BY JAMES FARRELL
Like many advocates who take up causes, Annetta Seecharran was inspired by her own experiences as a Guyanese immigrant who came to the Bronx as a 13-year-old girl. She remembers being teased at school for her accent and often feeling as if she didn’t belong.
“There was no place for me in this city,” she told the Queens Tribune. “I remember being so scared to go to school.”
But Seecharran didn’t let those early experiences alienate her from her new home. Today, she is the executive director at Chhaya CDC, an anti-poverty organization in Jackson Heights that advocates for the needs of New York City’s South Asian community. The group aims to address what Seecharran describes as a gap in services for immigrants.
But while Seecharran has become a champion of local policy, she started her career with her heart set on international development.
“I thought one day I was going to go back to Guyana and help fix that country,” she said.
But while pursuing her M.A. in international political economy and development at Fordham University, she became involved in local projects focused on youth development and ended up running a program on substance-abuse prevention in middle school.
“That was kind of totally mind- blowing to me,” she said. “It just gave me such insight into the problems of this country.”
Even after she got a job at the United Nations, she kept up with her involvement in New York City, working with young people from the Bronx. She had become increasingly aware and frustrated by the lack of support and integration services for immigrants, particularly in her own South Asian community.
She came on board as the executive director for South Asian Youth Action (SAYA). She knew nothing about running an organization, but had a deep understanding of the needs of young South Asian individuals. She stayed with the organization through the tumultuous post-9/11 period, when the South Asian community was uniquely targeted for a rise in hate crimes and, ultimately, came to see shortcomings in SAYA’s ability to provide for its community.
“There was no way we were going to be able to mobilize all the necessary resources,” she said. “Really, the only way that we were going to address the need was if we worked in the arena of public policy.”
So Seecharran grew SAYA from a small nonprofit into, at the time of her departure, the largest South Asian American organization—one that advocated for translation services in schools.
Following her time at SAYA, Seecharran brought her vision for public policy to the United Neighborhood Houses, which represents the public policy interest of 500,000 low-income New Yorkers, as its director for policy and advocacy. There, she focused on the issue of childcare, understanding that inequalities affect immigrant children from an early age.
That focus led to the Campaign for Children, which fought proposed cuts to childcare by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The group’s advocacy, Seecharran said, is what brought the conversation of free pre-K, later adopted by Mayor Bill de Blasio, to the political stage.
Since taking over Chhaya, which focuses on issues relating to South Asian economic development and housing, Seecharran has helped to launch an initiative to provide aid to small businesses hurt by gentrification by ensuring that the same protections provided to individual renters are provided to businesses.
The group is also advocating for the legalization of basement apartments.