Truth, Justice and the American Way: Seema Agnani

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In 1995, after getting a Master’s in Urban Planning and Public Policy from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Seema Agnani saw an ad in the classified pages of City Limits.

The job was Housing Development Associate for Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE), the Chinatown-based housing developer. “In Chicago, I did not live in an ethnic enclave,” says Agnani, “and I never imagined that there could be an Asian organization doing housing development.”

Though Agnani, 31, grew up in Libertyville, Illinois, her parents are from pre-partition India, and she’s fluent in Hindi and Urdu. When AAFE offered her the job, she imagined it in South Asian terms: that “it would be like serving your uncles and aunts.”

In her first two years at AAFE, Agnani–after quelling “initial concerns within the organization about a woman going off to approve inspections at construction sites”–did a little bit of everything. She coordinated a land use study, supervised the development of housing in Chinatown and the Lower East Side and tried her hand at advocacy and fundraising. For a year, Agnani coordinated an intensive Child Health Plus and Medicaid outreach and enrollment process by a coalition of health care agencies in lower Manhattan.

There was just one problem. When she started, AAFE had no South Asian clients. She convinced the group to hire South Asians for fair housing advocacy and health care outreach. But when these employees left, the projects–lacking staff with the requisite language skills–withered away. So in October 2000, Agnani founded an offshoot of AAFE: Chhaya Community Development Corporation.

Chhaya–which means “shelter” in several South Asian languages–is the first citywide, ethnically based community development corporation. Most CDCs address the housing and social service needs of a particular neighborhood; Chhaya serves South Asian neighborhoods throughout the city.

The first thing Chhaya undertook was a Community Needs Assessment Survey, interviewing 500 South Asians to figure out which neighborhoods to target. By July 2001, Chhaya was offering direct services in its Flushing office, starting with a workshop series covering tenant rights, homeownership, fair housing and civic participation.

“The South Asian community is young and its infrastructure is still developing,” says Parag Khandhar, assistant director of policy and planning at the Asian American Federation of New York. “Chhaya is a pioneering project-no one else has attempted this before.”

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