Recently the Hot Docs Film Festival premiered a number of films including The Backward Class. This is the extraordinary story that follows a grade 12 graduating class from Shanti Bhavan, a residential school in Bangalore, India. What makes this story extraordinary is not just the students and a dedicated group of teachers, but the whole foundation of the school.
Dr. Abraham George, a successful businessman who lives in New York, returned to his former home in Bangalore and was appalled at the lack of economic and social progress. Although the caste system was abolished in 1950, nothing had really changed. With his own funds he purchased a tract of land and built a residential school, recruiting 24 kindergarten age students. All of the students came from the “untouchable” class, deemed unworthy of educating by the Indian government. After 13 years of preparation, this group of students was to become the first Dalit students in India’s history to write the prestigious national Indian School Certificate graduating exams for high school.
As with most travels, this journey had not been a smooth one. The 2008 international financial crisis almost ruined Dr. George and nearly forced the closure of the school; since that time buildings were left incomplete, attracting good teachers became more problematic, and resources became scarcer. In order to allow his first class to graduate, George was forced to sell his house and tell his own children that he did not have the resources to send them to college in the United States. His vision of providing an exceptional education to a group that had been ostracized and oppressed by virtue of birth so that they might become role models and leaders in their community was in jeopardy. And now exams were upon them with historical expectations of parents, school patrons, educators, and the school’s founder.
This is the story of the immense will, dedication, and vision of the individual and the collective. It is the story of empowerment through education.
The results of this first graduating class are remarkable. Every student passed, all of them graduated from Indian post-secondary institutions and are working for investment companies such as Goldman Sachs and Ernst & Young. They have recognized their position and privilege by giving half of their earnings back to their families, a quarter to the school and a quarter for their own living.
Imagine the impact that our own graduates would have on the world if they did the same.
Shanti Bhavan’s mission is to adequately develop the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children of India’s “lowest caste” by providing them world class education and instilling globally shared values to enable them to aspire to careers and professions of their choice. A true private institution with a public purpose.