The Power of Privilege – An excerpt from PIVOT
PIVOT: Empowering Students Today to Succeed in an Unpredictable Tomorrow
Excerpt from Chapter 7, "When Privilege & Poverty Unite"
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Chapter seven begins with the section below, and then goes on to explain, in detail, the model of Shanti Bhavan Children's Project in India. This is then juxtaposed with the "free market" education system in Chile. Chilean public education was redesigned under the dictator, Pinochet, by the "Chicago Boys"—the Chilean econnomists who studied at the University of Chicago under American economists Milton Friedman and Arnold Harberger, and privitazed the Chilean economy following the military coup that removed the world's first democratically elected socialists president, Salvador Allende.
Soon after my 45th birthday, I gave the keynote address for a large education conference in California. I did not mention my family heritage or Greenwich-grown privilege, and in fact, I had never publicized either during my music and aviation careers. It just was not something I found relevant. On this occasion, my full biography was printed in the conference program, and during the “meet and greet” following my presentation, an elderly African-American woman approached me, put her hand on mine, and said, “Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King all came from privilege. Don’t be ashamed of your privilege; just use it for good.”
I realized, at that moment, privilege is indeed nothing to be ashamed of despite the general implication whenever racial or socioeconomic unrest erupts. Moreover, if schools motivate students who have this tool in their toolbox to use it for good, it is potentially the fastest way to defeat social injustice and change the world for the better. I believe the recognition of one’s own power is a stronger force of motivation than the awareness of one’s own guilt. Regularly engaging students in conversations that force them to acknowledge their resources and consider how they can use them for a benefit beyond themselves would be priceless.
Back in 1989, when I graduated high school, the Greenwich public school system ranked in the top twelve of the United States—I assume we were number eleven or twelve because otherwise, we would have celebrated being in the “Top Ten.” During my thirteen years of public education, I attended four different schools within the system. For most of my classmates and me, this elite foundation enables us to maintain our place in the privileged world. Growing up in such an environment comes with a degree of financial security, but it also establishes a high standard of achievement and promotes the pursuit of cultural capital.
Commonly defined as the value society places on non-financial assets that help one move up the social ladder, cultural capital includes quality education, resourceful social networks, and material possessions such as clothes. This, combined with a high value placed on ambition, greatly enhances the potential for financial success. However, happiness and fulfillment may be a different matter. What I failed to recognize in my own privilege as a student practically hit me over the head as an adult, and it was my personal growth during Marie’s illness and discontent with the lack of diversity within the aviation community that reconnected me with someone from my past.
The South Asian Journalism Association had invited me to speak on a panel of authors at Columbia University following the release of my book in 1999. At age 27, this was one of my first professional speaking engagements, and I was sharing the panel with some well-respected South Asian authors. I was clearly the “newbie”; however, since the topic was about being a South Asian published in the United States, I aimed to engage on an equal level since I fit that description.
While Dancin’ with Hanson did not broach the subject of racial identity, my reality as part of Hanson was as a brown person in a high profile all-white American band. At that time, I was also one of only two or three Indians in mainstream Western pop-music (Tony Kanal of the band No Doubt was another, and perhaps Norah Jones can also be pushed into this category). I was able to pivot my music industry experience into a book publishing-related conversation about ethnic and racial biases, and by doing so, garnered the respect of my fellow panelists and the audience.
An Indian gentleman introduced himself to me after my talk, mentioned he knew my father, and enthusiastically solicited me to come and visit his new school in India for the “poorest of the poor.” Abraham George is the founder of Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project, a residential (boarding) school on a mission to eradicate poverty. We exchanged contact information, but other than a systematic follow-up from me, I filed him and his school away as a friendly but relatively inconsequential encounter.
Even though initiative is part of my DNA, Abraham was more proactive than I. He added me to his email list, and for the next decade, sent pictures of each incoming kindergarten class. In 2010, he sent an additional picture: the first graduating class. While I enjoyed the cute 4-year-old faces year after year, I was now awakened to his incredible accomplishment and had to go to India to see it for myself...
(The chapter now dives into the details of India's poor and Shanti Bhavan's model.)
...While I am a Brahmin who grew up in the elite town of Greenwich, Connecticut, I never realized the scope of privilege until age 48. In October 2019, I found myself running from army tanks spraying tear gas on the streets of Santiago de Chile while protestors tossed Molotov cocktails at police. Social unrest was dismantling what had been revered as the most prosperous country in Latin America (following the collapse of Venezuela). Similar riots were simultaneously occurring in Hong Kong, Lebanon, Iraq, India, France, Bolivia, and other countries. For Chileans, they had not experienced this level of violence since the days of President Pinochet, thirty years earlier.
I had only wanted to be a curious observer of a peaceful protest, but everything unraveled so quickly. Without warning, I found myself engulfed in a stampede. My privilege yielded no benefit over those alongside me who were suffering from economic disparity, unaffordable healthcare and education, and few employment opportunities. We were equally blinded by tear gas, and we gagged together as we ran.
(The chapter now investigates how education has perpetuated disparity in Chile, and ways to reverse it.)
Here are the first three "suggested pivots" at the end of Chapter 7
- Use privilege as a positive thing. Schools can motivate students who have privilege to use it for good. This is potentially the fastest way to defeat social injustices. Recognizing one’s own power is a stronger force of motivation than the awareness of one’s own guilt. Engage students in conversations that force them to identify their resources and also consider how they can use them for a benefit beyond themselves.
- Teach the social contract. Students in public education need to recognize that their fellow citizens are investing in their future. They, too, have a responsibility to deliver a return on that investment.
- Purposefully expose disparity. If more people with any degree of privilege obtain a greater level of social responsibility and direct resources toward reducing inequity, the potential for world peace would dramatically increase. Schools can and should foster critical thinking and classroom discussions around current and historical events that showcase such disparities.
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