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.