Synergy Coworking Space Spotlight: Deepa Willingham & PACE Universal Featured on Rotary.org
OASIS. Everybody who visits the PACE Learning Center, an all-girls school near Kolkata, India, uses the same word: oasis. They take a long look at the campus’s pristine green lawns and the swaying palm trees. They contemplate the serene meditation center, the laughter-filled playground, and the outdoor complex full of girls in yellow polo shirts bending this way and that in yoga class. That’s when the questions begin: Where did this gleaming, environmentally sustainable Shangri-La come from? Who made it happen? And why here, in the rural village of Piyali Junction in West Bengal, where much of the population is illiterate and extreme poverty abounds?
Today, the girls swarm around a woman with a deep, intense smile and dark hair shot through with shades of gray and white. The older kids look up at her adoringly, as do the smaller ones, though they don’t really know who she is yet. They only understand by the way the teachers are treating her that she must be someone important. All of them call her Dida, which means "Grandmother," and the hugs and kisses never seem to end. "Every time I come, they’re all over me," says Dida. "There is not enough cheek space."
Dida is Deepa Biswas Willingham, and her deliberate manner and the proud look in her eyes suggest she might have something to do with this oasis. Sylvia Whitlock, a friend of Willingham and of the school, dispels any doubt. "Deepa is a selfless woman," says Whitlock, a retired educational administrator who is herself rather extraordinary — she was the first woman to serve as president of a Rotary club. "She put herself and her resources on the line to create worthy lives for all these girls who walk through the doors of the PACE Learning Center. Where would these girls be if they were not in this school? For this Deepa deserves the credit."
But Willingham, a past president of the Rotary Club of Santa Ynez Valley, California (and a past governor of District 5240), would never dream of taking credit for all this. She’d rather tell you about the tireless teachers, whose influence goes way beyond the classroom. She’d enumerate all the generous people and organizations that have contributed time and money to the school. She’d sing the praises of the Rotary Club of Calcutta Metropolitan (where she’s an honorary member) and the many other clubs in India and around the world that have provided essential support. She’d single out those families and other Piyali Junction residents who took a chance on something so completely at odds with a patriarchal society that all too often renders females invisible. But mostly, she’d pay tribute to the girls.
BORN IN KOLKATA IN 1941, Deepa Willingham was her parents’ middle child and only daughter. Her father, Manmatha Nath Biswas, was an English professor at Serampore College who later served as the school’s principal. Her mother, Latika, was a homemaker who was frustrated that she’d never been allowed to attend college. (Instead, her older brother had married her off.) A free thinker, Latika rejected the caste system and, as Willingham recalls, she never stopped reading.
Deepa and her two brothers grew up in campus housing. A middle-aged couple whom they regarded as their grandparents helped raise them. Later Deepa learned that they were household servants who had been discarded by society because of their interreligious relationship (he was Hindu; she was Muslim) and that her parents, both Christians, had taken them in.
During the summer of 1946, when Deepa was five, tensions between Hindus and Muslims boiled over in Kolkata with widespread riots and massacres. Deepa watched as streams of children, women, men, and livestock took refuge on campus. Then she saw her mother and father stand between the students and the suddenly vulnerable Muslim settlement behind the school. "The students were threatening to kill people," Willingham says. "My parents, particularly my mother, said, ‘You’re not going to kill anyone until you kill us.’" It’s one of her earliest memories.
Deepa attended Loreto Convent, a Roman Catholic girls’ school where Mother Teresa was her geography teacher. Willingham recalls that, even then, the future saint was troubled by the crippling poverty she could see from her window. It was a lesson reinforced at home. "You know how parents tell kids to finish the food on their plate because there are starving children in Africa?" Willingham asks. "I grew up with my mother telling me to finish the food on my plate because there were starving children outside the window. I saw those children on our way to school, and I thought to myself, ‘When I grow up, I will take care of children like that.’"
Willingham was a gifted student. After majoring in botany (with a minor in geology) at Presidency College (now Presidency University) in Kolkata and finishing first in her class, she was recruited through a U.S. State Department program seeking the top science graduates around the world. She had never left India and did not want to go. Her father insisted — in part because he could not find a suitor for his dark-skinned daughter. "I knew that was a huge burden on my mother," Willingham says today, "and from that point of view, I felt selfconscious." She left for the United States in 1964; over the next 12 years, she would see her parents only once.
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