20 Years of Serve-Learn-Lead: Meenakshi Verma-Agrawal

On January 26, 2001, the Gujarat Earthquake struck — an enormous tragedy for the state and for India. With the aid of allies, Gujarat would be eventually rebuilt, yet the earthquake had lasting effects on education, health, migration, and livelihoods. It was in these aid efforts that Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and United States President Bill Clinton joined forces in mobilizing the Indian diaspora in the US to form the American India Foundation (AIF) in the spring of 2001, with a mission of strengthening the US-India bridge to make a tangible difference on the ground in India.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, AIF launched the AIF Service Corps Fellowship program to offer young people the opportunity to support local communities in post-disaster rebuilding, and to build strong ties between civil society in both countries to foster mutual understanding and long-term collaboration. During the summer of 2001, the inaugural class of Fellows consisted of twenty-one talented individuals who would serve with AIF and its partner organizations in Gujarat and other states that migrants had sought refuge in. These twenty-one pioneers were driven by the spirit of service and their desire to strengthen change in India after an unprecedented disaster. Now, twenty years later, we look back on that first cohort of Fellows — where they’ve been, what they’re doing, and how their time with AIF has stuck with them since.

Meenakshi Verma-Agrawal was actually in Rajasthan when the Gujarat Earthquake struck; she even felt the tremors. A first-generation Indian-American, her parents immigrated to America when she was five years old, first from India to Libya and then to the U.S. They visited India every few years, and Meenakshi could never shake the feeling that she wanted to come back and do something in and for the country.

However, this feeling was often contested by her parents, who “left so [she] could have better opportunities.” By profession, Meenakshi’s parents were academics; her father taught English and her mother Hindustani music, and they had to be re-trained in the United States because their degrees weren’t accepted. Despite this internal (and external) back-and-forth dialogue, the feeling of being pulled to India persisted.

So, she focused on other things. Meenakshi attended the University of Massachusetts, Amherst––a college close to her, since she’d grown up in the state of Massachusetts––and earned degrees in Biology and Women’s Studies. Through these years, she was still uncertain about her future career path and she wound up in a lab doing research. At the time, UMass Medical School was offering free classes on public health. It was there, in a community development class, that she met the mentor and Professor who changed her life. Dan Gerber had worked extensively within non-profit health organizations––Peace Corps, Save the Children, the like––and after talking to her, he asked her point-blank, “What are you doing working in a lab? You should be working in public health.”

This flipped a switch in Meenakshi, and it inspired her to start in the vast field of public health. Her journey started with the basics: school. Meenakshi went back to UMass Amherst to get a Master’s in Public Health. It was around this time that the Gujarat Earthquake struck, and she came upon the AIF Service Corps Fellowship. Thinking it was the perfect opportunity to return to her old dream of working in India, and so she applied. 

Unfortunately, Meenakshi was waitlisted. 

“I was so sad,” Meenakshi recounted. “But then I got a call one day. Someone, one of the fellows, was going to their sister’s wedding and they offered me their spot. It was such an awesome coincidence! And then before you know it, I was off on that journey.”

Since it was the first time AIF would run this fellowship, and in such dire circumstances, it had been put together very quickly. Meenakshi was unsure about what she was getting into, and when she got to Kutch, she realized just how severely they had been hit; “We were visiting villages when we first got to Bhuj, and we would drive around and all these villages had been decimated. The buildings were literally crumbling, and there was debris everywhere. ”

The cohort members were sent off to their projects; Meenakshi and her partner, Tanvi Pandit, another fellow involved in public health, weren’t living in the main city of Bhuj but a small village north of it. Living in a small, concrete shelter, they had an entirely immersive experience of what village life looked like. They ate the local food, and most of them, Meenakshi included, spoke Hindi––not Gujarati or Kutchi, the regional languages. Meenakshi and Tanvi worked with Kala Raksha, an organization founded in 1993, comprised of artisans, community members, and experts in the fields of art, design, rural management, and museums. The artisans in the village, mainly women, were best known for Kutch Embroidery, a unique kind of stitching, a local industry and specialty. 

Tanvi, Nisha and Meenakshi sitting on a large wooden swing in the backyard of the campus.
Tanvi Pandit, Nisha Vora, Meenakshi Verma-Agrawal sitting on the swing on the campus of Kala Raksha, Sumrasar Sheik, Gujarat.

“A lot of the local women weren’t even allowed to go to the center of town, but they could go to the States for trunk shows––to sell their goods. The women were an integral part of marketing and selling their art; it was a collaborative approach with the organization sourcing and selling their products.” With a coordinator from McKinsey, Tanvi and Meenakshi conducted a brief health and education program for the women. While the schedule had been put together by the coordinator, the two would discuss and suggest changes and improvements to the curriculum. These insights were gathered through village visits, in which they observed and spoke to the local people to identify problems in the community. Along with this, in acknowledgment of the women’s active role in the artisanal industry, Tanvi and Meenakshi also discussed available savings and loan programs, drilling down to details of accessibility and eligibility for financial assistance and programs. Kala Raksha now works with more than 1000 artists from seven different ethnic communities.

Meenakshi leaning into six women artisans lounging on the floor, smiling.
“Hanging out with the amazing women artisans while they rested after lunch.”

“Looking back at it twenty years later, I realize we got so much more out of it than they got out of us.” This was something she highlighted often: the presence of a savior complex in volunteer work. A savior complex is a(n often subconscious) state of mind in which an individual believes that they are responsible for assisting and saving others; this, undeniably, puts the individual in a position of superiority. The savior complex, predominantly perpetuated by attitudes of white supremacy, has unacknowledged consequences: a resistance to learn and grow, an inflated sense of responsibility and self-worth, the pretense that you know more about the issue than the people for whom it is lived experience.

“I was only in my early 20s. I had just finished college and was doing my master’s. It’s not like I had a lot of experience, but I had a lot to learn,” Meenakshi admitted. “To be honest, I don’t know what we contributed but the opportunity to go and work with them was more than what we gave––I feel very strongly about that.” 

AIF, she feels, did a better job avoiding this by also including locals and Indians in their fellowship.

“The Indian-American narrative really supports that idea of being a savior. There’s a supremacist value system that perpetuates some of these myths, ‘we need to go there and save them.’ It’s not––or at least, it should not be––about pity and a savior complex. These people are thriving, they have economic opportunities.” 

To Meenakshi, the fellowship opened her eyes to larger issues, but also allowed her to gain more insight into herself––how she conceptualized India and her own experiences with charity work. 

“With those ten weeks embedded in [her] mind,” she came back and finished her degree. Following that, Meenakshi worked in Boston for two years for a community-based organization, tackling public health challenges in the U.S.: “Actually, those years really broke that idea of ‘other places need us more,’ because I was able to see the problems happening in communities near me.” Through all this, Meenakshi was itching to come back to India.

Then, she met an Indian-American doctor who had founded a program for students to have a one-month experience in Mumbai. She made it clear that she could not move, but she would help with fundraising and other administrative things. Six months later, she was in India and worked as the AVSAR’s Program Director. Despite having never lived outside the United States, Meenakshi packed two suitcases and found herself in a small flat in King’s Circle, Bombay. According to her, the experience with AIF laid the foundation for her to come back to India and work in the space of social justice: “If that hadn’t been a positive experience for me, I’m not sure I would’ve chosen to go back again and again for different jobs.”

She lived in Bombay for two years and loved it. After Meenakshi met her husband, she moved back to the U.S. to continue working in public health. However, her time in India wasn’t complete. Working with the Deshpande Foundation, she set up a fellowship in Hubli, Karnataka, which allowed her to travel every three months. Some time down the line, when she had her first daughter, Meenakshi set up her own consulting business to give her more flexibility. 

Two and a half years ago, she was doing a project at Simmons University, and a position opened up. She took it. Despite having parents who worked in academic spaces, she never envisioned at a University. But, as she says, “The academic environment is a place to explore and experiment. Students provide a rich learning environment, even for faculty members.” Still at Simmons, she is currently the Associate Director of the MPH Program. As an associate professor too, she designs and teaches classes on public health, organizational development, racial justice, and the intersections between the three.  Taking her experience outside the classroom, Meenakshi trains community organizations and public corporations––such as the Massachusetts Department of Public Health––on issues of racial injustice inside and outside the workplace.

The parallels between racism in America and casteism in India do not evade her. Through the AIF Service Corps Fellowship, she cultivated a deeper understanding of the larger systemic issues at play:

“My understanding of casteism was very limited, but there were different tribes and communities that were completely marginalized from this aid and this help that was being given. And then that connection struck me: the same problems are present in the U.S., just in different ways. It destroys the Western notion of ‘those poor countries.’ America has the same problems as India, but they happen through policies and practices.” 

Meenakshi’s experience with AIF has influenced all her work so far, in the type of work and the projects she’s chosen to be involved in. She says, “I’ll always want to continue that relationship with India. I may always be an outsider there, but how can I deepen my understanding of what happens there? Getting a start in the United States and working here has allowed me to find my place here and there.”

In fact, she kept in touch with Kala Raksha. About five or six years after she first met them, they came to Boston for a trunk show at Harvard. She went to meet them; they remembered her. Fondly, she remembers, “They still [had] that same love and warmth as they did back then.” 

To all of AIF’s current fellows, and those looking to apply, Meenakshi’s story embodies the moral that what has to be, will be. When asked for any advice she would want to share with them, she offered this:

“We can only make changes to other places if we have a very strong understanding of ourselves. Start with yourself, why do you want to do this? How much do you understand your own community, where you grew up, and where you live? It’s very romantic to think of going to another country and doing this work, but the experience I’m gaining so much from, what can I do with that when I return? Understand your own history first, and deal with your own trauma––which we are all carrying. Think of yourself as part of a larger community, a larger whole, a larger society, over an individualistic society we are raised in.”

Meenakshi and her Co-Fellows posing with AIF staff outside of the conference hall.
After the debrief in Delhi after the Fellowship ended, August 2001

Meenakshi recently got accepted into a Ph.D. program in Health Professions at Simmons University, which she will be starting soon. Within her vast field of racial injustice, she wants to deconstruct how the “American dream” is still present for marginalized ethnic communities. Meenakshi argues that colonialism actively influences our current social hierarchy, which considers whiteness to be the greatest social standard; in a struggle for social acceptance, People of Color (PoC)––especially, she mentions, the Indian diaspora––pander to whiteness, discriminating against fellow PoC and communities of color. This view extends to perceptions of our ethnic homelands, and how we look at countries such as India with pity, and oftentimes disgust, without considering the colonial reasons for the conditions; the AIF Fellowship, she mentions, shined a bright light on these feelings, helping her uncover her own biases and internalized narratives. Through her Ph.D., Meenakshi hopes to work towards building solidarity between Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and help imbue a sense of critical consciousness in immigrant communities. For a look at her work, here is an article Meenakshi wrote for Medium, “Imagining a New America: Emerging from the Pandemic.” We wish her the best of luck!

Meenakshi posing with her husband and three young girls in a park, sitting on a tree trunk, with lush green foliage in the background.
Meenakshi’s family: (top to bottom, left to right) Aseem, Meenakshi, Sanika, Aesha, and Mahira.

Aashana Daru is a second-year at the University of Chicago, majoring in Biological Sciences and minoring in English & Creative Writing and Gender & Sexuality Studies. Born and brought up in Mumbai, India, they are excited to get a chance to celebrate AIF's work by sharing the stories of the people involved.

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