UN SDGS: Spending Our Privilege

[Linda Hoiseth, American Embassy School, Delhi, India]

I recently attended the grand opening of the fourth branch of The Community Library Project (TCLP) in Delhi, India. It’s a remarkable space, created with thoughtfulness and purpose by a team of dedicated professionals and volunteers to ensure everyone in the neighborhood has free access to a library.

But the goal of TCLP is not simply to provide access to the people in the local community. They’re also proving a point. “By proving community libraries can work and work well, it is our hope that when the leaders of our city and our country finally do take up the task of funding and building libraries in serious way, no one will say, ‘It can’t be done here.’” 

#17  Partnerships for the goals: Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development. 

I’ve had the privilege of working in private non-profit international schools around the world for my entire career. Our school libraries are places of privilege – well-funded bubbles of intellectual freedom and access. My students and I have never had to fight for the right to go to school or read books. No one has said of us that we don’t belong in the world of reading and thinking. No one tells us what we can and can’t read.

The majority of Indian children do not share our privilege. Many Indian public schools don’t have viable libraries, and there is no free public library system. Krashen’s research tells us that access to quality libraries has a very strong correlation to school success, but access to books and reading is out of reach for too many in India and around the world. Many families in the neighborhoods where the four TCLP branches operate have never had access to a library and need to be convinced that the library is for them. 

TCLP is teaching me about the power of libraries and literature to transform communities and nations. Those of us working in privileged libraries must partner with local libraries and to work toward realizing the Sustainable Development Goals.

There are better ways to partner with libraries that are less privileged than ours than simply sending them our discarded books. Mridula Koshy, executive director of TCLP, talks of “spending our privilege”– using our privilege as a currency to empower others. I’ve learned so much from her and TCLP about how to be a better partner for sustainable development.

Lesson 1 – The greatest power comes from within the community.

TCLP is an organization built from the ground up within the communities it serves, with some support from the students and faculty of the American Embassy School (AES). It is not a place where expats with visions of rescue swoop in to paint murals on the walls and put books on the shelves, and then express disappointment that the library isn’t maintained after they leave. The libraries are run daily by TCLP staff, most who started as library patrons, who then became student council members, who then became library staff or board members.

One way my privileged school library supports the TCLP community is by hosting interns. Each intern works for three months at our school library, shadowing our staff and learning everything they can about how we operate. They are paid a stipend (built into our library budget), which is crucial for them to be able to help support their families and for their families to allow them to make the trek across the city. At the end of the experience they receive a letter of recommendation and a certificate. Our first intern reported that not only did she learn about running a library, but she also developed soft skills, such as communicating confidently in English and navigating the city’s public transportation system, that will serve her as she continues to serve her community in the future. In the words of Mridula Koshy, “Her gains are the gains of the community.” 

Lesson 2 – My position of privilege can help bring a spotlight to where the real work is being done.

One simple way to support the work of TCLP is by using networks available to me – like this one – to promote its work. TCLP is the founding organization of The Community Library Network, and has a powerful FacebookTwitter and Instagram presence. When I promote their posts, I’m promoting their work. When I write for their blog to give my answers to their questions about librarianship, I’m supporting their network. When I present a workshop at their fundraiser, I’m giving my time and professional insight to support what they do. It costs me nothing, but is a powerful way to “spend my privilege.”

Lesson 3 – There is power in partnerships.

When the librarians at TCLP ask me questions about cataloging or collection development or signage or anything library-related, I’m happy to share my thinking, but only after learning more about their context. We have conversations –  professional to professional – that benefit both of us. They have an understanding of the Indian context that goes way beyond my knowledge, and I have experience in a variety of libraries in international contexts that can provide a different perspective. 

One conversation we had recently was about labeling non-fiction shelves, the “rules” for organizing non-fiction, and whether or not it was OK to build a collection based on values. I told them about how I modify Dewey and create shelf labels so the collection makes more sense for my students, with the guiding “rule” being organizing the collection in a way that is meaningful for my patrons. I said that I was purposely building up an anti-racist collection, as an example of using the school’s values as part of my collection development philosophy. That brought up the topic of caste, and how it was important for TCLP to take a stand against caste in their collection. They decided to label their shelf “Against Caste”, and reminded me that in my context as an international school in India, this is an area of the collection I need to work on.

Together we are stronger.

Lesson 4 – “Good enough” isn’t good enough.

I’ve been guilty of thinking that some kind of library is always better than none at all– that a poorly maintained cupboard of books under a tree is at least something, and something is better than nothing. And maybe it is. Or maybe it’s telling the people of the community that they’re not worthy of a real library. That the keys to the world that readers are given don’t belong to them. If there’s nothing in that cupboard that they need or that they can access or will help them, then it’s doing more harm than good.

TCLP’s libraries are not after-thoughts. They are facilities designed by architects (who donate their time) based on principles of good librarianship. The books on the shelves have been carefully selected for that community. The libraries provide a comfortable place to sit and read, knowing that some of their patrons don’t have that luxury in their homes. They are well lit and organized . . . . and they make it very clear that all are welcome. Those of us with privilege should “spend our privilege” and support organizations that are thoughtfully lifting up their communities by purposefully creating spaces and collections just for them.

Lesson 5 – I can share resources beyond discarded books. 

When my library got rid of some old cupboards – well-built, but not what we needed any more – we delivered them to TCLP’s under-construction library, and they repurposed them into something better. When TCLP needed to catalog thousands of books before the opening of their newest library  and the barcode printer they ordered didn’t work, we printed the labels for them. 

We try to think of sharing resources beyond getting rid of supplies we don’t need anymore.  When AES brought in authors Laurie Halse Anderson and Jack Gantos this year, we asked each of them if they’d do a session for TCLP’s online fundraising workshop in place of one session they might do for us, and they both willingly agreed. Now Laurie is using her social media presence to raise awareness for the library, taking us back to Lesson 2.

The people at TCLP know that we support them, and they don’t hesitate to ask for specific help when they need it. And they know if something I offer them isn’t right for their library, they can refuse it without hurting my feelings. 

Lesson 6 – And about those discarded books . . . 

I used to be one of those people who naively thought that boxing up my discarded books and shipping them off to a needy community somewhere else was a great gift to society. Any book in the hand of a needy child is a good book, right? 

TCLP has taught me to think twice before sending any discards to any sort of charity organization. Non-fiction books that contain out-of-date information are just as inappropriate in the TCLP libraries as they are in ours. Books in English that are inaccessible to the majority of their members, or that are all about a context that is unfamiliar and inaccessible to them might also be inappropriate. Some books are better as art or recycling than they are as donations to other libraries.

My library colleagues and I keep a list of organizations in India that might want our discarded books, and we are careful to only send appropriate books to each organization. At the request of TCLP,  we’ve recently stopped using a Withdrawn stamp and have started using one that says Donated. It’s an insignificant change for us, but it means something to those on the receiving end of the books we no longer need.

We hold used book sales of many of our books, with the funds going to support TCLP. It’s so much better for them to have the cash to buy what their community needs, and we should never dump our junk onto another group that will have to dispose of it. 

When we spend our privilege, we don’t weaken our power, but rather, we enhance it. When we create partnerships, we create opportunities for others to grow alongside us as we work to achieve the SDGs.

Some contemporary reading about caste:

The Boy Who Asked Why: Bhimrao Ambedkar by Sowmya Rajendran, illustrated by Satwik Gade (2018) / India / Picture book

A picture book biography of social reformer Bhimrao “Bhim” Ambedkar, who challenged India’s caste system.

Ahisma by Supriya Kelkar (2017) / India / Middle grade

In this middle grade fiction book set during India’s partition, Anjali’s family work with the Dalit community as an act of peaceful resistance.  

See this teachers’ guide (PDF) from the publisher.

Coming Out as Dalit: A Memoir by Yashica Dutt (2019) / Adult, but accessible to YA

Dutt, a New York-based journalist, decides to reveal her own identity after the suicide of a Dalit Indian student.

Watch an interview with her here.

Caste Matters by Suraj Yengde (2019) / Adult, but accessible to YA

Dr. Suraj Yengde is a member of the Dalit (lowest caste) community and discusses the oppression he faced within his community and from society. He is now a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, Shorenstein Center, as a Post-Doc (EE) in the Associate Dept. of African & African American Studies (see his academic profile here).

Read a Feb. 2020 article in the Harvard Crimson about him here.

Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson (2020) / Adult but accessible to YA

Looks at caste from an American perspective with comparisons to India and Nazi Germany.

Read Yashika Dutt‘s (author Coming Out as Dalit) review of Wilkerson’s book in Foreign Policy magazine in September 2020: “Feeling Like an Outcast / The bestselling book “Caste” brilliantly frames racial hierarchies in the United States but largely ignores the horrors of India’s caste structure.”

Caste, Discrimination, and Exclusion in Modern India by Vani Kant Borooah, Nidhi Sadana Sabharwal, Dilip G. Diwakar, Vinod Kumar Mishra, and Ajaya Kumar Naik (2015) / Adult

Analyzes the impact of caste on all areas of society, including poverty, education, health, and employment.

Dalit Issues: Caste and Class Interface edited by T. Brahmanandam (2016) / Adult

The articles collected in this book are the results from a national seminar on ‘Dalit Situation in India: After Economic Reforms’ sponsored by the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR), New Delhi, in 2016.

Caste in Contemporary India by Surinder S. Jodhka (1st edition 2014, 2nd edition 2017) / Adult

Presents original thinking on why caste is still an issue in India today. 

The Annihilation of Caste by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (1936)
Annihilation of Caste: The Annotated Critical Edition by Ambedkar Bhimrao Ramji, edited by S. Anand, with an introduction by Arundhati Roy (2014)
The Radical in Ambedkar: critical reflections edited by Anand Teltumbde and Suraj Yengde (2018)

The bible or manifesto of the anti-caste movement is Annihilation of Caste (1936) written by Dr B R Ambedkar (1891-1956), who also wrote India’s constitution. He was a brilliant leader of the people, agitator, organiser, and scholar. Many other books of his are requisite reading to understand how caste operates as a force of oppression. You can find a full list of his books, speeches, and articles on this Indian government website: https://www.mea.gov.in/ambedkar.htm .

The annotated critical edition of his classic text is introduced by Arundhati Roy (political writer and author of the novel, The God Of Small Things).

B.R. Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste is one of the most important, yet neglected, works of political writing from India. Written in 1936, it is an audacious denunciation of Hinduism and its caste system. Ambedkar – a figure like W.E.B. Du Bois – offers a scholarly critique of Hindu scriptures, scriptures that sanction a rigidly hierarchical and iniquitous social system. The world’s best-known Hindu, Mahatma Gandhi, responded publicly to the provocation. The hatchet was never buried.

Arundhati Roy introduces this extensively annotated edition of Annihilation of Caste in “The Doctor and the Saint,” examining the persistence of caste in modern India, and how the conflict between Ambedkar and Gandhi continues to resonate. Roy takes us to the beginning of Gandhi’s political career in South Africa, where his views on race, caste and imperialism were shaped. She tracks Ambedkar’s emergence as a major political figure in the national movement, and shows how his scholarship and intelligence illuminated a political struggle beset by sectarianism and obscurantism.

Roy breathes new life into Ambedkar’s anti-caste utopia, and says that without a Dalit revolution, India will continue to be hobbled by systemic inequality.

[Publisher’s blurb for the annotated critical edition]

Note that Suraj Yengde (author of Caste Matters) was one of the editors of the book The Radical in Ambedkar: critical reflections.

Linda Hoiseth is the middle school and high school teacher-librarian at the American Embassy School in New Delhi, India. She has a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction, and a graduate certificate in school library media. Before India, she worked in schools in Japan, Kuwait, Malaysia, Poland, Peru, and Qatar. She is inspired by her own children and her students to use her profession and privilege to advocate for social justice. Find her on Twitter @lhoiseth.

Note: all the books highlighted during this month of SDGs can be found on this GLLI Goodreads shelf.

What are your favorite books that relate to the UN Sustainable Development Goals? Please share them in the comments. Let’s make this a conversation and work on the goals together.

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