I was recently invited to address students at the Sri S. Ramasamy Naidu Memorial College in Sattur, Tamil Nadu. It’s a college with an inspiring and very necessary purpose: to make higher education available to youth hailing from socially, economically and educationally backward families and to enhance their chances of employment. The mission explicitly mentions empowering women and states the goal of molding all as self-confident and socially responsible citizens. What a privilege to be able to address these young people - my question was how best to use this opportunity? After all this was a meeting of peoples from very different countries, cultures and ages (I’ve been past college age for a couple of decades now). The school’s purpose holds the answer; these 3000 young Indians and I are united in overcoming disadvantage.
For most of the students I suspect that is a daily struggle, dealing with the real difficulties of attending class, combining studying and earning, making space to study and more. I honor these young women and men, their every achievement counts double, once for the achievement itself, the second for overcoming the initial handicap of disadvantage.
Overcoming disadvantage is also a major focus in the work we are doing as the Pachamama Alliance, focusing on awakening in people everywhere an awareness of the need for transformation and the opportunity to play a part in remaking our world. Because there is disadvantage to be found not only in India, but everywhere, and it is the inevitable result of the way human life is organized today.
As I told the students, the world is set up to give advantage to some people at the expense of many others. That means that access to resources, like clean water to drink, and access to opportunity, like a college education, is more readily available to some and denied to others.
I’m conscious that for me and people like me (white, educated, male, from the more-industrialized countries) we are always the advantaged ones. This is privilege, or advantage, certainly nice to have, and, until we meet the people who are paying the price for our own comfort and access to resources, we sometimes don’t even see it exists.
So our work, and the work so necessary in the world today, includes the work of overcoming disadvantage, both in ameliorating the conditions it creates, through great initiatives like the college in Sattur, but in remaking the very systems that currently guarantee disadvantage, be they political, educational or economic. Dealing with the problem at its root causes is the essential if we are to ensure that there is no need for colleges for the disadvantaged in future.
So to these students, and to anyone else concerned about the future of our human species, I say its time to join what Catholic scholar Thomas Berry described as “the great work of our times, moving the human community from its present situation as a destructive presence on the planet to a benign or mutually enhancing presence”.
That requires of us precisely what the college is aiming to produce, socially-responsible students to join the ranks of the millions of other people world-wide who are bringing their hearts, hands and voices to this work; demanding change, making change, becoming agents of change. This is an opportunity for us all to find service in this great work.
So thank you to the students of Sri S. Ramasamy Naidu Memorial College for providing incentive and inspiration to us all to work for the day when disadvantage is no more.