an orphanage in northern Ukraine. It, like many others in the region, had been the object of systemic neglect for years. Under resourced and understaffed, her orphanage was ill-suited to raise children – an appalling 70% of its female orphans ended up in prostitution, and well over half of its male orphans ended up in criminal activities.

Alexandra spent a great deal of time trying to foster close bonds and relationships with the children. She organized programs with the local village community so that the orphans could find some semblance of a normal family life. She revitalized the orphanage’s educational programs and led an English class. Her presentation was filled with nearly a dozen anecdotes of children expressing heartwarming sentiments of joy and love for her as she delivered basic necessities like lice shampoo. She made a difference in these children’s lives, and she helped set up the infrastructure to better enable future orphans to pursue a better life. She reported that with the orphans who went through her mentoring program, prostitution and crime rates dropped to nearly 10%.

Welcome Change

These presentations are a welcome change in the dialogue of social justice at Dartmouth precisely because they dealt with real word issues of poverty. They discussed profound issues of cultural power structures in urban areas and how it affects minority youth and their cultural mindset. They discussed incidents of extreme poverty and lack of opportunity. They discussed problems that have left significant segments of the human population crippled.

The Olga Guss Lewin Fellowship Celebration Dinner’s speakers demonstrated the true meaning of enacting social change. They personally reached out and affected the lives of people who, as the College’s current social justice brigade would put it, are victims of racism, elitism, ableism, sexism, imperialism, and a variety of other “-isms.” The Freedom Budget’s provisions for social justice on campus – demands to cleansing Dartmouth’s curricula of innate ableist or racist features or for gender-neutral bathrooms – do not at all compare to the Lewin Fellows’ actions for social justice – such as providing much needed role models for confused intercity immigrant youth or providing colonias bathrooms in the first place (with little concern for their gender neutrality).

Such a high-minded event contrasts markedly with the environment of the campus on which it was held. In recent years, Dartmouth has been plagued by one scandal after another regarding issues of social justice within a significantly smaller bubble of Hanover. Cultural appropriation panels and 1960s-style sit in protests for “freedom” budgets have dominated our recent discussions and directed our energies to healing internally rather than projecting the benefits of our education outward. This imbalance has discredited the phrase “social justice’ among some and made self-proclaimed reformers the subject of frustration and ridicule.

A Little Perspective

For those who did not have the educational opportunity to attend the Lewin Fellowship’s Social Justice Celebration, perhaps the most important takeaway was Ms. Alexandra Heywood’s explanation of misguided philanthropy. Kind-hearted folk with noble intentions often donate, as Alexandra explained, goodies like plasma screen televisions and candy to the orphanage she worked at for the betterment and happiness of the orphans. But the philanthropy is misguidedf apathetic and incompetent administrators of the orphanage simply play lewd music videos on those new TVs that only reinforce an already debilitating culture of prostitution, crime, and drug use; the candy, while psychologically sounder for the children, only worsen their already precarious and ill-maintained dental health.

Good intentioned but misguided actions is a deleterious theme that seems to be plaguing much of our campus dialogue on social justice. Perhaps it’s time for Dartmouth students to apply a broader perspective to their own calls “social justice.” After all, it was the College’s twelfth president, President John Sloan Dickey, who once said, “The world’s troubles are your troubles … and there is nothing wrong with the world that better human beings cannot fix.” It is this vision of social justice that Dartmouth’s brilliant, passionate, and involved students ought to strive to accomplish. There is indeed a world beyond foggy Hanover, one in which microaggressions are the least of most people’s concerns, one in which the opportunities of a $250,000 elite education – with financial aid for those who need it – are considered hard-earned privileges instead of oppression. Our College’s discourse – and the image of our College in the media limelight – could certainly use a bit of worldly perspective and maturity.