Meet Ishani Chowdhury, the unsung, community hero
Ishani Chowdhury deftly straddles the diverse worlds of activism and the arts.
She is part of Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley’s Commission on South Asian American Affairs, which is part of the Governor’s Office of Community Initiatives. She was recently appointed to chair its all-important health subcommittee.
Rockville, Maryland-based Chowdhury is a rising Bharata Natyam star in the Washington, DC area. She is a student of Lakshmi Swaminathan, founder of the School of Dance in Bethesda, Maryland.
Chowdhury also works full time as contracting officer’s representative and senior IT project and programme manager, Food and Drug Administration.
Before returning to the private sector in 2010, Chowdhury was for four years director of public policy at the Hindu American Foundation. After that she served as a business relationship manager for L-3 Communications and corporate communications manager for REI Systems, before joining the FDA.
Community elders impressed by her talents and grassroots activism -- particularly for those less fortunate -- strongly recommended her to Governor O’Malley.
As head of the health subcommittee she has been the driving force in ensuring the health-care needs of the community, particularly those who live at or below the poverty line, are taken care of.
“Our goal,” Chowdhury explained, “is to seek out health-related issues/disparities in terms of service and availability, amongst South Asian Americans. For example, many are unaware of senior care services and facilities, health fairs sponsored by various organisations, or domestic violence facilities. Likewise, there are large groups of people that require a wide range of services, such as the Bhutanese refugees.”
The commission and the health subcommittee’s goal is to help fill that gap by serving those who would otherwise be unaware of these facilities, and likewise, the state may be unaware of their need. Our aim is to meet the distinct health needs of the South Asian community,” she added.
The commission serves as an advisory body to the governor and the administration on matters relating to the South Asian Americans of Maryland.
The 21-member South Asian American Commission is co-chaired by Jasdip ‘Jesse’ Singh and Dr Amjad Rair.
Maryland is the only state that has an ethnic commission dedicated to South Asian Americans. Commissioners serve pro-bono for a four-year term, with a possibility of reappointment for an additional four years.
Chowdhury, who has served the community from behind the scenes for years, said her community activism came naturally to her since “ the desire to do seva (service), was instilled in me at an early age, and was always present and so much a part of my personality.”
Her family, she said, “has always taught by example. My paternal grandfather was a freedom fighter in India’s struggle for independence, and was jailed by the British. During Partition, my father’s side had to tearfully leave our ancestral homeland and settle in India -- leaving everything behind and starting over.”
“Despite the hardships growing up, and again while settling in the United States, my father found the time to engage in community activities: Running a Bengali newspaper in the US, organising Durga Puja for the local New York Bengali community and temple programmes at ISKCON, opening a Vedic Sunday School -- where I taught for years -- and engaging in humanitarian assistance in India. My mother instilled a deep sense of faith and devotion to God, as well as strength in the face of adversity.”
“As the first employee of the HAF,” she recalled, “the stewardship of setting up a DC-based office, providing a consistent voice to Capitol Hill, the White House, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, and NGOs, supervising human rights projects, and speaking at university panels, to the media, as well as at Congressional briefings and at the UK House of Lords, provided me a solid foundation on effective organisational and public policy development and management.”
In 2007, she was in the forefront of convincing US lawmakers to pass House and Senate resolutions recognising the significance of Diwali.
“The sense of overwhelming happiness I felt when after nearly a year of hard work, for the first time, in 2007, both Senate and House passed resolutions recognising the significance of Diwali is something that is incomparable,” Chowdhury said.
“Now, when I watch President Obama’s yearly Deepaavali message, see celebrations at the Walter Reed National Medical Center, and, this year for the first time at Congress, I am reminded that sometimes the struggles one faces at the onset is worth it when compared to the base it makes for the community to later build upon. It is wonderful to see that Deepavali is now slowly becoming part of the American fabric, something I could not have imagined as a child growing up in New York City.”
Bharata Natyam, she said, “gives me the opportunity to connect with my culture and faith, and truly understand the intricacies of song, rhythm, emotion and devotion to God in a different facet.”
Chowdhury, the only child of Pabitra Chaudhuri and Manisha Chowdhury, both of whom worked for the city of New York, immigrated to the US at age 4 and grew up in Brooklyn.
Her parents, she said, “always reminded me that despite what I may achieve in life, if I don’t use it for the betterment of others, then I’m not truly doing anything purposeful. They always also instilled in me the importance of learning my mother tongue.”
“Oftentimes, I see my generation have difficulty speaking, or not speaking at all, their native tongue. To me, speaking Bangla is a wonderful way to not only connect with my relatives in India, but at the same time, understand the subtle nuances of the language and culture.”
She received her BA in computer information systems from Baruch College, City University of New York, and her MBA from the University of Maryland, University College.
“Growing up and going to Catholic high school, when you’re told by a classmate that you’re going to hell and that your religion is demonic, you have a choice of either learning more about your faith, or distancing yourself from it,” she said. “I’m glad I chose the former.”
Image: Ishani Chowdhury, second from left, with Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley and his wife, second from right and right respectively, and Nirupama Rao, former Indian ambassador to the US.