There are many heroes on the ground in New York City right now. Some are directly combating COVID-19 through their work in hospitals and retirement homes. Others have thrown themselves into working with communities experiencing higher-than-average rates of housing insecurity, job loss, and economic uncertainty.
One of the organizations working on the ground in New York City is Chhaya CDC, a community development organization focused on helping immigrants from New York City’s large and diverse South Asian and Indo-Caribbean communities.
Recently, SEEMA was fortunate to speak with the organization’s Executive Director, the dynamic and passionate Annetta Seecharan. She spoke to us about her upbringing in Guyana, her move to New York City, and her incredible life of advocacy for immigrant’s rights, economic justice, and housing that has taken her through organizations like South Asian Youth Action, the International Youth Foundation, and the United Nations.
Where did you grow up? Can you tell us about your family life, and what it was like to move to New York?
AS: I’m from Guyana. I spent my childhood there, where I grew up in an idealistic, beautiful, rural community, and had a stable, solid childhood. However, there was immense political strife in Guyana when I was growing up, due to a colonial legacy from the Brits. Many people in the Indian community started sending their children abroad.
My family emigrated from Guyana to New York City when I was 13 years old. When we got to this country, it was like landing on Mars. We ended up settling in the Bronx, where we were literally the only Indian kids in our school — in our junior high school, and again in our high school. It was the ’80s, and it was a difficult time in New York City. Because of this, our family kept us super close.
In Guyana, we had a solid foundation of living in a majority Indian community. Coming here, and having the extreme social isolation, and the extreme cultural isolation, was horrible, painful, and traumatic on multiple levels.
When we got to this country, it was like landing on Mars…We were literally the only Indian kids in our school.
What part of your early life made you gravitate towards advocacy work?
AS: I had really traumatic experiences growing up in Guyana, with racism and gender roles that were a part of my everyday existence. I got involved with women’s issues, and this was the beginning of my activism, when I realized that for the first time, I could do something about the crazy world.
I went to a small private college called Manhattanville, where I was the founder of the first women’s organization on campus. Getting involved in women’s issues was really great, and I attached myself to the national women’s movement. It was an amazing experience for me as a kid from the Bronx, an immigrant, with a funny accent, who was relatively poor compared to the rest of the student body.
How did you first come to work with Chhaya CDC?
AS: When I graduated, I thought that I might want to go to politics in Guyana. Later, when I was in grad school at Fordham, I needed a job, and found one at a youth center in the Bronx. That was a pivotal, life-changing experience. I had no idea how bad kids had it in this country, and in this city. I ended up really getting into youth work and youth organizing there. I ran that program for the entire two years I was in grad school, and eventually went to work for the United Nations.
After working there for a while, I ended up getting involved in an organization called SAYA (South Asian Youth Action). I became the executive director and was there for eight years. By the time I left, it was considered the largest South Asian organization in the United States.
After spending some time with my daughter, and working on citywide policy, I came to Chhaya. I believe everything starts with economic and housing justice. It’s been amazing to be at Chhaya for the last four years, and expand its focus on economic justice while integrating organizing and policy advocacy across all of our programs.
How has South Asian culture informed your personal life, as well as your career?
AS: I think Indo-Caribbean people often feel like the lost brethren within South Asian culture, even though we’ve contributed significantly to the preservation and promotion of our collective South Asian identity and culture here in the United States.
I feel a deep cultural connectedness to South Asia, but the Indo-Caribbean people’s hundred years in the Caribbean also matters. The nuance and complexity of my experience matters. I have worked hard to make sure our experience is not washed out of the pan-South Asian/Indo-Caribbean tent.
I think Indo-Caribbean people often feel like the lost brethren within South Asian culture…The nuance and complexity of my experience matters.
What’s your advice to young people, girls in particular, who might be interested in pursuing a career in public service and advocacy?
AS: Be courageous every day. I can consistently point at the most pivotal moments of my life, where I was scared to death, and chose to say or do something anyway. I have so many examples like that — where the moment was about taking a risk, and I did it. Just do it. It’s about being brave.
What’s next for Chhaya?
AS: Right now, we’ve pivoted to focusing on fundamental COVID-19 relief work like cash and food distribution. We’re also working hard to elevate the concerns of immigrant-owned small businesses.