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Dr. Ana Aspras Steele is the Executive President of Dalit Freedom Network (DFN), an organization dedicated to bringing an end to the injustices perpetrated against the Dalit people of India. In the 110th Session of Congress, she led efforts that resulted in the first legislation of the U.S. government to address the practice of untouchability in Indian society against the Dalit people. Before working for Dalit justice, Dr. Steele taught at Harvard University for 10 years, where she received several distinctions for excellence in teaching.
Josh: Hi Ana, it’s so great to have you here to kick off our Leaders in Action series. This series is dedicated to the heroes who inspire us everyday. I guess it only makes sense to ask, who is your biggest hero?
Ana: That’s always a great question to ask, Josh, and I would reply by saying that my answer has certainly changed over the years. When I was a young girl, my hero was Audrey Hepburn, because she ended her brilliant career in service to the world’s most vulnerable children as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF. Most recently, my heroes have been William Wilberforce, who worked for the abolition of slavery, and Mother Teresa, for her untiring work, which she conducted in joy, for India’s poorest members of society.
Josh: During your career you spent 10 years at Harvard University and nearly 10 years in international missions. What kind of missions were u participating in and how did they lead you to your current role?
Ana: From 1999 to 2009, I worked in the Missions Department of a mega-church. In this capacity, I oversaw all of our missionaries around the world. The best part of the job was getting to know them deeply, encouraging them through their trials and triumphs, traveling to see them in the countries where they lived and worked, and being their advocate back at the home church.
In March of 2005 I was invited to a briefing on India’s Dalit people. The speaker was Dr. Joseph D’souza, the International President of Dalit Freedom Network. I was horrified by what I heard. I promptly went up to Joseph afterward, told him so, and asked him what he needed most. From that briefing on, my conscience was burdened for the Dalits, and it has never become unburdened. I started working pro-bono for DFN, then as a consultant, and in January 2009 I accepted my current position as Executive President. I guess you could say that being an advocate for our missionaries prepared me to speak out with confidence for the Dalits here in Washington, D.C.
Josh: Just to clear things up a bit Ana, can you tell us, what is a Dalit?
Ana: The Dalits are those who are born into the lowest class in India’s social hierarchy. They are also known as India’s “scheduled caste,” “untouchables,” “outcastes,” and most recently “slumdogs.” The Dalits comprise nearly one-quarter of India’s society, with population estimates of 250 million people, almost the population of the United States. They are history’s longest standing oppressed people group, and by all reports and research the largest number of people categorized as victims of modern-day slavery. Every day, Dalits, including Dalit children, walk out their door and suffer unspeakable discrimination, dehumanization, and violence.
Josh: That is such a sad story. In most parts of the world we seem to have gotten past feudal caste systems and the practice of slavery. Why do you think these practices still are active in modern day India?
Ana: Discrimination and prejudice are ways of thinking and being that change very, very slowly in any society. Even though “untouchability” was abolished in 1950 in Article 17 of India’s Constitution, the belief in the “untouchability” of Dalits has been entrenched in Indian thinking for hundreds of centuries and will only change over time. The good news is that there are signs of change. In December 2006, for example, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh likened the caste system in India to the apartheid regime in South Africa. “Even after 60 years of constitutional and legal protection and support, there is still social discrimination against Dalits in many parts of our country,” Mr Singh said. “Dalits have faced a unique discrimination in our society that is fundamentally different from the problems of minority groups in general. The only parallel to the practice of untouchability was apartheid.” Those who work to bring an end to the practice of untouchability and the horrors that untouchability creates for the Dalit people can find immense hope in the Prime Minister’s bold stand.
Josh: Its great to know that at least there is hope. The Dalit Freedom Network was created in 2002 to respond to the cries of Dalits for fair treatment and freedom. What kinds of things has DFN done?
Ana: The Dalit Freedom Network is the leading voice in America for the Dalit people of India. DFN has 4 interdependent pillars of focus, designed to create sustainable community transformation throughout rural India, where Dalits are experiencing the greatest marginalization. They are: 1) education; 2) healthcare; 3) economic development and 4) social justice advocacy.
- Education is the backbone to community transformation. In our 90 Dalit Education Centers, 18,500 children are learning English, the language of mobility in India, and are taught the values of freedom, equality, and human dignity. Our students are becoming a generation of thinkers and agents of change who will carry forward the principles of liberty and justice in their nation.
- DFN’s Healthcare Program is a crucial component of the community transformation model. Most Dalit people cannot afford visits to a doctor or a hospital and often suffer—and sometimes even die—from diseases that are curable or no longer exist in other parts of the world. DFN and its partners in India provide basic public healthcare in villages and administer vaccines to children in our schools. As Dalits gain access to hygiene training and healthcare for the first time, they are physically empowered to live healthier, more dignified lives.
- The Economic Development Program is one of our greatest agents of community transformation. In debt to landlords, money lenders, doctors, priests, grocers, and more, most Dalits work hand-to-mouth and remain in abject poverty. Very few own land, and many are bonded slaves or are forced to sell their children into bonded slavery. Through vocational training, Self-Help Groups, and a fair-rate loan program, DFN and its Indian partners have enabled Dalit men and women to provide for their families without compromising their inherent value as human beings. Our micro-loan program reports a 98% payback rate and continues to be a phenomenal source of ongoing economic empowerment for thousands of Dalits. As loans are repaid and interest is earned, the funds are redistributed to new applicants.
- The aim of DFN’s Social Justice Program is to address the deepest injustices that Dalits suffer, such as human trafficking and child and bonded labor, and to focus on strategic government advocacy to mitigate these crises. Although India has the necessary legislation in place to combat human trafficking and child labor, these atrocities continue largely unchallenged, and the ongoing toleration of these practices is recognized at the highest levels of the Indian judicial system. On November 15, 2008, in New Delhi, the Honorable Dr. Justice Arijit Pasayat of the Supreme Court of India stated that there was no bigger problem in India today than human trafficking. The United States and the international community can play an essential and constructive role in helping the Indian government to implement its anti-slavery and anti-child labor laws. The Social Justice team saw its first-ever legislative victory in 2007: House Concurrent Resolution 139 passed in the U.S. House of Representatives on July 24, 2007, expressing the sense of Congress that the United States should be committed to addressing the ongoing practice of “untouchability” with the Government of India. In the present Session of Congress, we are working on legislation that directly addresses the massive human trafficking of Dalits.
Josh: This is really, truly admirable work, and it is so great to know that even the most oppressed peoples can find their heroes somewhere in the world. That being said, It must be exhausting to fight a system that’s over 3,000 years old. Have people been receptive to your ideas at all? How do the perceptions of Dalit freedom vary around the world, say from America to India?
Ana: Actually I’ve been very encouraged to see the growing groundswell of international concern for the Dalits. Besides our DFN offices in the U.S., there are DFNs being launched or already launched in Canada, Australia, Germany, Sweden, UK, Switzerland, and South Africa, and they are all advocating for the end of Dalit discrimination and Dalit human trafficking. Five years ago the world did not know about Darfur, but people did their homework, got the word out, and told anyone who would listen. DFN is working to do the same thing. I firmly believe that if America knows, America will care, and if America cares, America will take action. In time, I have confidence that we will see the Dalits emancipated.
Josh: You make a great point Ana, and I think especially after reading this, people around the world will start to understand and sympathize deeply with this cause. What is the best way for us to get involved?
Ana: First of all, thanks for asking. There are many ways for people to get involved in the global movement to free the Dalits. Corporations can partner with us in our larger projects on education, healthcare, economic development, or social justice. Individuals can sponsor a child in one of our Dalit Education Centers for $28 a month. Anyone can give a one-time donation to DFN’s Cornerstone Fund, which will be applied to the current greatest need. And people can write to their Congressmen, Congresswomen, and Senators and ask them to keep the Dalit crisis on the forefront of their foreign affairs agenda. For more information on how to join the worldwide movement to free the Dalits, contact email@example.com or call 202-506-6767. Lastly, feel free to join our cause on Facebook, called "Dalit Freedom Network", or follow us on Twitter at @DALITnetwork.
Josh: Ana, this has been incredibly informative and enlightening, and we are thankful that you were able to join us today and let the world know about such a terrible injustice. I hope that everyone will stay informed with the plight of the Dalits and do what they can make the world a freer place.