If my purpose in life is to add light to these people’s lives or those times when people are going through so much heartache and pain, there’s no better purpose for me. That’s why I was put on this earth… it’s air for me.”
That was scholar and activist Dr. Liza Chowdhury, who finds her own purpose in helping marginalized youth, often people of color, both deal with trauma and give the same opportunities as their white counterparts.
A resident of Paterson, NJ, Chowdhury, who has a doctorate in criminal justice, co-founded Reimagining Justice, a nonprofit organization focused on creating healing-centered justice and safe spaces for youth, in 2017. Through mental health programs and mentorship programs, Reimagining Justice supports youth from marginalized backgrounds while also educating the broader community. She is also a professor at Borough of Manhattan Community College, and brings a social justice lens to students studying criminal justice.
Working with Youth
Chowdhury said she has always wanted to work with youth. As a child, she endured physical abuse, molestation and severe depression. Having known trauma firsthand, she can empathize better with others enduring it. She said she did not know at the time that she was poor, but now she wants to make sure no other children experience it.
“When you live in it, you don’t see something’s wrong,” she said. “I wanted to make sure I can use my education to come back and build up my community and also help young people that have gone through trauma to understand the importance of finding their voice.”
Chowdhury deems it especially important to examine the intersections between racism, classism, trauma and poverty in communities of color, something she can personally connect with. Her own family is from Bangladesh.
Growing up South Asian
Growing up in Passaic, NJ, a predominantly immigrant working-class community, Chowdhury was the only Bengali student in her school and never had “a Bengali cohort to lean on.” Her parents had immigrated to the U.S. seeking better opportunities and freedom, especially after having experienced the 1971 Bangladesh genocide — but that was not what they got.
“When you grow up here, it’s different… You think you’re American, but you’re not, because you’re not a white American from a certain socioeconomic background,” Chowdhury said. “Privilege doesn’t come to someone from an immigrant working-class background.”
For a while, Chowdhury and her family lived in a shelter after being displaced by the 1988 Passaic Fire. These childhood experiences, she said, motivated her to invest in young people and their communities.
As the child of Bangladeshi immigrants, Chowdhury said her parents expected her to get married and settle down at an early age, a pattern in traditional South Asian households. Instead, she said she found her purpose, turning her own negative experiences into a social justice initiative.
Changing the System
Chowdhury did some time working as a probation officer, but she said she realized that when she worked in the system, she became part of it. She focused on shifting from being reactive to preventative, while simultaneously earning her PhD at Rutgers University in nearby Newark.
When people say the system does not work, Chowdhury said, they are failing to realize that it is actually working exactly how it was designed to.
As part of addressing the damage caused, Chowdhury is also a yoga instructor, using trauma-focused yoga to help youth process and deal with their experiences.
She also praised the people with whom she works. She said she wanted to invest in people who were already doing the work to “make sure they’re seen and acknowledged.”
“I have a really strong team of individuals,” Chowdhury said. “I want to make sure the people who are doing the healing work are acknowledged and paid accordingly so they’re not struggling to make ends meet and save their community at the same time.”
Her team consists of some of her former “star students” – gunshot victims, previously incarcerated people, and others who bring their personal experiences to bear on the work they do.
Chowdhury wants to eventually take her work to where her roots lie – in Bangladesh. While she wants to first solve as many problems as she can in this country, she said she especially wants to help young girls in Bangladesh get access to education.
While girls growing up in America have steady social entrepreneurship models to follow, their counterparts in Bangladesh don’t have these opportunities, she said.
“I’m lucky my parents came here, because my life would be so different if I wasn’t born here and didn’t have these opportunities for education,” she said.
But regardless of where she is located, Chowdhury is certain that this is the path for her.
“What’s the point of me working this hard if it’s not going to help the next person have an easier opportunity?” she asked. “I live an unconventional life, but I was put on this planet to do this… it’s not even work to me.”
If this pioneering figure impressed you, be sure to check out Falguni Kothari: ‘Every Writer Is a Fantastic Eavesdropper’