Heller Profiles

The Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University

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Jayanta Patra


MA-SID '13

Citizen Leaders for Social Justice

Educational opportunities lifted Jayanta Patra up from poverty and oppression. Now he's determined to give back.

Jayanta Patra grew up in a remote village in the east part of India, close to Calcutta, with no electricity or Internet. And through no fault of his own, he was born with another disadvantage — Patra is a Dalit, a member of the untouchable caste in India.

The term Dalit means “oppressed,” “broken” or “crushed.” This name has been adopted by the people otherwise referred to as Harijans and has come to symbolize for them a movement for change. The Dalit are almost all poor farmers or landless laborers. Many increasingly live in slums and on the street of cities. While discrimination based on caste is prohibited under the constitution of India, discrimination and prejudice against Dalits remain. Despite his background, Patra was able to take advantage of educational opportunities that lifted him up. Now, he is determined to give back. “Most Dalit don’t have the opportunities I’ve had,” he says. “I am committed to helping my community, the Dalit and other deprived communities.”

Patra began working at NGOs in India in 2006. He was familiar with the challenges. To help his people, he knew he needed more advanced tools and skills in international development. Patra came to Heller School on a Ford Foundation Scholarship, drawn by the school’s mission to advance social justice. “I had to have some kind  of empirical understanding,” he says. “I needed to gain more knowledge and enhance my skills, so that I could fight the injustices against my community.”

Patra knew firsthand that the Dalit are regularly deprived of government facilities and services. What’s worse, they are also often isolated from the many NGOs in India that could help them. Patra is beginning to remedy this problem. As program director of the NGO Solidarity for Developing Communities, he created a consortium of 23 NGOs in southern Orissa, India, and put pressure on the government to coordinate with its members. The consortium also records caste-related issues and concerns and reports them to top government officials. The group has spurred the creation of education and coaching centers for the Dalit, giving them access to higher studies, training, and better jobs. Patra’s efforts have strengthened partnerships and created new collaborations with the local organizations, government departments and donors.

“I want my community to get social justice,” Patra says. “I’m really very much committed to this cause — to being the change in this society.”

Knowledge Advancing Social Justice

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