Correspondence Between President Barack Obama and Me

Photo Credit: Official White House photo by Pete Souza

[Some content edited/omitted for privacy]

My Second Letter to President Obama (don’t have a copy of my first handwritten letter which I sent along with a copy of my book):


                                                                                                                                April 9th, 2014

Dear Mr. President Barack Obama,

Re: Quality of Education: Concerns, Ideas and Suggestions

                I read about your trip to Michigan last week. [...] While I greatly admire and wholeheartedly support you and your administration's various humane and highly commendable initiatives (such as raising minimum wage, Obamacare, creating new jobs, revamping job training programs, providing equal pay for women), I strongly disagree with your attitudes and policies with regard to education. There are six main areas that I feel ought to be given serious consideration.


Hours in the Classroom and Educational Achievement

                I disagree that we need 1) longer school days, 2) more school days in the school year, and 3) preschool for 4-year-olds. The core problem is one of *quality* of education, not quantity.  Other nations are doing well if not better than the US despite relatively fewer school days/hours. According to a BBC News article (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7234578.stm) that questions the need for schooling to begin at age five, let alone preschool at age four: "One of the most intriguing statistics from international comparisons is the lack of relationship between hours in the classroom and educational achievement. Finland, a global superstar in education terms, is consistently among the top performers. But it is also at the very bottom of the league in terms of the hours spent in the classroom. Finnish pupils start formal education at seven and then enjoy 11-week summer holidays – and they end up with the highest educational standards in Europe." My own school day in Tanzania, East Africa, where I grew up, was less than five and a half hours including a recess break for most of my school years (except for the last two years of high school, when it increased to six hours), along with substantial Christmas and summer holidays. This in no way hindered me from going to engineering college in India […] and pursuing graduate studies […]. Additionally, my child never went to daycare or preschool, and learnt to read, write and do basic math on his/her own before (s)he turned five, without any formal teaching on my part. […] Neither preschool nor "hours in the classroom" had any bearing whatsoever on his/her skills or test scores, since (s)he had spent zero time in a school setting up to that point.

                It is therefore my heartfelt belief that increasing the length and number of school days will not improve the quality of education nor of family life outside of school. Children also need ample time to rest, play, and bond with their families and friends outside of school for well-rounded cognitive, social and emotional development. Reducing this time will only be detrimental to their growth and well-being, which in turn will also affect their academic performance. School is not all that affects scholastic achievement. In one speech, you said that longer school hours will also make it easier for working parents – this made me wince. In the case of the typical dual-working family, perhaps what would be better is for one parent to NOT work (at least when the children have finished attending school and are ready to come home), and to stay home and be available to their children physically and emotionally, and to provide nutritious food, love, and the comfort and security of the safe haven of home after a regimented day at school. Perhaps companies need to make more accommodations such as flexible hours, increased benefits and working from home that support rather than stifle parenting responsibilities.


Standardized Curriculum/Testing and Actual Success

                With all the focus on standardized curriculum and testing, it is a sad and ironic fact that standardized test scores are not an accurate measure of a person's potential in the area that a given test is designed to measure. I find the very idea of testing such a small child as a kindergartener or first grader rather disturbing. Moreover, using timed tests do not account for the cases of relatively lower processing speeds in gifted children, who may take longer to solve a given problem (and solve far more complex problems compared to their peers), but who would be unable to finish their work because "time is up" – the resulting lower scores would be incorrectly interpreted as their lack of knowledge or competency in a given area, not the lack of time allowed to solve the problem. If such test scores will stubbornly continue to be used as a benchmark to model curriculum, please consider this telling example: Martin Luther King Jr. scored below average on his standardized verbal aptitude test, yet proceeded to become one of the finest orators in history. Perhaps standardized testing should be done away with entirely, and a student's actual projects and accomplishments be given more consideration.

                While the No Child Left Behind Program had the good intention of helping disadvantaged children struggling with school, it did at the very least ignore, and thus "leave behind" and render an injustice to, the children who were doing well, by not providing proper opportunities for their continuing success. It also did not account for children who could have succeeded well with a non-standardized approach. Education resulting from such programs then degenerates into a dispassionate "teaching to the test" for funding and job security, and the excitement and passion for learning (and teaching) disappear. There has been a lot of hubbub and divisive thinking surrounding your Common Core program which has the good intention of addressing the current problems with our education system. My concern with this initiative is applying such a sweeping standardized model to every child for every grade from K-12 in the entire nation. It seems like more of the same in essence, even if the type of test is different. It is a timed, standardized test all the same. Different children will learn differently, at different times, and at different rates, as they ought to. That is Nature's way. A brilliant writer may be dismal at math, and an exceptional mathematician may have very poor linguistic skills. A talented musician or scientist may do badly in both English and Math. And it doesn't matter. Apart from making sure that *minimum* levels of literacy and math are attained so as to be able to function in society in day to day life (and this, I submit, is the responsibility of parents rather than teachers), I feel that children should be free to learn and excel in whatever they do best, not forced to master a certain amount of material by a certain time, and then be tested on it during a fixed amount of allotted time. Making them conform to externally imposed, artificial standards will rob them of their individuality and ignore their unique strengths and skills. This standardized, cookie cutter, one-size-fits-all approach towards education will fail our children, our society and our nation, for present and future generations.


Responsibility and Accountability of Parents, Teachers and Society

                The quality of education is no doubt influenced by the culture we live in. In an increasingly materialistic society conditioned by a media that glorifies instant gratification, wanton consumerism, sex and violence, the moral fabric of society and individual souls is unravelling and disintegrating. This has tragic consequences for children, and issues at an individual, familial and societal level: broken homes, dysfunctional families, an outlook and lifestyle lacking in restraint, ethics and empathy, and increasingly destructive and self-destructive behaviour. Rampant pornography is now exploiting and targeting children in insidious ways in mainstream, everyday life. Desensitization to violence has gotten to the point where children are now both perpetrators and victims of mass murders in schools. The schools, consisting of adults and children that are products of such a society, end up mirroring these failings, and our children pay dearly for it. Using an industrialized, factory-oriented approach towards education devoid of ethical and emotional considerations will only churn out automatons lacking in the compassion, creativity and critical thinking that are so valuable for innovation and the progress not only of the economy, but of humanity. This concern has been articulated eloquently by Sir Ken Robinson, who was knighted for his services to education, in his various speeches (e.g. http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity).

                The book, "Becoming an Emotionally Intelligent Teacher" by William Powell and Ochan Kusuma-Powell is a wonderful guide for teachers (and parents), written by authors who are endorsed by the Office of Overseas Schools at the US State Department for their work in teacher professional development (http://www.amazon.com/Becoming-Emotionally-Intelligent-Teacher-William/dp/1620878798/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1396613684&sr=8-1&keywords=becoming+an+emotionally+intelligent+teacher). The main premise of this book is that "teachers who develop their emotional awareness and interpersonal skills are better able to manage their classrooms and promote student success". Perhaps this book could be made available at every school in the nation as a handbook for teachers and other administrative staff. The authors also strongly advocate personalized learning and inclusive schools for all types of students, including ones with special needs, and their non-profit organization, "The Next Frontier: Inclusion" is dedicated to this mission.


Two Alternative Approaches to Education: Customized Learning and Homeschooling

                An alternative approach to conventional schooling that worked well for our family was homeschooling with a personalized curriculum. Not only did the quality of our family life improve tremendously, but our child has blossomed in remarkable ways since stopping going to school. (S)he had done really well academically and socially during the two years that (s)he was in school, but other than Recess and Art which (s)he enjoyed, (s)he was frankly bored the rest of the time. [...] We decided to homeschool our child from the second grade onwards, using a curriculum customized to suit his/her aptitude and interests. [...] This and several other examples of bright and happy children flourishing in a personalized environment have convinced me that children do not require (and should not be made to conform to) a standardized educational model to succeed, and that they will in fact thrive if their individual needs and rates of progress in various subjects are respected and nurtured.

                Homeschooling continues to grow in popularity throughout the nation, and there must be a reason. There are currently at least 2 million homeschooled children in the US, accounting for about 4% of all school-going children (according to 2010 numbers), and the number is growing each year. An article written in The Huffington Post in 2012 talks about how homeschooled students are "more independent", "graduate college at a higher rate than their peers", "outperform their peers", are "better socialized", and so on: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/01/homeschooled-students-wel_n_1562425.html?page=2 . These are qualities that would be good for every child to have. Perhaps schools can learn something from the examples of personalized learning and homeschooling.

                There are many homeschool groups, and we belong to a wonderful, non-denominational group that meets weekly. It is secular and inclusive, and diverse in terms of age, gender, race, ethnicity, and the parents' occupations and socioeconomic status. It is self-governed with a unique learning and social environment for children. I feel our group is a good working example of a personalized learning culture and a diverse, tolerant, nurturing community where children thrive academically and socially. If you can spare the time and are able to meet us on a Friday, ideally during the fall or winter semester when classes are in session, you can visit our homeschool group at the church space that we rent.


The International Baccalaureate Program

                Last month, one of the news headlines was that the Ann Arbor Public School system will start offering a K-12 International Baccalaureate (IB) program. According to the article (http://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/index.ssf/2014/03/k-12_ib_program_ann_arbor_publ.html): "The International Baccalaureate curriculum is used around the world and is highly regarded for its approach to education. The inquiry-learning based program promotes intercultural understanding and respect, and requires intense professional development for teachers as well as accreditation of schools before a building can earn the distinction of being an IB school." I took the high school IB diploma course at The International School of Tanganyika (IST) in Tanzania back in the '80s, when William Powell (mentioned earlier in this letter) was the secondary school headmaster at the time. IST was a pioneer then, and the Ann Arbor School District is a pioneer now, where the IB program is concerned. Perhaps there could be a nation-wide change in US schools in this direction as well.


Diet and IQ

                A non-academic factor that might be adversely influencing academic performance is diet. It is a well-established fact that babies who were breastfed during their first year have higher IQs later in childhood, compared to those who were formula-fed. The positive correlation between better nutrition and higher intelligence does not stop at infancy. A study conducted by the University of London found that children eating junk food actually develop lower IQs down the road: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/science/Children-who-eat-fast-food-develop-lower-IQs/articleshow/16667894.cms . The typical American diet of the present day is appalling in terms of freshness, purity and nutritional value. A variety of physical and behavioural ailments in both children and adults result from the regular consumption of heavily processed, factory-farmed food products, many of which contain ingredients banned in other countries, but which are continued to be used in foods sold to unsuspecting US citizens (http://abcnews.go.com/Lifestyle/Food/11-foods-banned-us/story?id=19457237) . While the vendors profit, the consumers pay the price in more ways than one. Given the heavy consumption of unhealthy processed foods in the US starting in childhood, it may be no wonder that the US does poorly in the academic arena, and even the implementation of all the best educational practices will not be able to fix the problem of something as basic as a low IQ resulting (and persisting) from a bad diet.


                I do hope that you will give my letter some thought. I sincerely wish you all the best during the remainder of your presidential term. I think you are a good person whose heart is in the right place, and I am grateful that you are our president. Thank you for all your hard work, perseverance and dedication. I hope America continues to progress, and hope that increasing numbers of individuals in all strata and fields of life do their bit to make a difference in their own way, big or small, to make the country and the world a better place. I also thank Mrs. First Lady Michelle Obama for all her efforts in the areas of nutrition and healthcare. My best wishes to your daughters, Malia and Sasha, for their future.


                                                                                                                                Sincerely,

                                                                                                                                Surekha Satyam Dangoor



cc: Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education


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President Obama's Reply to My Second Letter:


                                                                                                                        June 11, 2014

Dear Surekha:

                Thank you for writing. As a country, we need to put every single child on the path to a great education and a good job. And I appreciate your thoughts on how we can help do that.

                I have put forward some ideas of my own over the past year. I proposed a plan to expand access to early childhood education and make high-quality preschool available for every 4-year-old. I challenged my Administration to connect 99 percent of America's classrooms to high-speed Internet within 5 years. And we encouraged new partnerships to redesign our high schools so they equip every student with the tools to succeed in a high-tech economy.

                These steps build on the progress we have already made. Since I took office, states have worked to develop smarter curricula and higher standards that prepare more students for college and career. And when Congress failed to fix No Child Left Behind, we partnered with states to give schools room to innovate while also raising standards and accountability.

                These are the kind of bold investments we need to make in every part of our kids' education. But we also know that none of this will work unless we invest in our teachers, too. That means showing them support and respect worthy of the commitment they show every single day. And it means providing pathways to excellence that allow teachers to practice their craft with creativity and passion.

                If we can do that – fund our schools, revamp our classrooms, uphold high standards, train the best educators, and stand behind them – we can do right by students all across our country. We can give them the shot at success they all deserve. And we can make sure America is a place where if you work hard in school, you can go as far as your talents will take you. That is what I will keep fighting for as long as I hold this Office.

                Thank you, again, for writing. To learn more about my vision for America's education system, visit www.WhiteHouse.gov/Education.


                                                                                                                                       Sincerely,

                                                                                                                                       Barack Obama


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My Third Letter to President Obama:


                                                                                                                                July 4th, 2014

Dear Mr. President Barack Obama,

Re: Empowering Parents to Balance Work and Family Responsibilities

                I was thrilled to receive your reply to my letter regarding the quality of education in America. Thank you for taking the time to reply to me and for sharing your thoughts on the subject. This letter concerns the current struggles of Americans trying to fulfill their work and family obligations, and our own middle class family's solutions to various challenges that we faced, including surviving a layoff during the Global Financial Crisis in 2008.

                I read about the White House summit on working families held last week to help create workplaces that are supportive of working parents, your request to citizens to write to you about their challenges and solutions, and your plan to meet with ordinary people across the country to get an idea of what their lives are like. While different solutions will work for different families based on their individual needs and priorities, our family has achieved a successful work-family-life balance that combines traditional and modern solutions. Below, I list ten lifestyle choices that we made along the way that have reduced expenses, lowered stress, improved health, optimized work productivity, prioritized family, benefited the environment, helped the less privileged, and enriched our lives – choices that I feel are within the reach of many families:


                1. Traditional Family Model: Working Father, Stay-At-Home Mother

                Although I have a [...] degree in [...] Engineering [...], last worked for [...], received an [award] while working there, and was earning a good salary that was equal to my husband's, my husband and I decided to adopt the traditional family model after I became pregnant, with me staying home full-time to look after our child(ren), and him being the sole breadwinner. This was something that we felt would be best for our family, and it made practical, biological sense. This meant that our household income was now reduced by half. On the plus side, an immediate benefit of my staying at home was that we did not need to pay for a daycare, nanny or preschool for our child(ren), or worry about missing work or using up vacation days if our child(ren) fell ill. Over a decade has passed since I resigned from my job and I have not regretted giving up my career for the sake of my family.


                2. Modern Workplace Solutions: Working From Home and Flexible Hours

                Over the years, my husband [...] and I have worked for various companies that have provided options such as working remotely and having flexible work hours, for which we are tremendously grateful. For most of our child(ren)'s life, my husband worked for organizations offering such benefits. Working from home has saved my husband the time that would have been spent commuting to and from the office, and saved money that would have been spent on gasoline. It also gave him other personal benefits such as eating healthier homemade food and having more time to devote to his family and hobbies. While my husband still works 40 hours a week, instead of the typical five eight-hour workdays, he works for […] hours on […] and […] hours on […], during which time I homeschool our child(ren) in all the subjects during the school year. Being free on […] allows him to take our child(ren) to his/her/their homeschool get togethers, and gives me some time to pursue my own projects.


                3. Natural Nutrition: Breastfeeding the Baby, and Cooking Meals at Home

                After our child(ren) was/were born, I gave him/her/them the best nutrition that s/he/they could have during his/her/their first years of life: my breast milk, directly from the breast. S/he/they never had formula, and was/were also never bottle-fed. This saved us money by eliminating the need to purchase infant formula, a breast pump, and feeding bottles, and also saved us the time and labour that would have been involved in pumping/freezing/thawing breast milk or preparing formula, and cleaning the bottles and equipment afterwards. This also meant that my husband generally got a full night's sleep which helped his productivity at work the next day, and I made up for any lost sleep at night by napping with my baby/babies during the day without the worry of having to make up for lost time at the office. This made for a much more relaxing routine for all concerned. We also cook meals at home everyday using fresh or minimally processed ingredients, and eat out only occasionally. Indian food, which is what I know best to cook, can be simple, tasty and nutritious, and it therefore makes daily cooking a feasible option. These economical choices with respect to food have also resulted in better health for our family.


                4. Free Preventative Healthcare: Yoga and Ayurveda

                In addition to a healthy diet, we also give importance to other preventative healthcare such as adequate sleep, regular exercise, and a stress-free lifestyle, which can greatly reduce medical expenses. Instead of spending money exercising at an expensive gym that has fixed hours and a location that one needs to drive to, we do yoga at home, which does not require any equipment or amenities. For minor ailments, we use simple, time-tested Ayurvedic remedies that can be prepared in our kitchen with everyday herbs, spices and oils.


                5. Unconventional Education: Homeschooling

                When our child(ren) reached school age, we started sending him/her/them to the best private school in the area because we felt that it was the best education we could provide for him/her/them. However, following our dissatisfaction with the quality of education and the more stressful routine, we started homeschooling him/her/them. Apart from now having a personalized curriculum that suits our child(ren)'s aptitude and interests much better, this cut down on expenses tremendously, and also improved the quality of family life in invaluable ways: more sleep, much lower incidence of illnesses, less rushing, more peace, flexibility and freedom, and more quality time.


                6. Maximizing Money: Reducing Expenses and Increasing Savings

                Reducing day to day expenses makes it less critical for both parents to work, or to work full-time. There can be many things that we want but don't really need for a healthy, happy life. We made a number of decisions to reduce our expenses and thereby also increase our savings. We sold one of our two cars, eat at restaurants much less often, and choose hobbies and entertainment that provide pleasure without a lot of expense (e.g. camping vs. cruises). Since I am home and do not use a cell phone much, I stopped using my iPhone and bought a much cheaper "dumb" cell phone with an inexpensive service (I pay only $30 a year, versus $600 a year that I had been paying for the iPhone service). Instead of buying books on a whim, which we used to do, we borrow them from the library, using the state-wide inter-library loan resource MelCat for books that are not available at our local branch.

                Having savings can also help one to weather unemployment or unforeseen crises. My father would say that ideally, one ought to spend about one-third of one's income to meet all expenses, pay one-third in taxes, and save the remaining one-third for a rainy day. Even though Dad worked overseas for the World Bank earning a handsome, tax-free salary while I was growing up, we lived in a modest, three-bedroom apartment with sparse furnishings, and dressed and lived simply. He would sometimes give money to our relatives in my parents' villages in India when they had suffered the ravages of drought or flood, or when they wanted to build an extension to their humble homes that had no running water or electricity, or when he wanted to fund someone's college education. His blend of prudence and generosity has inspired me to this day, and his advice on fiscal responsibility proved invaluable during a calamity in my own life a few years ago. In 2008, during the Global Financial Crisis, my husband was suddenly laid off from his job. He was not given any advance warning or severance pay. We had (a) small child(ren) to raise, a mortgage to pay, hefty private school tuition fees, and I was not working either. However, even with zero income, we were able to maintain our lifestyle, purchase a low-cost-high-deductible health insurance plan that was cheaper than COBRA, pay all our bills, and continue sending our child(ren) to private school, using our savings to meet all our expenses until my husband found a job two months later.


                7. Optimizing Time

                Given all the modern technological marvels such as the Internet and smart phone, time can get squandered away without our awareness if we are not careful, which can reduce the time that we could otherwise put to good use for our well-being in other facets of life. A high-tech culture both connects and disconnects, depending on how the technology is used. While Skype can allow family and friends living on opposite ends of the earth to see and talk to each other in real time which they couldn't do otherwise, texting or Facebook-ing with those geographically much closer could result in less time actually meeting one another in person for more fulfilling, meaningful interactions. As a family, we strive to keep our lifestyle more natural despite the onslaught of technology and media. We don't watch TV or spend much time using social media, and try to choose activities that nurture our souls, involve face-to-face interactions between people, and allow time in nature. Examples are reading and writing books, gardening, cooking for ourselves and others, picnicking or camping with friends, and attending family-friendly community events such as the ongoing free summer festival. Perhaps the best things in life really are free.


                8. Redefining Success

                One's struggles in life could in some instances also be linked to one's definition of success and what it takes to achieve it. A purely materialistic view of success could drive people to expend their energies in a ceaseless acquisition of material possessions or "keeping up with the Joneses". Deepak Chopra says it best: "Success in life could be defined as the continued expansion of happiness and the progressive realization of worthy goals … And yet success, including the creation of wealth, has always been considered to be a process that requires hard work, and it is often considered to be at the expense of others. We need a more spiritual approach to success … There are many aspects to success; material wealth is only one component … success also includes good health, energy and enthusiasm for life, fulfilling relationships, creative freedom, emotional and psychological stability, a sense of well-being and peace of mind." I believe that once the costs of fundamental needs such as food, shelter, clothing, basic education and healthcare have been met (and which I feel are the responsibility of the government to ensure for every citizen in the country), Chopra's holistic view of success can be realized by anyone that has the desire and the will to attain it, regardless of their station in life.


                9. Protecting the Environment

                Some of our lifestyle choices, while saving money, also benefit the environment. Less driving means less carbon emissions, for example. We are just now starting to experiment with bucket showers that use only 5 gallons of water compared to 25-50 gallons of water that are used during a typical 10-minute shower. Using removable thermal curtains has significantly reduced our heating bill during the winter. Even if global warming wasn't an urgent, impending threat to our survival as a species, respecting the earth that is our source of sustenance, and trying to use (and re-use) only what we really need of the earth's valuable resources, is a responsible and meaningful path to take that will have lasting ethical and ecological consequences for generations to come. On a personal note, I do not use any cosmetics. Not only do I feel that almost everyone actually looks better without makeup, but I feel that the pervasive use of cosmetics and cosmetic procedures is a costly vanity (or insecurity) that unnecessarily consumes vast amounts of the earth's precious resources. This is aside from the fact that one is healthier when one's skin, hair and nails are not slathered or treated with products containing harmful chemicals. The Environmental Working Group, which is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving human health and the environment, has an extensive online database that contains a list of various commercial cosmetic products, the toxicity levels of individual ingredients in each product, and potential diseases that could result. They also have information on other environmentally responsible choices that one can make.


                10. The Larger Family: Helping the Less Privileged

                While helping ourselves, we have also tried to help others less privileged locally and abroad, which has contributed to our personal happiness, our connection to humanity, and a sense of purpose in life. We had an organic vegetable garden built in our yard by a company called City Farm that, for every garden it built for a customer, built another one the same size for the hungry in our local community. The yield from this second garden was donated to Food Gatherers, a Michigan non-profit company dedicated to feeding the hungry. Unfortunately, City Farm seems to have gone out of business, but there are other local sustainable organic farming companies taking its place such as Eating Gardens, which is currently liaising with Michigan Works, the state unemployment agency, to educate low-income teens and young adults in self-reliance and healthy nutrition by providing on-the-job training. I also collaborated long distance with my friends and relatives on a simple, independent project of our own to improve healthcare in my parents' villages in India, where many do not have easy access to a hospital or fresh drinking water, and where children go to school barefoot. All it cost our family was less than a dollar a day over the course of a year, but the rewards on both sides were priceless. Helping the needy need not even cost anything at all: a wonderful, free online educational resource that we have used when homeschooling is FreeRice.com, a non-profit website founded by the United Nations World Food Programme (www.freerice.com/category), whose aim is to provide education to everyone for free in a variety of subjects while providing free food for the hungry. For every answer that a user gets right, 10 grains of rice are donated via UN WFP to help end hunger. Freerice.com recently added an SAT test preparation section.


                The above are our main solutions for balancing work and family responsibilities that have also enriched our lives. While it will take time for policies to be put in place and for more companies to provide tangible benefits that support working parents, I feel that some of the choices that I have described above are feasible for many families currently struggling to meet work and family commitments. The fastest route to progressive change is when each and every individual, regardless of their lot in life, finds inspiration and purpose, and believes that their choices, no matter how small, can make a difference to their own destiny and that of others by way of action and example. Some soul searching may be required for some people to reconsider how they are spending their time and money, and to see if they can distinguish between their necessities and their luxuries. A reduced need for money, which leads to a reduced need for work, will not only ease a family's burdens, but can in turn alleviate unemployment, since the parents who choose to work part-time or not at all will free up existing jobs for those in dire need of work to sustain themselves and their families. A culture that gives priority to raising children well will produce healthier, happier individuals who will be better able to contribute positively to society. I have found your compassion, optimism and dedication admirable and inspiring, and I wish you success in all your efforts to make the nation a just and better place for everyone.


                                                                                                                                    Sincerely,

                                                                                                                                    Surekha Satyam Dangoor


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President Obama's Reply to My Third Letter:


                                                                                                                                October 27, 2014

Dear Surekha:

                Thank you for writing. Today, many Americans are doing everything right but still feel like they are slipping behind – even as they plan a little better, sleep a little less, and stretch each dollar a bit further. Michelle and I know that feeling. While we've been fortunate to receive needed flexibility in our careers, it hasn't always been easy to balance family and work. Unfortunately, many workers have not been as lucky, and they've had to make difficult choices between succeeding at their job and caring for their families at home.

                The work and family experiences that bind us together shouldn't be undermined by outdated policies that hold our country back. Whether through paid family leave, lower childcare costs, a higher minimum wage, or equal pay, hardworking Americans should have the resources and flexibility necessary to care for their families. It's good for them, it's good for business, and it's essential to keep our economy competitive.

                In both the public and private sectors, I'll keep fighting to give people the opportunities they deserve. That's why I expanded access to flexible work schedules for Federal employees and ensured they have the right to request such schedules. I've called on Congress to pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, so women aren't forced to choose between their health and their job, and the Paycheck Fairness Act, so women have better tools to fight pay discrimination. I've proposed policies to help working families afford childcare, and to increase access to early childhood education. And I've expanded who is protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act so more people can take time off to care for loved ones without worrying they'll be fired.

                My Administration is also helping States take action. My 2015 Budget requested $105 million to launch paid leave programs at the State level, and we created a new grant competition to provide funds for States to develop those types of programs. At the same time, we're bringing together business and industry leaders to discuss how companies can address workers' needs and build 21st-century workplaces in a 21st-century economy.

                When many women aren't even guaranteed a paid day off to give birth, their concerns are everyone's concerns. When parents are at work, trusting their children have the support they need to succeed, their hopes are our Nation's hopes. America is at its best when we act as one family to address our challenges and improve each other's lives. That's how we succeed.


                                                                                                                                       Sincerely,

                                                                                                                                       Barack Obama


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My Fourth Letter to President Obama:


                                                                                                                                November 29th, 2014

Dear Mr. President Barack Obama,

                Thank you for your letter in response to my letter regarding working families balancing professional and personal obligations. I was happy to read about all your initiatives and progress in this area. Since then, especially following the mid-term elections, I have been receiving several White House updates about your efforts with regard to affordable healthcare, climate change and immigration reform, and the lack of consensus in Congress on these issues. More recently, there have been widespread protests across the nation following the killing of an unarmed African American teenager by a white Caucasian police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

                These are challenging times for you. Yet I continue to hope that you, and Congress, and everyone in a position of influence, regardless of political affiliation or difference of opinion, will have the prevailing wisdom and strength to do what you each truly believe to be the morally right thing. That is really the best that any of us can do during our finite time on earth, and the rest is the work of Destiny or Divine Providence. The only hope for humanity is if we can transcend mercenary interests, egotistical motives and unproductive fears, and follow the convictions of our soul with passion, integrity and decency. I have faith in your character and your intentions, and I pray daily for you. Thank you for your tireless work, particularly on behalf of those who need help the most. May you be blessed, guided and protected always by the forces in the universe, and be granted safety and success in everything that you endeavour to do that is good for our country and our world. 



                                                                                                                                    Best wishes,
           
                                                                                                                                    Surekha Dangoor


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President Obama's Reply to My Fourth Letter:


                                                                                                                                February 23, 2015

Dear Surekha:

                Thank you for writing. I appreciate your kind words and your support for our shared values. Letters like yours keep me optimistic about America's future, and they keep me going every single day.

                Together, let's always remember to guard against cynicism, embrace hope, and work toward an ever brighter tomorrow. I wish you all the best.


                                                                                                                        Sincerely,

                                                                                                                        Barack Obama


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My Fifth Letter to President Obama:


                                                                                                                                March 8th, 2015

Re: A Different Side of India on India's Republic Day, Values and the Circle of Poison

Dear Mr. President Barack Obama,

                Thank you for your lovely, kind and thoughtful note in response to my letter expressing my support and best wishes to you. I read about your visit to India a few weeks ago to attend the Republic Day celebrations, your speech at Siri Fort in Delhi regarding India-US relations, and your ideas for India's growth. Being a US citizen of Indian origin who was born in India, I would like to share with you a different side of India during the same Republic Day celebrations that you attended, and my thoughts and hopes with regard to India's assets and progress, among which is breaking the "Circle of Poison" that Senator Patrick Leahy has spoken out against.

                As you watched the grand Republic Day celebrations in India's capital city of Delhi, complete with impressive acrobatic feats, lavish floats and displays of military might, a different kind of commemoration was taking place in my late father's remote village of [...] in the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. In the plain, dirt courtyard of a humble school [...] that my father had attended as a child [...], a number of poor schoolchildren, some of them barefoot, many of them wearing school uniforms donated by the government, stood at attention as they sang India's national anthem and listened to the historical events that led up to India's first Republic Day. A photo of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar [...] who drafted the Indian Constitution, was decorated with flowers and propped up on a chair next to the Indian flag that was hoisted during the ceremony. My close family friend, Mrs. R. Padma, who is a teacher at this school, took part in the celebrations with her husband Mr. D. A. Varma, a student's parent, the school Headmaster, and the village President, and they made the day special for the schoolchildren by donating new schoolbags to each of them and communal sports equipment for them to play with, as Republic Day gifts. I am enclosing some photos for reference.

                 This is a world that is rarely seen, but my ties to it and its people run deep, with a profound history that binds our families together. In your 2015 State of the Union speech, you said that one of the pillars of leadership is "the example of our values". In your book, "The Audacity of Hope", in the section about "Values", you write: "I would often challenge neighborhood leaders by asking them where they put their time, energy and money. These are the true tests of what we value, I'd tell them, regardless of what we like to tell ourselves. If we aren't willing to pay a price for our values, if we aren't willing to make some sacrifices in order to realize them, then we should ask ourselves whether we truly believe in them at all." I would like to share how various people in my parents' villages in India led by stunning and inspiring examples of their values over the decades.

                Padma's (mentioned above) father, Mr. R. Tata Rao, who is now retired and in his 80s, lives with his wife, Mrs. R. Saraswati, in my mother's village of [...] (Mukkamala) close to [...]. Neither [...] nor [...] has quick or easy access to hospitals or healthcare. Despite the introduction of running water and electricity to these areas, there are still families who live in mud huts and do not own any mode of transport. Fifty years ago, Mr. Tata Rao taught himself homeopathy, and since then to this day, he offers free homeopathy healthcare to the villagers out of a room in his house that he converted into a clinic, using a portion of his pension money to meet the medical expenses. For this year's Republic Day, he utilized donated funds for the free homeopathy healthcare that he provides. Mr. Tata Rao also taught Padma homeopathy, and Padma now offers free health advice and medication for minor ailments and injuries to the schoolchildren in [...], in addition to her teaching job at the school.

                When I was born, Mrs. Saraswati entrusted her children to the care of relatives for a few months, and came to the big, daunting city of [...] to help my first-time parents look after me. She is in essence my second mother. Mr. Tata Rao and Mrs. Saraswati gave my family an unexpected honour when they named three of their children after my father, my mother and me. When my father was working overseas for the World Bank in Tanzania, Mr. Tata Rao and his second daughter, Satyasudha (who was named after my father, Satyam) travelled to and took care of my widowed paternal grandmother while she was ailing from cancer. When she died (as a Christian), the village priest refused on religious grounds to grant my grandmother's dying wish to be buried alongside her husband who had died thirty years before her as a Hindu [...]. My father, though an agnostic, then took matters into his hands, led the funeral procession while holding the holy Christian cross, conducted the last rites, and buried my grandmother next my grandfather, exactly the way she had wanted. My grandparents' joint grave, symbolic of such tremendous love, loyalty, courage and respect, still stands there to this day on our ancestral farmland that is tended by my father's cousins, Mrs. P. Janaki and Mr. P. Gangachalam. Mrs. Janaki is now around 70 years old but still works hard on the farm, and every year, on the anniversary of my grandmother's death, she places flowers on the grave, offers prayers and distributes sweets at their church.

                My father [...] was [...] discriminated against as a child, but a Brahmin (highest Hindu caste) teacher and headmaster, named Sivoham at his school in [...], tutored my father for free out of his (Sivoham's) home, which was unprecedented [due to caste discrimination] and created an uproar in the village. Sivoham's steadfast and idealistic belief in my father's intelligence and potential during those early years greatly contributed to my father's success in life, and Dad proceeded to earn his PhD degree in Engineering Production and work for many prestigious organizations locally and abroad. Several villagers lent my father money to help with the initial expenses of his journey to England to do his PhD, some of them even giving him their whole life's savings. My father in turn helped people in the villages by sending them money to meet various needs, including using a part of his scholarship money to fund the entire education of one of his [...] friends towards a medical degree.

                All of the people mentioned above who have lived by their values despite their challenges and limited resources have convinced me that the best, most beautiful and brilliant gems can be found even in the darkest, most primitive areas of the world, and as you said in your speech at Siri Fort, "their dreams, their hopes, are just as important, just as beautiful, just as worthy, as ours." You said in this speech about India-US relations that you wanted to foster "development that lifts up the lives and health of our people" and "trade and economic partnerships that reduce poverty and encourage opportunity". In this regard, I hope that you will take up the efforts of Senator Patrick Leahy to stop the "Circle of Poison" that the US is perpetrating against other nations including India through manufacturing and exporting toxic unregistered pesticides that are not approved for sale or use in the US. As you work with India to realize various economic and humanitarian goals, I hope that you will remember the Indians such as those whom I have described above, who I believe represent the true beauty and glory of India. I wish you continued safety and success in all your endeavours to make the world a better place as we "work toward an ever brighter tomorrow".

                                                                                                                                    Yours sincerely,       

                                                                                                                                    Surekha Dangoor


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President Obama's Reply to My Fifth Letter:


                                                                                                                                May 21, 2015

Dear Surekha:

                Thank you for writing. I want you to know that when you send me a letter, I am listening. I will keep treating the cares and concerns of people like you as my own, and I will keep fighting to restore the American dream for everybody who is willing to work for it.

                Again, I appreciate your thoughts. The messages I read from people across our country remind me of why I ran for this Office in the first place, and of the progress that still lies ahead.


                                                                                                                        Sincerely,

                                                                                                                        Barack Obama


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My Sixth Letter to President Obama:


                                                                                                                                July 2, 2015

Dear Mr. President Barack Obama,

Re: Making Affordable Healthcare More Affordable Through Preventive Healthcare

                Thank you for your letter dated May 21, 2015 in response to my letter dated March 8th, 2015 regarding India's Republic Day celebrations, values, and the "Circle of Poison". I am very grateful for all your thoughtful responses to my letters about various issues, and your letter of February 23, 2015 is framed and hung in our home as an inspiring reminder to "guard against cynicism, embrace hope, and work toward an ever brighter tomorrow". I was delighted to read about the Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act on June 25, 2015. Every citizen deserves affordable healthcare, and I thank you for all your hard work in this area and congratulate you on the accomplishment of your noble goal. The next day, I graduated from New World Ayurveda School and became a certified holistic (specifically, Ayurveda) health practitioner after training under Dr. Paul Dugliss, M.D., the school's academic dean who practices Internal Medicine, Ayurvedic Medicine, Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine. A primary reason that people have increasingly been turning to alternative medicine is that, to quote a doctor who is educated and experienced in both conventional and complementary medicine, "Modern medicine is failing us. Modern medicine is failing to capitalize on the potential that people have for healing themselves." This letter concerns healthcare that can be made even more affordable through Ayurveda, the ancient 5,000-year-old Indian holistic system of medicine that is widely practiced in India and South Asia, and, like, Yoga (which comes from the same source as Ayurveda), rapidly gaining popularity in the West due to its simplicity and effectiveness in restoring and maintaining good health.

                To make affordable and proper healthcare a priority, I believe that the value of preventive healthcare ought to be strongly emphasized. The healthier one is, the less need there is for some form of medical intervention, be it drugs, therapies or surgeries. As Buddha wisely said, "Health is the greatest gift." We can have all the fame and wealth in the world, but if we are not in good health, physically or emotionally, we will spend our days in suffering instead of joy, unable to fully enjoy our blessings and good fortune. The forté of Ayurveda is preventive healthcare through becoming intimately aware of the workings of the body, mind and spirit and their interconnectedness, working with one's innate nature as well as Nature as a whole, and correcting minor imbalances in the physiology long before the manifestation of disease. Imbalances are corrected through natural, holistic, non-invasive methods, many of which are inexpensive or free which individuals can do in their own home. People can also independently monitor their own health on a regular basis by observing their bodies and bodily processes and becoming conscious of how certain external factors (diet, emotion, experience, environment) affect their well-being. There are a myriad of Ayurvedic modalities ranging from diet, spices, herbs, meditation, massage, yoga, behavioural therapies, purification routines, visualization, colour therapy, sound therapy, gem therapy, spiritual counselling all the way to astrology-based rituals, and one can select a method based on one's state of health and individual preferences.

                I am enclosing a printout of a web page (http://surekhadangoor.com/ayurveda) that I created and maintain as a free educational resource for anyone interested in preventive healthcare. The document includes simple suggestions for overall well-being, links to free meditation, yoga and exercise resources that can be implemented at home, recommendations and home remedies for specific complaints, methods of doing self-monitoring to detect and track imbalances at home, and basic recipes for those who wish to cook healthy food at home without spending much time or money. The content of the web page is based on my personal experiences as well as the knowledge that I gained during my formal study of Ayurveda with Dr. Dugliss. It is an example of how people can educate and empower themselves to be healthy and stave off disease to the best of their ability. I hope that you will browse through the document and feel motivated to encourage the practice of free or inexpensive preventive healthcare through various traditional or modern means.

                I wish you continued success in all your endeavours.


                            With very best wishes,
                               
                            Surekha Satyam Dangoor



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My Seventh Letter to President Obama:


                                    July 30th, 2016

Dear Mr. President Barack Obama,

                I wish you all the best during the remainder of your presidential term. You and Mrs. First Lady Michelle Obama have been stunning and inspiring examples of leadership and character. You have been a wonderful representative of America both nationally and overseas, and you have done much to make the country and the world a better place. I am sure you will continue to build your legacy even after you become an "ordinary citizen" like the rest of us. Thank you for taking the time and trouble to correspond with me on a variety of issues during your time in Office. Not only I but my relatives and friends, even as far away as my parents' remote villages in India, greatly appreciated your responses.


                                Sincerely,

                                Surekha Dangoor



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President Obama's Reply to My Seventh Letter:


                                                                                                                                October 12, 2016

Dear Surekha:

                Thank you for writing. Your reflections on the progress we’ve made together mean a lot to me.

                Messages like yours underscore that America is at its best when people from all walks of life add their voices to our national conversation, and when we all come together to shape our country’s course. Once I leave the Oval Office, I’ll rejoin you as a private citizen of this great country of ours – a stronger America that has progressed further and reached higher than many thought was possible. And while there are milestone moments we will always remember, I want you to know that messages from people like you – sent from kitchen tables and college dorm rooms, from places of hope and fear, hardship and triumph – have touched my heart and informed my Presidency. They’ve stayed with me and they’ve kept me going – and they always will.

                Again, thank you for writing to me. Our brand of democracy is hard, and we are a constant work in progress. But I promise you that as long as I’m President and long after, I will be standing right alongside you, as I always have been, working to ensure our Nation lives up to our highest ideals and remains a beacon of hope and opportunity.


                                                                                                                        All the best,

                                                                                                                        Barack Obama




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