CHHAYA Community Development Corporation
This case study is based on an interview with Annetta Seecharran, Executive Director, and Kay Grigar, Special Assistant to the Executive Director, on May 27, 2020, as well as the documents they have suggested, including their website.
Chhaya CDC is located in Jackson Heights in Northern Queens, south of LaGuardia Airport and west of Flushing Bay. Jackson Heights, along with the neighborhoods of East Elmhurst and North Corona, makes up Queens Community District 3 (CD3). Once a heavily segregated white neighborhood, diversity of residents, businesses, and buildings is the foundation of the Jackson Heights neighborhood today.
Following the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the area received waves of new immigrants from Latin America and South Asia. With white flight taking place around the same time as suburbanization, Jackson Heights became the home of many looking to resettle and create roots in their new country. Businesses and organizations increasingly evolved in response to the needs of this diverse community. Today, Jackson Heights is a destination shopping area for South Asian populations throughout the City.
This is a medium to low-density neighborhood with tree-lined streets, garden apartments built in the early 20th Century, and single-family homes. Many of the single-family homes have either above grade or below grade basements, some of which have been illegally converted into additional dwelling units due to lack of affordable housing options and rising rents in the area.
Chhaya Community Development Corporation
Chhaya is a Community Development Corporation, founded in 2000. Its mission is to build the power, housing stability & economic well-being of South Asian  & Indo-Caribbean communities throughout New York City (https://chhayacdc.org/). It has offices in Jackson Heights and Richmond Hill, since most of its constituency is concentrated in these diverse communities with different races, ethnicities, faiths and cultural traditions in western and southeast Queens. However, Chhaya views itself as a citywide organization that serves people from all over New York City.
Mission and Guiding Principles
The South Asian community is a diverse community, and within the diversity, there are a lot of unspoken class and caste hierarchies. We hold very dearly the equitable inclusion of all of the communities. We are intentional about being inclusive of other communities. While we are a South Asian driven, South Asian led organization, we are first and foremost a community-based organization that would never turn away anyone who seeks our services.
The second important value is that the needs and the voices of the people we serve shape our work and influence the design of our programs, and how we go about our work. A guiding principle in the way Chhaya has done its work is that we have always hired from the community, and that sets us apart.
And the third value is that everything we do in our direct service work should be viewed as an opportunity to inform systemic change. Any programmatic work should be a laboratory to try to drive, to inform, and to call ideas for a broader policy advocacy agenda. And the organizing is the connector between the two.
Chhaya is not a membership organization as membership is classically defined.
We serve approximately 3,000 individuals in our programs that range from one-on-one services to workshops. Those are the folks who take advantage of the specific services we offer. In addition, we reach approximately 10,000 through bigger events designed as community outreach, and other means such as social media, larger scale workshops, and community events.
Chhaya is a 501c-3 organization, so it has an executive board. Its staff is primarily women and women who represent the communities served by Chhaya.
Chhaya rents its space in Jackson Heights, and recently, has opened up an office in Richmond Hill.
Main Sources of Funding
Chhaya’s annual operating budget is $1.9-2 million. For funding, it relies on a good mix of government sources and foundations and a small but growing individual donor base.
Coalitions and Partner Organizations
Chhaya believes in coalition building and partnerships.
We do most of our work in partnerships, especially our policy advocacy work. We are a member of a number of groups and have collaborated with many groups. One that comes to mind immediately is National Capacity, which is the National Coalition for Asian American Community Development Organizations. We've been a fairly active member. I served on the Board of National Capacity with the founder of Chhaya, Seema Agnani, for 12 years. Seema is now the executive director of that organization. We partner with the Association of Neighborhood Housing Development (ANHD), we partner with many of the bigger CDCs and housing organizations. However, we do not have any international partnerships. Chhaya also leads the BASE  Legalization coalition – work that the organization has been engaged in for more than 15 years.
When, how and why did you join the organization?
I joined in May 2016. I had previously served on the board for about four or five years, and I was the board chair at the time we had the transition. I have been working in the South Asian space for the last 20 years. I led South Asian Youth Action for eight years, and then did broader policy work in the city.
In my own sort of trajectory, I got an appreciation of where the root cause is and where the answers are in terms of change for my community. I came to really appreciate housing and economic justice as impacting all the other issues that I care about, women's, young people’s, issues, etc. etc. Without housing and economic justice, all of these other things are not remarkable, and I believe that they come directly out of that. For example, if you think about gender justice, it is very difficult to have real gender justice without economic justice.
I also felt that when I joined Chhaya, it had been doing the work for about fifteen years. At that point, it was primarily viewed as housing, but I think I saw the need to bring in this whole economic justice piece and round out our approach to the work. And I am pleased to say that we continue to do that and have built out that vision.
We very much consider ourselves a grassroots organization, but we also work with grass tops. I think it's important to play the inside outside game, and we are intentional about that. Our approach is the grassroots organizing of our people so they can have a voice and influence change. We also see ourselves pushing the agenda and pulling levers of power whenever we can.
Foundation and Evolution of Chhaya
Chhaya was founded in the late 1990s to 2000 when there was a national awakening or a groundswell among pockets of South Asian communities across the country. The community had reached a point of critical mass where it was becoming apparent that there was a need for culturally specific responses and attention and programs. During that time frame, the first South Asian youth organization was founded, and Chhaya was part of that. Seema Agnani, whom I mentioned before, was at the time working with AAFE  (Asian Americans For Equality). A lot of us, young people at the time working for other organizations, thought something like this is needed for our community.
Seema started Chhaya, at first, as a program of AAFE, and then, as an initiative of AAFE, and eventually, it became independent. It was founded in response to what was becoming obvious, that there was a growing housing need for South Asians, and there was no culturally sensitive response to that need. The issues were over crowdedness, lack of access to public housing, a lack of understanding of the unique barriers, and racism and exclusion and additionally, challenges to navigate the home buying process. It started out exclusively focused on housing needs. Once we were deep in that, it became apparent that housing and the challenges around housing are not isolated. They are very much intertwined with economic issues, with bigger immigrant and immigration issues, like language access, interpretation, translation. etc. And of course, when 9/11 happened, it exacerbated the challenges that South Asians faced as a community. Thus, the organization, keeping housing as a focal point, started slowly to address all the needs that have a direct impact on people's ability to have a stable home. The BASE Campaign, for example, has that housing focus. Three years ago, we were intentional about forming economic justice as one of the two major pillars of the organization and programmatically developed strategies.
The role and involvement of grassroots women in Chhaya have been multifold. We have many women-focused programs. We have been intentional about bringing women together to inform our programming in the growth of the organization and of course, as participants.
We started a new program as well, called Pragati, which is a women's workforce development program. In our communities it's no secret that there is deep in our cultural norms a sort of gender inequity. And so, there are many women who are underemployed or unemployed, who are effectively stuck in the home. We are one of the largest providers of the free tax preparation program. Every year we have a challenge, as we don't have enough people with language capacities who can provide that service. This is a seasonal sort of work because it's during the tax season. We came up with the idea to train unemployed and underemployed women in our community to become tax preparers and to be paid by us. Thus, we built up this program -- trained the women, had an application process -- and were ready to go for our first try with it, and then the pandemic happened. We've done our best to try to place the women within other programs.
The Pragati program was born out of our free tax preparation program, which has run about three years. And within those three years it has grown astronomically and exponentially, and we recognize the need. This year, we created this training program for originally eight women. It's small, but it was the first time we ran the program, and they are trained as certified tax preparers. Even though COVID has happened, we still kept on six of these Pragati women who are working with small business loan applications. A couple of the women had to leave the program because they're taking care of children at home. So therein lies the reality.
We continue to come up with new ways, new ideas, and new initiatives. Shakti is a leadership development program for community members to inform each other about the ways they can get involved, whether it's on community boards or on school committees, etc. This is a developing program that is not exclusive to women, but we are intentional about ensuring women participate. Our board is woman-led, and my two board chairs are women from the community. Our staff is primarily women and women who are from the local community.
Shakti is a Sanskrit term for energy, ability, and strength. It informs participants on how they can be involved in community development and organizing. For instance, one of our current employees, our operations manager, Phoolmaya Gurung, was part of this Shakti Community of Masters Program. And then she continued being involved with Chhaya through fellowships. Now she's finally employed with us.
Many of us have come to this work with a gender perspective. I started out my work doing gender work at the United Nations. We try to be intentional in thinking about how the space looks and feels for women, and how we manage counseling sessions by addressing the traditional aspects of our culture. Our counselors are intentional about creating a space for women to speak first or speak more. We are intentional about ensuring that women are equitably served. Just based on observation, I would say the majority of the people we serve are women. For example, if you look at the ESL classes, the majority of the participants are women, in the lending circles they tend to be mainly women.
In terms of location, Chhaya was first located in Flushing for maybe seven or eight years. Then, we moved to our [current] space that was directly placed in the community. We try our best to make the space available to the community and have created different opportunities for that. But we have yet to realize that dream of having the community center that we all want, where people can flow in and out, that is unstructured and safe, where spontaneous things can happen. That is our vision. Right now, we do have a lovely [space] in both locations [Jackson Heights and Richmond Hill]. And we were intentional about making the spaces open, welcoming, and culturally warm and appropriate. But it's not the kind of space where there are community members with keys and who can go and open it up. It's not open 24/7 with unstructured activities. We are an official Community Learning Lab, so people are welcome to come in any time, and at different times we've been intentional about creating opportunities for people to come together.
We do not have a community center as is classically defined. It is our aspiration to have that community center. As a small organization from a community that has had a great deal of challenges, being recognized as a South Asian community in need, we continue to fight the fight. As a community, we struggle with the model minority myth. We are serving communities with high rates of poverty, so for Chhaya to raise the necessary funds to build a real community space, it has been a mammoth job. We hit up against obstacles continually, both from public funding and even funding from our own communities.
I underscore the importance of the location in Richmond Hill, which is somewhat of a space-deprived community in the sense of community centers. It's just a small office, but it is used for partner organizations to have meetings, etc. We were intentional about promoting it for community members’ use. We want to make it available for our folks because the only spaces for congregating in that community are religious institutions, and given the diversity of the community, we want to have a safe space where people of all diverse backgrounds, religious backgrounds, gender, conforming or nonconforming backgrounds can come together and congregate.
In terms of space, something has evolved over time. We have an annual Chapati Mela, which is a South Asian street fair. It began as a way to bring attention to South Asian culture through performances, and also for street vendors to sell their wares. It's developed over the past few years and we're connecting programs to the street fair. This was the year we finally got funding for the Chapati Mela, but unfortunately, due to COVID-19, we decided to have the mela virtually and use it as an opportunity to promote small businesses in the community that have been deeply impacted by the pandemic. We aim to connect small businesses to this once-a-year event that has been happening on 77 Street in Jackson Heights. We have always also viewed it as a community outreach activity that is intended to be a safe space for women, for all the diverse members of our community. We’re intentional about how we set it up, what is featured, how the seating is situated, etc. We have tried to make our spaces welcoming and safe for women.
Accountability to its constituency
We are a small, nimble organization, and we're not so disconnected that we have to survey people or formally ask them. The space is incredibly dynamic. Our members are always in our spaces, and we are always in conversations with them. All of these ideas that we have discussed, Pragati, Shakti, the housing justice work, the tenant organizing, the first-time homebuyer needs, specific needs, all of that has been driven by the needs of the community, what we're hearing from folks in our conversations with them.
One of the most powerful entry points to Chhaya is through our ESL classes, which is often a safe way where people think, “oh, I want to improve my language skills; this is a free program”. They come together; they sit in our workshops. These are big open spaces and we use that as an opportunity to get to know them and their needs and their issues and what their challenges are. Are they interested in work? We also use that to spread, push their imagination of what's possible for them, and what other things they could be thinking about. They could be thinking about building their own credit, their personal credit. They could be thinking about joining the pure lending circle. They could be thinking about purchasing a home, etc., etc. Or even health issues. So, I would say that we don't have a formal system for accountability.
In terms of monitoring and evaluation, we do have a system, we do have clear organizational goals. We do quarterly benchmarks against those goals and metrics that we've set, which are tied also to our board meetings. So, we have four board meetings a year and we really use that also as an accountability touch-point. So that is the formal piece. We will survey community members on an as-needed basis. But we don't do a mass survey of folks for different things. It's more organic; it's more dynamic and it's more accurate.
Just as an aside, my first career was in international development, and I worked on evaluation issues. It is what I did for five years and evaluation can be sort of fixed and not dynamic and can often miss the point and miss the nuances of what's happening and not responsive and nimble enough.
In this COVID pandemic, we regularly get in touch with community members; we make calls. Our staff, literally in their various programmatic areas, called all the people we know. The tenant organizers called all the tenants that she had been organizing; the first-time homebuyer program manager called all of our home buyers, and so on and so forth, to check in how people are doing; what are the issues. That’s how we became aware of some of the trends and issues. For example, with the first-time homebuyer program clients, we realized that many of our constituents had actually signed up for the mortgage forbearance program with banks to save their homes, but in fact, have endangered themselves and put themselves at risk of foreclosure because they will have a balloon payment in months to come.
Achievements and Challenges
In terms of achievements, I would say our basement legalization campaign. That's a major thing that Chhaya can say it puts on the mouth of policymakers in the city: that basement is a potential and important source of housing, that it is and can be formalized as a legitimate and important source of housing for low to moderate income folks. So it is a major campaign and achievement of Chhaya.
I would also say our civic engagement work. Chhaya has led that charge within the South Asian community, and there we have a lot of really great numbers around the number of people registered to vote over the years. We're known for that work as well. For every major election in Queens, or an election that is in a South Asian heavy district, we will do voter education and candidate forums.
I would say we've been a leader on the tenant organizing front, as well. In Queens, we have surfaced some unique challenges facing folks in tenant space: Discrimination, especially that is tied to discrimination that came out of 9/11 where Muslims were targeted.
I think our first-time homebuyer program is a major achievement. In this past year, Chhaya brought together 800 folks who were interested in purchasing a home. We were told that that was the largest first-time homebuyer affair in New York City.
I think we are emerging as a leading voice on advocating for the issues facing small businesses, pre COVID and now in the pandemic. We have a small business initiative in Jackson Heights where we organize small businesses because our interest is to preserve that commercial district. We are increasingly viewed as kind of a go-to expert on micro businesses, small immigrant businesses.
An achievement for Chhaya that is broad based, is that we are such a small organization, but I would say our presence is pretty significant in New York City. It has everything to do with our strategy where we are intentional about tying organizing and advocacy to all programs. And I think because of that, we have been able to really surface sort of unique issues and challenges and be kind of the leading edge of some of those things, such as the basement issue. We saw that as a trend in the folks we were working with, both homebuyers and tenants, a decade ago and started to push that forward, as like, “hey, wait a minute, this is an issue where these basements are legitimate homes for people, and legitimate sources of income for people”. But homeowners are being fined 10 to 30 thousand dollars. It's a complex issue that we surfaced. I set out to say that a major achievement is that we are a small organization that now has a big footprint in a range of community development issues related not just to South Asian but to all immigrants in general.
In terms of challenges, we have a lot. I would say funding. We continue to fight the stigma of being from a community that can figure it out, being model minorities, and policymakers and other supposed allies, turning a blind eye to the needs of our communities, being excluded consistently for the longest time. When people talk about issues they exclude Asians in particular, and yet the poverty rates in our community is significant in certain pockets.
I would say the fact that there's inadequate data collection in our community is a huge issue. The way data is collected, starting with the census, but also with other American community surveys and others, for example, as in COVID, there isn't adequate data collection in the community.
The third issue would be the lack of space. We have outgrown our space. We are in desperate need of more space. We want to remain in Jackson Heights as our headquarters, and we'll see what happens after the pandemic. But up until now, it has been virtually impossible for Chhaya to be able to figure out a bigger space that is more of a community space, as we were discussing earlier.
As it relates to capacity, being so very much at the grassroots and the frontline, we find it difficult (and I don't think we're unique in that way) to put money, to put our resources in what's really needed in terms of organizational stability and sustainability. It's hard to say we need a seasoned development director or we need a communications manager when we know that there's a desperate programmatic need, that if we hired one more tenant organizer, we could serve a lot more people. So, we're constantly fighting that battle internally, and we've made some really good decisions and built our capacity for a long time. We all had one program director. Now we have two program directors, one that is overseeing housing justice, one senior at economic justice. I would say the internal capacity and training of our staff with a lot of young people who come to us is a big challenge for Chhaya. We don't have enough resources and time to train them.
Community and Citywide Planning Activities
We are in so many coalitions. I didn't even mention the community land trust work that we lead. We serve on a number of major initiatives. I serve on the Housing Conference Committee that's shaping the housing plan for the next mayor. I co-chair a subcommittee related to homeownership. And that's been a really good place for Chhaya to push some big ideas like community land trusts. I'm on the Mayor's Recovery Task Force. It's giving me the opportunity to really surface issues specific to immigrants that no one else is talking about, undocumented immigrants and so on and so forth. I am a member of the City's Civic Engagement Commission, and I served on the 2018 Charter Revision Commission. The fact that we have these opportunities also is a significant accomplishment of the organization. We've had many opportunities to really inform citywide policy and planning, and we also serve on a number of coalitions, advocacy coalitions that continue to push for change.
I mentioned that I also currently serve on the Mayor's Recovery Task Force for Social Services, which in terms of representation, I would say has a great representation of women. The services sector is largely driven by women. I think that the mayor has been pretty thoughtful about diversity. The taskforce that I am working with is really focused on how to ensure that the nonprofit sector remains whole and is strengthened, because there's recognition that the sector will play a significant role in the city's recovery. And so, I've been pushing the angle of small community-based organizations, like Chhaya, that serve a disconnected, significantly underserved constituency. It is so critical for the city to ensure that small ethnic specific organizations will survive. Otherwise, huge swaths of the city will go underserved or not served at all. I've been surfacing the issue of immigrants and undocumented folks, which I think is not talked about enough. It hasn't yet surfaced as a leading priority of the city as we think about recovery and relief.
Involvement in Citywide Climate Change initiatives, including Superstorm Sandy
We are part of the Environmental Justice Alliance, and we must have our climate work done through them. But historically we also had what we call a post-purchase program, of which energy efficiency has been a significant piece. We've done our environmental justice work through that as well.
I wasn't at Chhaya when Sandy happened, so I can't really speak to the specific details, but I can say that Chhaya did play a role in that in the recovery and specifically around the energy efficiency type work and retrofitting of homes.
Visions for the Future
Things are changing now with the pandemic. We still hold dear the vision to have a multiservice space that could qualify as a dynamic community center in Jackson Heights. We'd love to see that also in Richmond Hill, in Jamaica, and in Parkchester in the Bronx. We would love to see all of our programs grow.
I think the pandemic is going to surface new constituencies that we will need to focus on, such as older adults in our community who have been disconnected in this process and underserved. We're going to have to figure out how our economic justice work really serves domestic workers. I think we're also going to have to figure out how we organize restaurant workers. These are people who are from large swaths of our community who occupy these industries, whose work will be different in the near future. I think that this is a time of chaos, and we are all going to have to pivot and figure out how we better serve folks.
My vision, also our vision, is that we really make a dent reframing how home ownership is done in the city, and really push the idea of more cooperatives and land trust type models. That would be a real significant achievement. I think obviously seeing the BASE campaign really turn into a citywide basement legalization program. Those are some of the leading big ideas and visions we have.
I would say growing our board and strengthening our internal leadership, our bench, are the two most critical things for long-term sustainability of our organization. Without a really strong internal bench, the organization would not be able to respond to the needs and the opportunities; that continues to be front and center and especially now in the pandemic. All of that has to do with funding as well.
Lessons from Chhaya
That there is magic to being small and nimble! As somebody who's personally studied scale in the movement here, and certainly for a long time in international development, there's a push for scale and growth. But I think being small and nimble is important. Also, I would love to see this entire sector move away from the model of service only; service must be tied to an agenda for broader change. Because if only service, then we are in it in the business just for our own survival, and not in the business to get ourselves out of business. Our goal should be to get ourselves out of business. So, I'd love for the sector to really take away Chhaya's model of seeing these two pieces as inextricably linked. And I'd love to help inform the way the movement develops.
 South Asians—immigrants from the regions and border areas of Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, as well as the diaspora from the Caribbean and other areas—are one of New York City's newest immigrant groups and also one of its fastest growing ethnic populations. https://www.nycservice.org/organizations/index.php?org_id=924
 The BASE (Basement Apartments Safe for Everyone) campaign is a coalition of community organizations, advocates, tenants, homeowners, and community members who are organizing working-class neighborhoods and communities of color to increase the number of legally-recognized, affordable, and safe basement apartments, as well as other accessory dwelling units (“ADUs”) in New York City (https://chhayacdc.org/campaigns/base-campaign/).