Harmony Through Diversity

In the fall of 2005, when I told friends and education colleagues I was going to Belfast, North Ireland, to present a paper at the World Toilet Summit, most snickered. My wife and I had the last laugh, though; as the established World Toilet Organization financed my expenses and we both had a marvelous experience.

Two years later, Project CLEAN (an organization I founded 11 years ago to address restroom issues in our schools and other public places) returned to the world stage to study sanitation issues in India from Oct. 18 to Nov. 15. My friends this time express disbelief. Sanitation in India is like chalk and cheese.

Let me describe more clearly. I came to India to present my paper at the seventh World Toilet Summit in New Delhi, to visit selected schools in Mumbai (Bombai), under the sponsorship of the Clean India Journal, and to study with India’s leading sanitation organization, Sulabh International Social Service Movement.

Due to the publication deadlines of this magazine, I can only report on visiting Mumbai schools and give a brief description of the paper. But the main purpose of this article is to link the experiences in the world’s most populous democracy with my 11 years of experience as coordinator of Project CLEAN in the United States.

Clearly India, worldwide sanitation issues, and school restrooms in the U.S. and other countries are linked.“Diversity” captures much of the connection. In our country, we often use the word diversity as a politically correct way to avoid racial, economic, or ethnic classifications.

Try that in India. Diversity is in the warp and woof of every aspect of Indian life — religious, economic, social — and in Mumbai’s 20 millions, or in the cow-dung structures drying in rural villages that I saw on a 25-hour train journey through northern and central India. The Constitution of India outlaws castes, but traditions in a 5,000-year-old civilization do not disappear within 60 years of independence and centuries of colonization. A multi-party Parliament and more than one billion people, with hundreds of millions struggling to survive, requires acceptance of diversity.

What Do We in the U. S. Have to Learn?

Look at our urban, suburban, and exurban school population. One personal example is a high school in metro Atlanta where Project CLEAN has initiated and developed restroom improvement. It is a school with more than 1,500 students from at least 60-plus nations speaking more than 30 languages. I love the diversity and during visits carry a pocket atlas so students can see an educator wants to know about their background.

Culturally, the experiences and mores of the 9th through12th graders are more similar to India than to the homogeneous, Caucasian high school I attended before we had television. Yet consider that same prestigious school had students“taking” languages so they could get into colleges. The same Spanish, German, and French bi-lingual dictionaries are still in the school library. What about the two or more dozen of languages now spoken? Could not health classes take a standard list of restrooms do’s and don’ts like “Please flush,” “Wash your hands,” and “Stash your trash,” and make these requests in many languages?

Could not multi-language, student-made signs be made in many diverse schools? Recently a school art club at Clarkston (GA) High School began just such an initiative. Designing, translating, producing, and placing signs is more complicated than talking the talk. It requires doing.

From suburban DeKalb County, GA, to Delhi still may seem a long stretch, but if that is the case, it is mainly because Americans tend to see culture within a limited historical and societal perspective.

Structural Diversity

Another aspect of the diversity connection is structural. We used to have “public” schools. My entire father’s family, my wife’s relatives, and our 37-year experiences with our own children have been in public schools. Yet somewhere in the 1980s some commentators from the right began to disparage these esteemed institutions and began sneeringly calling them “government” schools.

We began to proliferate the types of schools during my almost four-decade career; first, with segregated academies, then neighborhood schools, the desegregated schools, magnet, theme, and charter schools. Of course, we had parochial, private, and elite schools outside the “public” school tax-supported domain.

The terms, rules, and realities affecting students in this plethora of schools vary, yet the restrooms within public schools have remained an unattended issue in too many cases. Fewer than a handful of states have restroom standards, except for those with the often-ignored fixture-per-student charts.

What is the Connection With India?

My first incomplete impression is that the multiplicity of school types and the centralization of education ministries is an increasing American trend with more types of schools and more control from state capitals and Washington.

I personally visited public (read private as in England’s nomenclature), elite, private, and municipal government schools in Mumbai under the sponsorship of Clean India Journal, a trade magazine with a social entrepreneur bent.

I listened to the student, faculty, and administrative perspective at the selected schools. In my brief snapshot visit, there were fixture issues, cleanliness problems, lighting and supply needs, lack of leadership and institutional emphasis, and very limited engagement on student and parent involvement.

In turn, Project CLEAN has seen similar issues, albeit of different magnitude, from Georgia to New Mexico, from Delaware to California, in rural, urban, and suburban schools. A difference — we have better equipment and poorer respect, more things and a shoddier view of the role of custodians.

Yet, even more important than understanding our increasingly diverse student population, we have to acknowledge the need for diversity of ideas and approaches.

We need an abundance, a profusion, and a smorgasbord of ideas and actions. We need to question the hoary statement — we need to all be on the same page. I have often wondered how one can be on the same page and think outside the box (that rectangular page if you will).

It Is Time to Take Responsibility

The best plan to improve school restrooms is as a school issue, a district responsibility, and a state concern. We may need to start with some focused questions. That will result in more diverse thinking.

For example, has California’s recent restroom standard legislation worked? Do Pennsylvania and Florida, which use a regulatory connection to food service regulations, actually improve conditions? Has a nationally required wellness policy for every school district, with its accompanying wellness plan at each building, done anything practical? How can we expect our students to combat obesity by eating more broccoli and doing more jumping jacks while they continue to have nasty restrooms?

Though publication deadline for this article does not allow reporting on the WTS2007 papers, a list of selected topics helpful to American schools will be available at www.project-clean.com in December.

Suffice it to say that visiting different types of schools, listening to a range of distinguished figures from developing and developed countries, and experiencing a month in the world’s most populous democracy, reinforces the notion that “brown” is the focus now in America (please see Richard Rodriguez’s book of the same title).

We can only appreciate our continental nation as a continuum, stretching from diversity to control.

What we can do, practically, is avoid thoughts such as “restroom issues have always been around.” This type of stultified thinking happens from Indianapolis to India. Consider these words by Thomas Paine in Common Sense, “…a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom….”

Better would be the insight from former superintendent of Boston’s schools, Thomas Payzant, who at an annual meeting of the great City Schools, told an NPR radio audience that he would engage more students (and involve Project CLEAN) to improve school restrooms.

Or, consider the accuracy of thought expressed by a mathematics teacher who teaches in suburban Clayton County, GA. “Sanitation and education go together. It’s fair, just, and right.” Maybe the bumper sticker I saw before I started my India adventure sums up the issue. “Harmony Through Diversity.”

Diversity is everywhere. Yet we have more similarities than differences. Keep in mind that each child compelled to come to every type of school in whatever culture still must breathe, eat, sleep, and eliminate.

Children deserve our leadership in providing safe, clean, and hygienic means of using the restrooms. They deserve no less from adults.

Dr. Tom Keating has been involved in education for more than for 34 years, serving as a school board member, college instructor, teacher, and school district lobbyist. He is also a published author and the founder of Project CLEAN. He can be reached at www.project-clean.com.