SAYA!’s mission is to create opportunities for South Asian youth to realize their fullest potential. We deliver culturally sensitive services and support to help make this mission a reality.
In 1996, Sayu Bhojwani, SAYA!’s founder, stepped onto a public basketball court in Elmhurst, Queens. She met a handful of South Asian young men and realized the lack of resources for youth like them. Later Sayu met five young women, ages 14 to 17, who attended Newtown High School. Two of the young women were married and one was being raised by a single mother. Within a few months, the newly-rented space was filled with South Asian youth from across Queens, and as far as Brooklyn and the Bronx. Arts and leadership-building became avenues for youth to explore race, gender, class, and ethnic identity.
In 1998, we began our school-based programming. By placing a social worker in several public high schools, South Asian youth had an ally within the school system who understood their challenges. The school sites became a repository for first-hand information about the experiences of South Asian youth. These partnerships built trust with funders, elected officials, and other service providers.
In the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks, the need for SAYA!’s programs gained new urgency. This was a difficult time for South Asian communities. Harassment and racial profiling against South Asians were rampant. Many South Asian youth refused to go to school or hang out in public places. They expressed anger towards the WTC attackers and frustration around why their homelands and beliefs were being blamed.
In December 2001, SAYA! received a large grant from The Rockefeller Foundation. Under the leadership of Executive Director Annetta Seecharran, SAYA! grew, almost overnight. SAYA! provided a safe platform for youth to tell their own 9-11 stories, participate in peace forums, demonstrate outside INS detention centers, and hold open-mic sessions. With the 2000 Census data revealing a significant rise in the South Asian population, we broadened our vision to respond to the times.
Some things have not changed. SAYA! continues to be a gateway where school administrators, mainstream service providers, government agencies, elected officials, researchers and the media can learn more about South Asian youth. SAYA! is also a gateway for youth to access internships, jobs and higher education opportunities.
As the political and economic climate shifts, SAYA! is also adapting our programs. We will continue to evolve to ensure all South Asian youth have the tools and opportunity to realize their dreams.