Aditi Sharma founded the Inclusive Education Coalition (IEC) when she was a senior at Normal Community High School. She is now a student at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana.
She said the history curriculum particularly caught her attention when she realized the peaceful side of the civil rights movement dominated the narrative.
“You don’t get the real truth that this movement wasn’t always just a peaceful movement,” Sharma said. “That a lot of the change that’s been brought about, has been brought about in a way that people don’t really like to hear.”
She also noticed that the health curriculum was exclusive to LGBTQ+ people and abstinence-based, and that the English class readings were mostly written by white men.
“I believe education is the first step to fostering empathy,” Sharma said. “So that’s what pushed me to create this group.”
Bloomington’s More is a senior at Normal Community High School. She also advocates for inclusion as co-chair of the NCHS Not in our School group. She also started the volunteer youth group Little Free Pantry. More said she heard about a similar pantry in Arkansas and started her own when she learned about 100 kids in McLean Country go to bed hungry every night.
“And it struck a chord with me,” More said. “I couldn’t imagine 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 was not an issue in McLean County.
“I couldn’t imagine people in our town going to bed hungry. So, I ended up trying to do something about it.”
Raji More, Normal Community High School student
“So to hear that they were concerned about that, and that it was a huge priority for them to get food for a day, was interesting to me and concerning to me,” More said.
Dhruv Rebba is also a senior at Normal Community High School. As WGLT reported in October, he won the National 4-H Council’s 2022 4-H Youth in Action Award for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) for creating several projects. that advance technological learning opportunities for children and the quality of life opportunities for citizens in crisis. This includes founding the nonprofit Universal Help, which digitized and provided textbooks, internet access and technology to schools in rural India.
Rebba also set up 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 is making it more accessible to younger students. “And a lot of the students I’ve taught are now on robotics teams competitively, and that’s pretty cool to see,” Rebba said.
Bloomington’s Isha Gollapudi is a sophomore at Normal Community. She is a firm believer in community service, with art as her favorite tool.
“Art is a universal language,” Gollapudi explained. “I may not be able to understand what everyone has to say, but when you see a job you understand the message behind it. And it’s extremely impactful.
Like More, Gollapudi is part of the Little Free Pantry, even ruling it for a year. Through the Bloomington-Normal Art Circle, she also participates 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 moods,” Gollapudi said. “So I like to paint more upbeat or happier things, especially when they go to places like charities. Because I think it’s going to brighten up the mood around everyone there.
Gollapudi is so committed to the power of art that she gave it a 10-minute run on the TED-X Normal stage last year.
“So even though I only look like I’m 14,” she said towards the end of her speech, “the journey that art has taken me and the knowledge that I acquired thanks to him, almost make me feel like I’m 743 years old. Thank you.”
Inspiration struck in sixth grade. His works were part of student selections chosen by local artist Julie Meulemans to be exhibited at her Normal gallery downtown. One piece sold for $20.
“And at the time, it was huge,” recalls Gollapudi. “I was like, ‘I can make money from this.’ Then I realized that I could help people with that too.That kind of started for me.
Aditi Sharma said the 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 pushed for a low profile because they and she were immigrants.
“So maybe I should keep quiet, shut up, not make trouble, just do what my parents came here to do.” It was to help me get a better education and a better job,” Sharma said.
It didn’t last long.
“But I couldn’t sit while I watched all these things happen to people in my community and people in other communities,” said Sharma, who became a US citizen at 14.
Sharma made a point of thanking her parents for instilling in her the generosity and empathy towards 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 has no built-in class privilege. And seeing his parents struggle at first was an eye opener.
“I recognize that this is something that so many families in America go through. And so that has a lot to do with my desire to want to make this change,” Sharma said.
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 living standards, and basic luxuries just aren’t available there. For example, reliable digital access for school supplies and things like that,” Rebba said.
His non-profit organization is helping to digitize these rural schools with computers, projectors, a digital curriculum, and “uninterruptible power supply to meet electricity needs. Because there are power cuts quite often in this part of India,” Rebba said.
He has also contributed to natural disaster relief in West Bengal after Cyclone Yaas of 2021, running a COVID-19 isolation center to combat the Delta Variant in India, and through grassroots projects such as recycling and composting in McLean County.
“Our mission is to improve the quality of life for people around the world in innovative ways,” said Rebba.
In addition to founding and directing the Little Free Pantry in Bloomington-Normal, Raji More is co-chair of the NCHS Not in our School Group and sits on the city’s Not in our School Steering Committee. Others said they were planning protests and vigils and fighting for inclusivity and equality.
Like Sharma, More credits her parents for being willing to serve Bloomington-Normal, teaching her to be kind to everyone and treat everyone the same.
“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’s make sure they have access to food too,'” More said.
Plus was also moved to act as a witness for the division. Between people, between ideas. She touts the restorative circles she uses in Not in our School, where people can express ideas without being combative. And she strives to minimize the labeling of people.
“That’s part of why I do my projects…to really include people. Some people aren’t included and don’t have the same opportunities as me, and I strive to include people,” More said.
“Rooted in Who You Are”
Isha Gollapudi thinks his desire to serve is at least partly cultural, citing the Indian holiday Holi, a festival of colors, and Diwali – the five-day festival of lights.
“When you’re brought up with the idea that all these big parties are about giving back to others, it’s kind of ingrained in who you are,” Gollapudi said.
She said it was no different from Christmas in some ways.
“Because it’s fun to get presents, but seeing your brother’s face when he opens a present you gave him…I think it’s so much better,” Gollapudi said.
Gollapudi adds that she has equated community service with a way of life that will continue into adulthood, with climate change now on her service radar.
Dhruv Rebba said that not only would he serve until adulthood, but he was just beginning.
“Many of the projects we have started locally and in India are relatively long-term projects. So I will definitely keep doing this for a long time,” Rebba said.
Like many youngsters, Aditi Sharma is under 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 I’m always going to want to be part of any community, no matter where I live. This service is at the core of my being,” Sharma said.
Raji More said she loves Bloomington-Normal so much that she hopes to attend college in town, continue her community service and advocate for inclusivity. She cites Camille Taylor and Mary Aplington of Not in our Town as mentors.
“So many community members, I’m so grateful to be in their presence,” More said. “So it’s mostly the people of Bloomington-Normal that keep me wanting to be here.”
ABOUT THE SERIES
Why we did it
Bloomington-Normal has more East Indians than any other southern Illinois metropolitan community. First-generation Indian immigrants and their children shaped Bloomington-Normal in more or less significant ways, and it deserves our attention. The WGLT Newsroom aimed to measure this impact in an 8-part series of human-centered stories.
how we did it
The Bloomington-Normal Indian community is not a monolith – socio-economically, politically, culturally – and this series aims to reflect that. The WGLT newsroom interviewed over 30 people from a variety of backgrounds. We recognize that these sources do not represent all Indians in Bloomington-Normal. They represent themselves and we appreciate their willingness to share their story.
We want to know what you think of the series and what future features we should consider. You can message our newsroom at WGLT.org/Contact.