A conversation with Kiwanian and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Raveen Arora.
Interview and photos by Gail Mooney
Raveen Arora had a humble start to life in Calcutta, India. Today, this member of the Kiwanis Club of Tempe, Arizona, is dedicated to serving others and reminding us that we are all part of one race: the human race.
Arora has won numerous national and international awards — including the MLK Diversity Award, Don Carlos Humanitarian Award and the Mother Teresa International Service Award. But it’s the work with hunger and food insecurity right in his hometown of Tempe that makes him most proud.
“We can help them, one kid at a time,” he says.
Satish Lakhotia, director of Alliance Clubs International, says Arora’s work the past 18 years on the drug and crime-ravaged Apache Boulevard in Tempe has brought great change.
“His empathy, kindness, compassion and respect have made the area crime free, drug free and incident free,” Lakhotia says. “His summer hydration project started in 2003 has now mushroomed into a full-blown countywide program that saves lives during the brutally hot summer months.”
Arora’s passion for helping others has earned him prestigious leadership roles with several national professional organizations and Arizona associations. And as founder and CEO of Think Human, Arora leads the organization in global conversations designed to demonstrate the practices of empathy, inclusion and humane thinking to humanize communications in the workplace, social settings and relationships around the globe.
“Raveen Arora has done so much to foster international peace and international friendship — not only in his native India, but also in his beloved America and around the world,” says Richard Neuheisel, former president of Tempe Sister Cities.
Arora is currently working with Kiwanis International to expand and grow Kiwanis in India.
With all of this work and these accolades, it may not be that surprising to learn that Arora has been nominated by several organizations and people for the Nobel Peace Prize. Nobel winners will be announced in October 2021.
“As governor of the Southwest District of Kiwanis, I am extremely honored to endorse a fellow Kiwanian and friend, Mr. Raveen Arora, for the award,” says Donald Townsend. “Raveen is the epitome of a servant leader who gives of himself to make the world a better place.”
Arora recently spoke with journalist Gail Mooney about his life and his purpose in this world. This is an excerpt of their conversation. ~ Kiwanis magazine staff
Gail Mooney: Tell us about yourself.
Raveen Arora: I am human. Nothing human is alien to me. I’m a refugee child born in India. My parents were displaced from their own country. When India was split into India and Pakistan, 14 million people were displaced. A million perished in four months. My dad had to play dead in the last refugee train so that he could just stay alive. My mother was carrying me. I was born in a servant’s quarters in Calcutta. That’s how I came into being.
My whole beginnings and evolution started in the slums of Calcutta. We had nothing. Dad had only the shirt on his back and did menial jobs to be able to provide food. I remember seeing my mom add water to the milk, stretching it so she could feed us. It pains me to remember how every weekend I had to walk three miles to a ration shop, which was under the American USA PL 480 plan, to get basic staples, a kilo of flour and milk powder to sustain ourselves. I realize now they were not dispensing food, they were dispensing poverty.
My grandfather had a great influence on me. He once said, “You don’t have to be outstanding in life, but must be able to stand out in life.” He said, “When you were born, you cried and we rejoiced, but you have to live your life in such a way that when you pass on, we cry and you rejoice.” That became my mantra.
GM: How did you become the person you are?
RA: One episode stands out that made me who I am. I wanted to play cricket and went to the lawns. The guard said, “You Indian?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Little guy, do you see the sign, Indians and dogs not allowed? You can’t go in.” So I asked a boy, “Am I a dog?” He said, “You must create respect with each other.” The British did not respect the Indians. Indians and dogs were not allowed. Even though it has changed, it created such a metamorphosis in me. I have to stand out. I must be different. I will be different. We are going to have the hard times in life, but remember: When money is lost, nothing is lost. When health is lost, something is lost. But the day you lose your character, everything is lost. So build your character. That created a passage for me. Whatever I did, I did with a passion. That passion became my purpose in life, to treat people with humility and respect.
When I was little I never had new clothes. My parents couldn’t afford it. One time I wanted new shoes. I woke up one morning and saw a pair of sparking black shoes. I thought I got new shoes. I put them on and said, “These are my old shoes.” My dad had just shined them. I got upset and ran down three flights of steps, kicking things until I got out to the street. I saw a lady pushing a pram with a kid in it about 4 years old. I said, “Mam, can he play?” She said, “No, he can’t play because he has no feet.” It was like a bolt. Here, I’m complaining about shoes and this kid has no feet. That was a turning point in my life.
Sister Teresa came to class one day and said, “How many of you can donate a rupee?” One rupee was not even 5 cents. So, the rich and middle kids gave because they had pocket money. She comes to me. I reach into my pocket and my hand sits there and doesn’t come out. Sister says, “We have 44 kids who gave one rupee or more and there’s one kid who hasn’t given.” She pulls me aside and says, “You didn’t give. What happened? Don’t you want to give?” I said, “I don’t have it.” She asked me, “Did you want to give?” I said, “Yes, I wanted to give.” She said, “That is your lesson in life.”
I was a very bright student and I became a good speaker, an elocutionist. One day I came running up the stairs with a trophy and I said, “I won.” My father and grandpa were sitting there and just kept sitting there. They didn’t care. After 10 minutes I said, “Don’t you guys get it? I am indispensable to my school and my team. We’re going to go to the All-India Finals.” My grandfather gets up. He takes me by the ear and drags me out onto the balcony and asked, “What do you see outside there?” I said, “I see a graveyard.” He said, “What do you think all those things are?” I said, “They’re dead people.” He says, “Exactly. They also thought they were indispensable when they were alive. You will learn to be humble. You will learn to do the best you can. You are not indispensable.”
GM: Why have you dedicated your life to serving others?
RA: I never forgot my roots. I’d think about what my parents had gone through and the price they paid and asked myself, “Can I make a difference in somebody’s life during my lifetime? Can I be an agent of change?” Serving others is not difficult; it’s just different and it makes you feel different. We are all part of the community and unless everybody prospers, we don’t prosper.
I was drawn to Kiwanis long ago. They were the future. For me, it’s about the mission, not about me. My global initiative — to think human — is built around the fact that we are all human beings. There is only one race. It’s called the human race. But before you can be human, you need to think human. You need to think from the others’ perspective to bring that unity of thought. I treat people with respect, empathy and dignity. I want to be remembered for what I did for others. That’s my legacy.
GM: What are you working on around the world?
RA: I got involved with hunger and addressing food insecurity as this is the most pressing need of society. Poverty was my best friend. I know poverty leads to hunger. Hunger leads to starvation. Starvation leads to other social ills like crime and lack of education. A hungry person does not understand and comprehend right or wrong. A hungry child cannot focus in school and will be tempted to steal. A petty thief can gradually turn into a hardened criminal. Our prison systems bear the brunt.
What I always plead is open a school door so we can close a prison door. You can only open a school door if you have a healthy, nutritionally-well child that can focus on what is being taught. You just can’t open a school door for a kid who does not know and is worried when he will have a full meal again. Parents will send him to school so he can get a free meal.
I was recently in Guatemala City and I saw there were only two food banks. They were giving directly to the families, but they were not able to deal with food insecurity. I could see there was an urgent need to have food banks. They took us to a place called Hope of Life, about 200 miles away. We went to an orphanage for abandoned kids. During our visit, I saw that one kid had not smiled.
They told me that he was violent and to stay away because he may bite me. I said, “No,” and I put my hand on his head and in a minute he started smiling. Nobody had touched him before. This kid’s smile was my hope of life.
There are the people right in our backyards that we can help, like the kids in Tempe, Arizona. One out of three is food insecure. That’s where I’m driving my efforts, to find ways to address hunger. Don’t just give them a can of food; give them nutritious food, so they’ll become better students. They’re in a slum. But in the United States of America, in a country where we have everything, we can help them, one kid at a time.
GM: What motivates you?
RA: The trust I have gained of the people motivates me. I’m not driven by material things. Everything I do, I learned from my childhood. I speak the truth. It’s about a servant heart. Do I feel like a servant? Do I feel myself as a servant of the people of the community? Yes, because I’m part of the community. The same blood flows through the veins of every human being. That’s where humanity is. The key to being truthful is to be truthful to yourself, your family and society. We may be an insignificant part of society, but we are significant enough. We all matter. If we all contribute in our own small way, being respectful, kind, sincere and truthful and helping others, we can make this world a better place.
GM: How do you feel about being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize?
RA: This recognition of the Nobel is the epitome. It completes me and completes my journey. I’m humbled to be in the company of Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and his holiness the Dalai Lama and the outpouring of love and support that I’m getting is something that I really don’t deserve. I’m the messenger. And my message is very simple: Lead with humility, because what we do for ourselves dies with us, but what we do for others will outlive us. That is what drives me every day. Not the honors and awards. Those are all decorations, business things. But the mere acknowledgment of being nominated for a Nobel is the epitome of all things, to me. I never thought I’d be recognized for what I was doing because I wanted to do it. Today, when God has given me so much I ask myself, “What can I do? How can I make a difference? Can I help somebody who is in need?” Somebody may just need compassion or kindness because kindness is the only language the deaf can hear and the blind can see.
The 2021 Nobel Laureates will be announced in October 2021.
This story originally appeared in the June/July 2021 issue of Kiwanis magazine.