Sonia Sarkar, one of the recipients of the inaugural SAALT ChangeMaker Awards joined Project HEALTH during her (ongoing) undergraduate career at Johns Hopkins University. She shares what inspires her to be a change maker:
When I first joined Project HEALTH as a sophomore in college, I had no idea what being a ‘change agent’ entailed. More than anything, I was curious- having just moved to Baltimore, I wanted to know more about the community in which I lived but hardly ever explored. I still remember the strangeness of riding into East Baltimore in an air-conditioned luxury coach with ‘Johns Hopkins’ imprinted on the side in huge block letters. Why, I wondered, were there so many boarded up houses? So few grocery stores but an abundance of liquor stores? No recreation centers or free community health clinics? In a city that was host to one of the best health care institutions in the world, families were still suffering from the poor health outcomes that are linked inextricably with poverty. As part of a corps of volunteers who were dedicated to breaking this link, I hoped to uncover some answers.
I remember one of my very first encounters at the Family Resource Desk, where Project HEALTH volunteers work with families on a variety of issues related to health: employment, housing, food security, utilities assistance, adult education. Having just been through an intensive 13-hour training, I felt confident that I could offer at least something. A young mother came by the desk, with her three young children in tow. She looked exhausted, and explained that she had just spent a night in the ER with her youngest child, who had tested with extremely high blood lead levels. There was never enough food at the end of the month to feed her whole family, and she had been unemployed for some time. As I sorted through in my head the ways in which I might be able to help, I landed on the idea that applying for food stamps might be a good idea. I printed the application and handed it over to my client with great optimism. She looked at me wearily and asked me if I had ever actually filled out a public benefits application. When I shook my head no, she suggested I try it and then call her the next day. Four frustrating hours later, I was back on the phone with her- completely humbled by my attempt to muddle through the 12-page form. Despite my fancy education, despite my grounding in public health theory, I was the one who needed to learn.
Looking back at the experience I’ve had over these past three years, it continues to be the families and the students I work with who are a constant inspiration. Changemakers, social entrepreneurs, community advocates- they are the core of Project HEALTH’s work. As a society, we have come to accept as fact that a family in Mumbai or Dhaka needs access to basic food, shelter, and electricity if they are to live healthily. Yet when it comes to looking at our own inner cities- the very neighborhoods where we go to work and study- these basic tenets are easily forgotten. SAALT’s motto- “Strengthening South Asian Communities in the United States” is a piece of a much larger puzzle: regardless of location or heritage, strong communities are essential everywhere. The same values I grew up with in my strong Indian community- an emphasis on family, generational knowledge and support, vibrant storytelling- are present within the Baltimore communities I work with. It is an honor to receive the SAALT Changemaker Award, and I have been incredibly lucky to work with students and families who are breaking barriers everyday. They are a true inspiration to all of us who strive for change.