SAALT ChangeMaker Award Recipient Shares What Inspires Her

SAALT ChangeMaker Award Recipient Sonia Sarkar

SAALT ChangeMaker Award Recipient Sonia Sarkar

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.

May Day Rally for Immigration Reform in Washington DC

On May 1st, people from communities all over the country commemorated International Workers’ Day to call for fair and equitable reform to the immigration system. There were rallies in many major cities, including Washington DC. I went down to the rally with Poonam, our intern. Being at the march was an amazing experience. Walking down 14th Street, where mounted police shut down one direction of traffic to accommodate the crowd, surrounded by community members and advocates, was a singular experience. I didn’t participate in the immigration reform rallies in 2006 and 2007 so this was my first time getting the May Day experience. The mood was overwhelmingly positive with the speakers at Lafayette Park acknowledging the difficulties that community members encounter as part of the broken immigration system but ultimately focusing on how communities-of-color can work together to push for reform. I used one of our nifty new Flips to capture some of the sights and sounds of the rally, below you can check out a quick video featuring some inspiring words from Rev. Hagler of the Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ:

May Day! Support Immigrant Rights at a Rally Near You!

Today, May 1st, also known as May Day, is a celebration of the struggles of workers around the world. May Day is celebrated all around the world, and today, across the United States, folks are encouraged to take to the streets in rallies that acknowledge the struggles of immigrant workers.  The rallies will also sound a cry for the importance of immigration reform – a series of legislative and administrative changes that can fix the broken immigration system.  For workers of all immigration statuses, the need for immigration reform is critical.  H-1B workers have no job portability and often wait years in order to receive green cards.  Guestworkers who are here on temporary, H-2B visas have very little worker protections and find themselves in vulnerable situations that can be exploited by unscrupulous employers.  Watch this video clip from the American News Project to learn more about the Indian guestworkers in the Gulf Coast who spent two years highlighting the exploitation they endured.

Then, head out to one of the immigration rallies this afternoon in your city –visit for information on May Day marches and rallies.