After years of working as electrical engineers in Bloomington, Sandhya Gupta and Sarit Sharma moved back to their native India to work on social justice issues.

There, they’ve embraced the Dalit community, or people sometimes called “untouchables” in India’s ancient caste system. And the duo has been getting financial help from friends in Minnesota for an organization that helps Dalit girls get an education and focus on a brighter future.

“In this community, kids don’t go to school,” Gupta said. “They have never gotten access to education, and because they have been the lowest in the caste system, they don’t even think that it’s their fundamental right.”

A group of Dakota County residents has spent years working with Gupta and Sharma to raise money for Nari Gunjan, an organization that educates Dalit girls in Gupta’s native state of Bihar, India. On July 14, they will put on their 8th annual fundraiser dinner at Eagan’s Indian Zayka restaurant.

The idea for the fundraiser emerged during a conversation between Gupta and Dick Graham, of Hastings, the retired founder and president of DARTS, a Dakota County nonprofit. Gupta was the first recipient of a fellowship in Graham’s name at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Graham heard about her efforts and offered to host a fundraiser at his home. Gupta cooked a meal for about 30 people, and they made a few thousand dollars. The next year, about 70 people attended a similar back yard event and they collected more money.

Then the event moved to Zayka, an Indian restaurant in Eagan. The dinner now raises $15,000-$18,000 each year for Nari Gunjan.

Bill Spinelli, a Hastings physician, said learning about how the Dalit are treated caused him to join the fundraiser committee.

“If they are in the room at all, they would be on the floor,” he said. “And if they are in a house or building that is a high caste person, it is entirely possible, as they left, that the whole place would be scrubbed and cleaned … It was really powerful to me to realize we treat humans that way.”

Though caste discrimination is illegal, Gupta said it remains prevalent. Early efforts with Nari Gunjan involved enrolling Dalit students in private schools. But she said that often prompted other parents to withdraw their children from the schools.

Now the Dalit girls attend government school for half the day and afternoon classes at Nari Gunjan. Gupta and Sharma lead special science and math camps with students and teachers. The girls take life skills classes and do community outreach. They also learn karate for self-protection and to increase confidence, and some have become so skilled they now compete internationally.

Education and optimism

The annual fundraising effort has inspired Minnesotans to visit Nari Gunjan.

Dakota County District Court Judge Karen Asphaug, who had attended the fundraiser for four years, said she jumped at the chance to visit the site with a group in March. She said she admires Nari Gunjan’s founder, Sister Sudha Varghese, and compared her to Mother Teresa.

“This school she has founded is truly a place apart,” Asphaug said. “These are girls who when they come in the school would never be bold enough to look someone in the eye. They are underweight. They are illiterate.”

Some of the girls, about 250, live in hostels on site.

“They live in a place that is peaceful and optimistic and full of laughter,” Asphaug said. “These children are in extraordinary need. They blossom. They absolutely blossom under her guidance, resolve and nurturance.”

The Bloomington Rotary Club, and district and international Rotary organizations, have also helped fund the project. The Bloomington Rotary matches some of the money raised during each dinner.

Bloomington Rotarian Don Stiles also visited Nari Gunjan, where he said girls talked about becoming doctors, policewomen and teachers.

“They spoke about completing their education and getting married after 18 instead of at 12,” he said.

Gupta said they hope the girls learn independence and appreciation of education.

“We want them to start dreaming,” she said. “It’s a luxury many of them don’t have.”


Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.