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Honour for an inspirational leader

By Arthur J Pais
April 21, 2009 14:57 IST
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As part of a week-long achiever series, Get Ahead presents an interview with each of six Indian-origin youngsters who won prestigious fellowships in the United States.

The Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans, which provides opportunities 'for continuing generations of able and accomplished New Americans to achieve leadership in their chosen fields' gives out 30 grants to deserving candidates each year on a nationally competitive basis; this year, the Indian-American community garnered six, which translates into a maximum funding of $36,000 per individual.

Here, Sushma Sheth, a 29-year-old social activist from Miami City, discusses how she came to win the prestigious grant and how she intends to enroll for a joint master's programme in business and public policy at Kellogg and Harvard with the money.

When Sushma was young, her father Suresh Sheth, an accountant, opened the first Indian grocery store in Miami.

"The aroma of cardamom and red chilli mingled with conversations of the search for work in a new country, herbal remedies for diabetes, and ailing parents back home," recalls Sheth. "Amid Bollywood videos and samosas, I watched my father counsel newly-arrived families to Miami from across the world and help them find a taste of home."

"I think my activism began in that store," she says.

Across the street her mother Niru, a former architect, tended to the home and helped with the store. 'Every couple months, another twice-removed cousin or unfamiliar face arrived, their suitcases heavy with worry,' Sheth wrote. 'My mother cooked feasts with the unsold vegetables from our store. I obediently took my pillow and made a bed on the family room floor. This house does not belong only to you, my mother consoled me. It is for anyone who needs to be at home.'

From those early beginnings came a penchant for activism that has led Sheth's admirers to dub as 'exemplary', 'inspiring' and 'trend-setting' her work over the last nine years in Liberty City, one of the poorest urban areas in America and an African-American stronghold in Miami.

At least one Miami newspaper has dubbed her the people's mayor of Liberty City, and a columnist for the Miami Herald newspaper suggested a few years ago that Sheth should run for the mayor's office while praising her work as a relief leader who plunged into action even before the federal and state agencies had started helping the victims of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana.

Sheth, one of the six Indian-American recipients of the Paul & Daisy Fellowships for New Americans, now plans to use the Fellowship, worth approximately $36,000, to enter a joint master's programme in business and public policy at Kellogg and Harvard. "I want to learn to use business strategies for the advocacy work I want to continue doing," she says.

Recalling the roots of that advocacy, Sheth says she also learnt a lot from her second set of 'parents', Nayan Shah and his wife Harsha, who were friends of her natural parents and considered her their own daughter. "I was raised in a joint family," she adds. "In addition to sitting at the register at my parent's store, I grew up watching Harsha aunty struggle with the public school system as a special needs teacher."

'For close to thirty years, she battled poor resources, racist school policies, and a lack of value for the lives of special needs kids, often of low-income backgrounds. Her faith in her kids and in justice has always outshined the disadvantages they face,' Sheth wrote in her essay.

"From my joint parents I got the larger vision, and my family kept on widening," says Sheth. "And that is how I began to look beyond the Indian-American community."

In her essay she talks of the last seven years spent working on the frontlines of America's affordable housing crisis. 'Miami had one of the longest waiting lists for housing and had become the foreclosure capital of the country,' she writes. 'I became a community organiser with the Miami Workers' Centre (MWC), a powerful community-based institution organising low-income black and immigrant families to promote affordable housing and economic development.'

She is currently the director of programmes at MWC where she supervises programme staff, leads regional policy initiatives, and represents the organisation nationally and internationally.

The organisation started with an operating budget of $10,000. In less than ten years, it has generated over $20 million in housing subsidies, and moved over 30,000 families off the waiting list. She is credited in articles in the local newspapers and international publications like Time and The Guardian with building one of Miami's strongest policy reform coalitions, that includes over 100 unions, churches, businesses and civic leaders.

An advocate of being the change she wants to see, Sheth recalls how politicians in Louisiana were waiting for federal authorities to make the first move in the aftermath of Katrina, while FEMA and Red Cross barely provided temporary relief.

'I chose not to wait,' she wrote in her essay. Instead, she led more than 60 policy, legal, church, charitable, and civic organisations to pressure the city mayor to take action. 'We held a national press conference on the front lawn of a storm-damaged apartment building to present immediate and mid-term housing solutions. Within days, our coalition achieved success.'

In the process, she realised that this kind of dynamic, progressive movement-building needed to take place in urban centres across the country. "Instead of just organising people, we brought together organisations," she explains. "We launched the Right to the City Alliance, a national strategic alliance fighting for human rights and democracy in US cities. I recruited dozens of powerful community organisations. So far, we have preserved over 100,000 affordable homes and stopped 1,000 foreclosures."

As she plans to start a new academic programme, she says she has concluded that government and non-profit action is not enough. "Only by engaging the private sector in substantive partnerships can we achieve permanent, sustainable and large-scale solutions to affordable housing," she explains.

Going forward, she wants to transform herself from a community organiser into a social entrepreneur. "I want to synergise my community, government and business relationships to provide sustainable solutions to housing needs in low-income urban communities," she says. "The growing crisis in affordable housing will require new forms of organisation and new kinds of thinking."

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Arthur J Pais