Four years ago, Nupur Goel was eating lunch in the Gilmour Academy cafeteria when a group of classmates approached. Nupur, then in seventh grade, greeted her peers with a warm smile. The response she was met with was anything but friendly.
‘You’re Indian, so why are you here?’ the students inquired with a cold glower.
Instead of lashing out, Nupur asked her fellows what they knew about India. As it happened, their knowledge about the country consisted mostly of Gandhi and curry. Nupur gave her classmates a brief lesson on Indian history that day, but never felt like it was enough. A few years later, she drafted a proposal for a course on spiritual traditions including Hinduism, the major religion of India. The elective was approved last year by Gilmour administrators, and will be taught at the Gates Mills Catholic school starting this autumn.
Transforming a potentially devastating life experience like Nupur’s into a teachable moment is the goal of Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage’s Stop the Hate essay competition, says Jeffery Allen, the museum’s director of education and public programs. In April, contest officials distributed $100,000 in academic scholarships (a restricted gift from Maltz Family Foundation), prizes and anti-bias grants to students who committed themselves to fighting hatred, intolerance and insensitivity in their communities. More than 2,300 sixth- to 12th-graders from 12 Northeast Ohio counties submitted essays for the competition, with 500-word entries whittled down to 25 finalists from 15 different schools.
“It’s amazing what these young people were saying,” says Allen. “They’ve done so much to make a change and that’s only going to propel them going forward.”
Nupur, a first-generation Indian-American who completed her junior year at Gilmour, won this year’s $40,000 grand prize. Additional essays covered gender bias, racism and other forms of intolerance students across the country encounter every day.
“We’ve made efforts as a nation to curb hate and embrace diversity, yet we still face these challenges,” Allen says. “We’re engaging 2,300 kids annually who want to make the world a better place. That’s heartening.”
Taking a Stand
Stop the Hate, which has reached 20,000 students over eight years, was formed in deference to the impact tolerance can have on individuals and society as a whole. By reflecting on a real-life situations and detailing ways to build more accepting communities, the museum is doing its part to create the next generation of leaders, Allen says.
One past essay competition winner, for example, went on to become an advocate for the disabled. Another created an “anti-bullying” contract among his friends to stop an individual member of his peer group from getting picked on.
For her part, Nupur had to speak out that day in the cafeteria, not just for herself but for the students who confronted her as well.
“The question goes through your mind, ‘Why me? Why am I encountering hate?’” she says. “But I realized my classmates’ insensitivity came from ignorance about my culture.”
Nupur’s parents, Naresh and Neena, wrestled with similar questions after immigrating to the Cleveland area from India. They taught their daughter that empathy and acceptance toward others can break down barriers of hatred and apathy.
While Nupur isn’t sure how she will use her prize, any future career path will include connecting with others. She is planning to work in medicine, psychiatry or other healing profession, even traveling the globe to aid the underserved.
Allen says Nupur and her fellow essayists embody the type of change-making upon which the museum was built.
“If you see injustice, stand against it,” he says. “Taking an opportunity to make a stand is the most important and challenging thing you can do.”