Congratulations to the BLI Fellows who were nominated and awarded the U-M Central Campus 2021 MLK Spirit Award! 

MLK Spirit Award winners have distinguished themselves by:

  • Building inclusive communities and equitable spaces
  • Pursuing social justice by challenging oppressive norms
  • Engaging with diverse communities to promote cross-cultural collaboration
  • Confronting systemic injustice(s)
  • Commitment to racial justice

Our applauds to Kavya Chandra, Nikitaha, and Sanjana Kannikeswaran for being awardees! As members of the Capstone 2021 team Seithur Sanitation Initiative, they aimed to address a lack of proper sanitation facilities for low-caste, low-income villagers in Seithur, Tamil Nadu, India, to improve community health and public safety in the village.

We also want to shout out to BLI Fellows Becky Woolf and Magda Wojtara for their nominations!

Magda is a senior, former BLI Peer Facilitator, and member of General Intelligences, a Capstone 2021 cohort member! She is graduating from the LSA honors program this semester and hopes to work further in the spheres of global citizenship, education equity, and healthcare.

Becky is a sophomore studying Sociology of Health and Medicine and committed to health equity work. She is a Lead Peer Facilitator at the BLI and a student researcher for the Policing and Social Justice History Lab.

Congratulations again on your exemplification of Dr. King’s leadership and vision! 

Seithur Sanitation Initiative, Award Ceremony Gratitude Statement

Hi, our names are Kavya, Sanjana, and Nikitha, and we’re members of Project RISHI, a national nonprofit that aims to promote the sustainable development and growth of rural Indian communities. Project RISHI overall works to mitigate social disparities in villages, and so we launched the Seithur Sanitation Initiative--to work with the village of Seithur in Tamil Nadu in South India to address a current lack of toilets for low-income women disadvantaged by caste. 

We were connected to this project through Sanjana’s family friend: a physician who returned to his childhood village of Seithur. We learned from him that thousands of marginalized villagers practice open defecation due to a lack of funds to build toilets. This insufficient funding is largely due to caste-based discrimination, which perpetuates a cycle where lower-caste individuals cannot afford to build toilets and are then shamed for being “dirty” when they instead use open defecation. Though we recognized that we could not solve this systemic problem, we wanted to improve health and safety outcomes while working to address one consequence of the unjust caste hierarchy, and thus resolved to build sanitation facilities in Seithur. We were further motivated to do this work because of the risks of open defecation - including increased sexual violence, stigmatization, and adverse health outcomes - that we learned about through resident interviews and research. As Western university students, we wanted to utilize our easy access to resources to address Seithur’s need for facilities.

Because our duty is to serve—not “save”—these residents, our project follows a sustainable and need-based approach. We read past literature, spoke with existing sanitation NGOs, and learned the history of Seithur, prioritizing the principles of communication, trust, and sustainability. To learn about the community, we conducted long-form, qualitative interviews with residents for direct input on the need for toilets and other daily struggles or successes. We consistently sought to ask the residents about their lives as a whole, so we could build trust and understand the community and residents as holistic individuals rather than a group defined by this sanitation issue. Currently, our team continues to research effective maintenance methods to promote sustainability and self-sufficiency of the facility that is set to begin construction in the upcoming month.

We would like to thank our mentors in optiMize and the Barger Leadership Institute for supporting us with resources and guidance throughout the project implementation process. We’d also like to thank the MLK Spirit Awards Committee for hosting this ceremony. We’re amazed at each of the nominees’ courage, drive, and resilience, and we’re excited to see the tremendous impact that you all will continue to make on the world.