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This story was published as part of a weeklong series produced by the WGLT Newsroom in March 2022.

Indians in B-N: Young community servants show the future is in good hands

Dhruv Rebba, Isha Gollapudi, Raji More, and Aditi Sharma
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Clockwise from top left, Dhruv Rebba, Isha Gollapudi, Raji More, and Aditi Sharma.

As part of WGLT’s weeklong series about Indians in Bloomington-Normal, you’re about to hear from four remarkable young people – some born here, some who immigrated with their families – who’ve done more for their community in young lives than many of us do in a lifetime.

Aditi Sharma founded the Inclusive Education Coalition (IEC) when she was a senior at Normal Community High School. She’s now a student at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana.

She said the history curriculum especially got her attention when she realized the peaceful side of the Civil Rights movement dominated the narrative.

“You don’t get the real truth that that movement wasn’t always just a peaceful movement,” said Sharma. “That a lot of the change that was brought about, was brought about in manners that people don’t really like to hear.”

She also noticed the health curriculum was exclusive of LGBTQ+ people and was abstinence-based, and that English classroom readings were overwhelmingly written by white men.

“I have a real strong belief that education is the first step on fostering empathy,” said Sharma. “So that’s what drove me to create that group.”

Bloomington’s Raji More is a senior at Normal Community High School. She also advocates for inclusion as the co-president of the Not in our School group at NCHS. She also created the youth volunteer group Little Free Pantry. More said she heard of a similar pantry in Arkansas and began hers when she learned roughly 100 children in McLean Country go to bed hungry each night.

“And that struck a chord within me,” said More. “I could not picture people in our town going to bed hungry. So, I ended up trying to do something about it.”

More said because of her privilege, she assumed hunger wasn’t an issue in McLean County.

"I could not picture people in our town going to bed hungry. So, I ended up trying to do something about it."
Raji More, Normal Community High School senior

“So, to hear that they were concerned about that, and that was a huge priority for them to get food for a day was interesting to me and concerning to me,” said More.

Dhruv Rebba is also a Normal Community High School senior. As WGLT reported in October, he won the 2022 4-H Youth in Action Award for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) from the National 4-H Council for creating multiple projects that advance technological learning opportunities for children, and quality of life opportunities for citizens in crisis. That includes founding the nonprofit Universal Help, which has digitized and provided textbooks, internet access, and technology to schools in rural India.

Rebba also implemented a robotics club at Grove Elementary School to increase STEM-based learning opportunities for young children. He told WGLT student reporter Jordan Mead that robotics can be expensive, and the club makes it more accessible to younger students. “And a lot of the students I taught are now part of robotics teams competitively now, and that’s pretty cool to see,” said Rebba.

Bloomington’s Isha Gollapudi is a sophomore at Normal Community. She believes strongly in community service, with art as her tool of choice.

“Art is a universal language,” explained Gollapudi. “I might not be able to understand what everyone has to say, but when you see a piece of work, you get the message behind it. And that’s extremely impactful.”

Like More, Gollapudi is part of the Little Free Pantry, even running it for a year. Through the Art Circle of Bloomington-Normal, she’s also involved in “Chairs 4 Change,” where community members paint chairs and other furniture to be auctioned off by Recycling Furniture for Families.

“Just having art around you really brightens people’s mood,” said Gollapudi. “So, I like to paint more upbeat or happier things especially when they’re going off to places like charities. Because I do think that will brighten the mood around everyone there.”

Gollapudi feels so strongly about the power of art, she gave it a 10-minute run on last years TED-X Normal stage.

“So, while I may look just 14,” she said nearing the end of her talk, “the journey art has taken me on and the knowledge I have gained through it, makes it almost as though I’m actually 743 years old. Thank you.”

Inspiration struck in sixth grade. Her artwork was among the student selections chosen by local artist Julie Meulemans to be displayed in her uptown Normal gallery. One piece sold for $20.

“And at the time that was huge,” recalled Gollapudi. “I was like ‘I can make money off this.’ Then I realized I could help people with this as well. That kind of started everything for me.”

Sparking advocacy

Aditi Sharma said anti-immigration rhetoric during the 2016 presidential election was the initial fuel that sparked her advocacy for inclusion. But she added that her parents initially lobbied for a low profile as both they and she were immigrants.

“So maybe I should sit still, be quiet, don’t raise trouble, just do what my parents came here to do. Which was to help me get a better education and better job,” said Sharma.

That didn’t last long.

“But I couldn’t sit back while I was seeing all these things going on to people of my community and people of other communities,” said Sharma, who became a U.S. citizen in 2017.

Sharma made it a point to credit her parents for instilling in her the generosity and empathy toward the struggles of others that have become her core values. “Because we as immigrants moved here and we struggled a lot,” she said.

Sharma said unlike many south Asians who come to Bloomington-Normal for work, her family didn’t have built-in class privilege. And watching her parents struggle at first was eye-opening.

“I recognize that’s a thing that so many families in America go through. And so that had a lot to do with my desire to want to make that change,” said Sharma.

Dhruv Rebba said the founding of Universal Help was at least partly spurred by visiting the rural area where his father grew up in India.

“That’s when I was like, 'OK, that’s a really big difference in standard of living, and basic luxuries are just not available there.' For example, reliable digital access for school supplies and things like that,” said Rebba.

His nonprofit helps digitize those rural schools with computers, projectors, a digital curriculum, and “An uninterruptable power supply to take care of electricity needs. Because there are power outages pretty often in that area of India,” said Rebba.

It also helped in natural disaster relief in West Bengal after the 2021 Yaas Cyclone, running a COVID-19 isolation center to combat the Delta variant in India, and through local projects including recycling and composting in McLean County.

“Our mission is to improve the quality of life for people all around the world in innovative ways,” said Rebba.

In addition to founding and running the Little Free Pantry in Bloomington-Normal, Raji More is co-president of NCHS Not in our School group and sits on the citywide Not in our School steering committee. More said they plan protests and vigils, and fight for inclusivity and equality.

Like Sharma, More credits her parents for that drive to serve Bloomington-Normal, teaching her to be kind to all and treat everyone equally.

“Part of that meant that I saw that some people weren’t able to have similar opportunities, and those opportunities included getting food. And I was like, 'Let us make sure they also have access to food,’” said More.

More was also moved to act from witnessing division. Among people, among ideas. She touts Restorative Circles she uses in Not in our School, where people can express ideas without it being combative. And she works to downplay labeling people.

“That’s partially why I’m doing my projects … to really include people. Some people are not included and given the same opportunities I have, and I strive to include people,” said More.

'Ingrained into who you are'

Isha Gollapudi believes her desire to serve is at least partially cultural, citing the Indian holidays Holi, a festival of colors, and Diwali – the five-day festival of lights.

“When you’re raised with the idea of all these major holidays being about giving back to others, that’s sort of ingrained into who you are,” said Gollapudi.

She said it’s not unlike Christmas in some ways.

“Because it’s fun receiving presents, but seeing your brother's face when he opens a present you got for him … I think that’s so much better,” said Gollapudi.

Gollapudi adds that she has assimilated community service as a lifestyle which will continue into adulthood, with climate change now on her service radar.

Dhruv Rebba said not only will he be serving into adulthood, he’s just getting going.

“A lot of the projects we’ve started both locally and in India are relatively long-term projects. So, I’m definitely going to continue doing this for a long time,” said Rebba.

Like many young people, Aditi Sharma receives some parental pressure to pursue a lucrative career. But she said her passion for social justice and activism comes first.

“Whatever I end up doing after my four years of undergrad, I know that I’m still going to want to be a part of whatever community wherever I’m living. That service is at the core of my being,” said Sharma.

Raji More said she loves Bloomington-Normal so much, she’s hoping to attend college in town, and continue her community service and to advocate for inclusivity. She cites Camille Taylor and Mary Aplington from Not in our Town as mentors.

“So many community members I’m very thankful to be in their presence,” said More. “So, mainly it’s the people of Bloomington-Normal that continue to make me want to be here.”

ABOUT THE SERIES

Why we did it

Bloomington-Normal has more Asian Indians than any other downstate metro community in Illinois. First-generation Indian immigrants and their children have shaped Bloomington-Normal in big and small ways, and that's worthy of attention. WGLT's Newsroom aimed to measure that impact in an 8-part series of human-centered stories.

How we did it

Bloomington-Normal’s Indian community is not a monolith — socioeconomically, politically, culturally — and this series aims to reflect that. The WGLT Newsroom interviewed over 30 people from various backgrounds. We acknowledge these sources do not represent every Indian in Bloomington-Normal. They represent themselves, and we appreciate their willingness to share their story.

Feedback

We want to know what you think of the series, and what future reporting we should consider. You can send our Newsroom a message at WGLT.org/Contact.

Community support is the greatest funding source for WGLT. Donations from listeners and readers means local news is available to everyone as a public service. Join the village that powers public media with your contribution.

Jon Norton is the audio director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.
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