Oona Chatterjee, 34
Oona Chatterjee wasn’t always an activist; she was a student journalist, then a lawyer. While volunteering to help low-income people navigate the welfare system, she realized she wanted to do more. “Although I have a lot of respect for legal services attorneys,” says Chatterjee, “they never get to explore why people have those problems and challenge the root causes.”
In 1997, Chatterjee, then an NYU law student, co-founded Make the Road by Walking, a nonprofit in the low-income, immigrant neighborhood of Bushwick, Brooklyn, where 40 percent of its 100,000 residents live below the poverty line and unemployment hovers at nearly 20 percent.
The nonprofit aims to help residents speak up against injustice and improve living conditions. “It’s a place where you can say what you don’t like about your community and make it better,” says Peter Luciano, 18, a member of Make the Road’s Youth Power Project.
The group’s 1,800 membersmostly low-income, immigrant, Bushwick residents are changing the landscape of their neighborhood, one block at time. They have repaired dilapidated homes, transformed garbage dumps into parks, and helped open a social-justice high school. The group also helps neighborhood residents learn English and computer skills, register to vote, earn a living wage, and get translation help in schools, hospitals, and welfare centers.
“People are trained to just take whatever is served up to them,” says Chatterjee, who grew up in the middle-class suburbs of Philadelphia, the only child of immigrant parents from India. Chatterjee is inspired by stories of her maternal grandparents, who were involved in the struggle for independence in India in the1930s and 1940s, during which her grandfather, a school teacher, was jailed once by the British colonial government.
“It’s a genuine act of courage and hope for people to put themselves out there and say ‘you’re doing something wrong, fix it,” Chatterjee says. In 2004, Chatterjee was named in the New York Daily News as one of 100 Women Who Shape Our City. Her profile listed among her accomplishments her ability to “muscle businesses into paying garment workers back wages,” forcing the city to provide free translation services in public offices.
She also has held landlords responsible for removing lead paint from buildings and won $500,000 in federal funds to open the first literacy center in Bushwick. In 2003, Chatterjee received the Reebok Human Rights Award, which honors young human rights activists from around the world.