An Education for Robin
“Yes, I’m a whore’s daughter,” the young women chant before a crowd watching them perform in a play they wrote called Lal Batti Express, or Red Light Express. During an audience discussion afterward, one performer talks about a common bond all people share.
“Everyone’s wounded in some way. Everyone,” she says. “Poor, rich, American, Indian, Asian, white, black—everyone is.”
A male viewer raises his hand to comment.
“Yes, we are wounded, but you are wounded healers,” he says, his testimonial documented in a video recording made of the Mumbai (India)-based group, which traveled to New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Los Angeles in 2015. “And so, everywhere you go, you heal.”
As the young women heal others, Robin Chaurasiya (PPPS, PSYC ’06) has been helping to heal them—and, she discovered, herself—through Kranti, a nonprofit organization Chaurasiya co-established in 2010. Part shelter and part school, Kranti is a home for women survivors of sex trafficking, daughters of sex workers, and young women who were born and raised in India’s major red-light areas. Chaurasiya, one of 10 finalists for the $1 million 2016 Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize, has developed a novel one-room schoolhouse curriculum tailored to her “Krantikaries” (from Kranti, the Hindi word for “revolution”) ages 12–22 who differ by caste, education, literacy level, physical and mental abilities, and degree of victimization.
“The biggest thing that we tell our kids is that they are amazing and exceptional not in spite of their backgrounds but because of their backgrounds.”
“The phrase that their local school teachers use on them is ‘a whore’s daughter can only be a whore,’” says Chaurasiya, a youthful 32 who could pass for one of her kids, as she likes to call the 18 current residents of Kranti. “The biggest thing that we tell our kids is that they are amazing and exceptional not in spite of their backgrounds but because of their backgrounds. The difficulties and adversities they have faced give them that extra grit and resilience, along with extra compassion.”
In fact, compassion, along with communication, community leadership, critical analysis, and creative thinking, are the five pillars supporting the Kranti way of life, says Chaurasiya, who spoke to a gathering in the Illinois Tech Department of Psychology in conjunction with receiving the International Award of Merit from the university in April. The Kranti school day runs from 8 a.m. to noon with 20-minute sessions as follows: yoga, meditation, journal writing or gratitude note writing, a creative-thinking activity (such as teams building objects out of marshmallows and toothpicks), logic puzzle work, and current events. The remaining two hours differ by day of the week—Music Mondays, TED Talk Tuesdays, Worldly Wednesdays, Thinking Thursday (always a guest lecturer), and Field Trip Fridays (a career-exploration day, such as the girls working alongside trash pickers). From noon until 6 p.m., students take courses at mainstream schools or engage in dance, swimming, or more yoga and meditation. A cultural presentation or program to enhance the girls’ computer skills takes place before dinner, which usually begins at 8 p.m.
Chaurasiya also requires that each girl take travel opportunities to learn firsthand about the world outside of India and to redevelop their trust in people and reliance upon the goodwill of humankind. She put a 14-year-old deaf student on a plane to a summer camp in the U.S. with nothing more than flashcards with her name, important phrases, and symbols for Wi-Fi and money exchange. The young woman managed so well that she received a scholarship to the Model Secondary School for the Deaf, a premier educational program in Washington, D.C. All Kranti students who are capable take a gap year to volunteer abroad. Chaurasiya believes that these global adventures will help her kids become better peer teachers and community leaders. The approach comes out of experiences that began while Chaurasiya was an Illinois Tech student. She spent each winter break traveling solo to other countries, such as Mexico and Uganda, to engage in socially relevant volunteer activities.
“Her double major in psychology and political science made sense to me, since she intended to change the world,” says Emerita Professor of Psychology Margaret Huyck, who served as Chaurasiya’s academic advisor when she came to Illinois Tech on a United States Air Force ROTC scholarship. “I was adventurous and a boundary-tester for my cohort, but Robin is much more so. I admire that, particularly because I have always believed that her ignoring of boundaries was, and is, in the service of a mission for her life.”
But Huyck also says that Chaurasiya’s noble ambitions had a dark side, fueled in part by outrage she felt from domestic abuse she suffered as a child and the treatment she received from the government when it learned she was a lesbian. Meditation retreats, psychotherapy, and years spent with her new Kranti family have helped Chaurasiya to grow and “offer new opportunities in a context of love and acceptance.”
Normally animated and effusive when talking about her girls, Chaurasiya grows quiet when asked to describe herself. But her answer carries with it the confidence of one who knows that she is on the right personal path.
“If you had asked me this five years ago I would have said, I’m an activist and a human-rights whatever; now I would say I’m someone who is trying my best every day,” she explains. “I spent so many years thinking that I was going to fight and change the world, but the best thing I can do for the world is to change myself. I’ve also discovered that the best part about being a teacher is not what I teach but what I learn. Anyone who spends time with my kids and sees their positive energy and hears their laughter can look at their own life and realize the chance they have to be agents of happiness.”