Putting Words into Action: Creating Dialogue Around Social Justice
“So when did your passion for human rights start?” I asked while readying my pen to take notes. The undergraduate student sitting across from me pondered the question for a moment before she began telling her story.
She explained that her uncle was an Indian Administrative Service officer who had been transferred to the United States and that he had been seeking treatment for a life-threatening illness. She cleared her throat and clarified that he had muscular dystrophy, a disease where the body and heart start to deteriorate. Ultimately, he was denied a heart transplant because of his noncitizen status and soon afterward he passed away. She reflected, “I realized that he died because of the inaccessible health care system in the US that didn’t allow for transplants to noncitizens. That’s one story that has always provided me a reminder of why this work is important.”
Discovering Her True Passion
Prashasti Bhatnagar is an international student from New Delhi, India, majoring in sociology with minors in public health, neuroscience, and social justice. She is currently finishing up her senior year and has interned with Senator Al Franken and conducted research alongside Professor Joachim Savelsberg and Regents Professor Christopher Uggen in the Department of Sociology. Recently, Prashasti has designed and implemented a program for the University’s Center for Community Engaged Learning (CCEL) called the Racial Equity Discussion Partners Program, which fosters dialogue around diversity and human rights issues.
Although she has had a lifetime commitment to social justice initiatives, Prashasti’s career path wasn’t always so clear. During her freshman year at the University, Prashasti took mostly pre-med classes and was working toward becoming a physician. However, it wasn’t until she enrolled in Professor Ann Meier’s Honors Introduction to Sociology course that she realized her interest in systemic healthcare issues. She explained “As a physician I [could] focus on patient care, but these are not individual problems that need to be solved. These problems are caused by inaccessibility and lack of affordability that disproportionately impacts people of color.”
Prashasti reached out to Meier, who encouraged her to major in sociology and connected her to several professors, including Regents Professor Chris Uggen and Professor Joachim Savelsberg who both had interests in public health and social justice. “[Professor Meier] got me into something I love . . . This is exactly where I want to be”.
Turning a Negative Into a Positive
The sociological concepts that Prashasti was learning about in class continued to play out in her everyday life. During her sophomore year, she interned at the office for Senator Al Franken where she answered calls from constituents. During her work, she faced several instances of racism and discrimination simply because of her Indian name. She recalls answering the phone and people telling her “I need to speak to an American,” and even more specifically, “I need to speak to a white American.”
Feeling frustrated with the discrimination she encountered at her internship, Prashasti began confiding about her experience to her coworkers at CCEL. After speaking with Assistant Director Katie Peacock, they agreed they wanted CCEL to be more proactive in preventing discrimination within their community. They decided that conversations about how to be inclusive and welcoming for all students needed to take place, thus, the Racial Equity Discussion Partners Program was born.
Designing a Program
Prashasti confidently accepted the challenge to create this dialogue-based program through CCEL. As she explains, “I pair [staff] up into groups of two so it is a more intimate and vulnerable setting. These small group settings provide access to an inclusive and supportive space wherein we can speak our own truth, share our personal lived experiences, and advance each other’s learning through brave conversations.”
Prashasti envisions student staff members being able to have enriching conversations around social justice issues. After growing together through the program, she encourages students to partner up and go into the community so they can collectively take action against discrimination. Prashasti believes that by working together in small groups, staff members can take more ownership in knowing about social justice issues that have been silenced.
“These partnerships promote being an ally first, with an eye towards activism where you can actually practice what you learned. Not just cherry-picking topics like ‘oh yeah, we talked about racial equity’ but making sure that you are there, like going to protests even when [the issue] doesn’t directly impact you.” The program was implemented last spring, and it is being expanded this semester to include all student and professional staff members that work in CCEL.
In addition to her impressive accomplishments, Prashasti has ambitious goals for the future. After graduation she plans on furthering her studies by getting a JD/MPH, a dual degree in law and public health. Through her personal experiences and knowledge about health disparities, Prashasti will continue to foster communication and change around inequality in order to advance health equity and create systems that empower marginalized communities. “My vision is to be able to channel change and have a rippling effect that dismantles these systems and creates reform that is actually representative of the people who live here [in the United States].”