Bending the arc of social progress
This new year I've been reflecting on the passing of my dad, Dr. Panchanatham Naga Sundaram, in 2019. Born in pre-independence India in 1939, his sharp intellect and tenacity as a researcher yielded him a personal invitation from halfway around the world—UC Berkeley—to study Civil Engineering. A lot changed in his lifetime that made it possible for him to settle in the US with his family. For example, the 1965 Immigration Act finally opened the United States’ doors to Asian immigration. Furthermore, while my great-grandparents’ generation considered travel across oceans a strict religious taboo, my grandparents proudly encouraged my father’s scholarship abroad.
During our period of mourning, I was contacted by relatives and friends offering condolences and occasionally sharing information about how to navigate the heavily codified rituals of Tamil Brahmin Hindus in modern times. One relative aptly described us as being part of the “transition generation”—one that remembered an era of arranged child marriages (my father’s mother married at 12) and limited educational opportunity for girls. We have seen women who lost their husbands remove all jewelry, shave their heads, eschew fine clothing, live in social isolation, or even self-immolate on their husband’s funeral pyre as an honorable martyr. The more extreme of these practices have been curbed by sweeping Indian laws in support of women’s rights only in the last few decades.
Perhaps it is not so remarkable that I am sitting here in Alameda, California as the co-founder and CEO of an education nonprofit organization focused on educational equity and increasing opportunity for underserved students. After all, a series of discrete societal shifts and policies in India and the United States are what brought me here.
But when I reflect further on my own story in the broader context of racial and gender equity, I know that policies alone cannot bend the arc of social progress. It also takes individual acts of radical unconventionality. For example, it was my dad’s loving cultivation of my interest in mathematics and computing that helped me persevere through a grueling program in Electrical Engineering at Stanford University (alongside only a few other women). My mom’s courage to wear jewelry reinforces that women now have agency in traditions that were previously dictated by men. Following their teachings, I hope to show my children that new mothers make great leaders. Through FASTalk and our research at Family Engagement Lab, I hope to convince school leaders that meaningful progress toward educational equity is critically dependent on meaningful partnership with families.
As educators, leaders, and champions of equity, we are all engaging in acts of such radical unconventionality on a daily basis. To help kickstart the new year, we’ve listed some of our favorite resources in this January 2020 edition of the Learning Series that support equitable student outcomes, including clear descriptions of the skills students should be developing each year.
How will you bend the arc of history towards equity in 2020 and beyond? Drop us a line on Twitter @FamilyELab. We’d love to be unconventional with you.
Co-founder and CEO, Family Engagement Lab
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