In 1995, a small group of children in Uttar Pradesh gathered in the shade of a lone tree, eager to learn to read. At the time, very few children in their village attended school; most adults regarded education as an interruption in the hand-to-mouth cycle that characterizes most Indian villages. Despite the caste system’s label of “untouchable,” one willing teacher traveled an uneven road daily to offer these children a new kind of identity, gift-wrapped in literacy.
For 12 years now, through partnership with the Dalit Freedom Network, Jayan George has led the village into a new world of opportunity as the literacy program developed into an accredited school that currently enrolls 425 students. Literacy empowers Dalit children to overcome the unjust social system; essential skills, like English fluency, ensure that this generation of “untouchables” will be the first to compete for admission to university and good jobs. For this village, the road to freedom started under a shade tree.