BURLINGTON - In late July, the Peace & Justice Center, Burlington's hive of left-wing activists, named a new executive director. Serena Chaudhry, a worldly 33-year-old, promised to bring new blood and new ideas to the graying nonprofit. After two months on the job, she's making progress.
"There's this amazing foundation that exists here - 27 years of being a nonprofit in this world where funding is so unstable," she says of the 1500-member organization. "I think that's remarkable."
"That being said," she adds, "I think that there's still so much that can be done."
Chaudhry, a Cleveland-area native, is not exactly your typical sign-waving activist. She has double Masters in public health and social work from the University of Michigan. Before coming to Vermont, she worked most recently in Brooklyn, as a counselor for victims of torture and war trauma, and as an organizer in refugee communities.
Her office decorations hint at her international focus; on one wall is a Peters Projection map of the world - with an elongated Africa front and center. Leaning against another wall is an enlarged photo of an Afghan woman. Chaudhry took the picture during a 2001 trip to study the health and quality of life of Afghan refugees in a camp in Pakistan; Chaudhry's father was born in Pakistan.
But Chaudhry has worked in the U.S. as well. After earning her Bachelor's degree, she enrolled in Teach for America, and taught in an inner-city Houston school. And as a grad student, she worked as a community health organizer in a depressed Detroit neighborhood.
Her direct service and advocacy experiences have convinced her to seek solutions on a larger level. "Unless there's systemic change," she offers, "individual lives aren't going to be improved."
Chaudhry plans to meet with peace activists around the state, as well as with people beyond the PJC's typical constituency. She recently joined Burlington's Moss Point, Mississippi Sister City Committee. The Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, too, got a visit from Chaudhry. "The world is so interconnected," she observes. "We have a genocide in Darfur, and we have had instability in Sudan for 20 plus years. We have Sudanese refugees here in the community. We need to be really educated about the issues that have pushed those refugees to be here, and how the U.S. foreign policy plays into that scenario."
Chaudhry's also keen on promoting peace - even between activists. The PJC often sponsors events that are pro-Palestinian, and harshly critical of Israel. How will Chaudhry deal with the tension that causes among local supporters of Israel? "I don't think it's our job to exacerbate those tensions," she says. "I think our goal is for both sides to be heard, and to bring two sides together to be able to engage in a productive dialogue."
And what about the war in Iraq? Some antiwar activists support an immediate pull-out, others say a hasty U.S. withdrawal will destabilize the region. Does the PJC support immediate withdrawal? Chaudhry deftly parries the question. "We believe that the war needs to end," she says. She cites a recent poll showing that 75 percent of Iraqis want the U.S. to pull out, and 65 percent want immediate withdrawal, noting, "I think the numbers speak for themselves."
But if Chaudhry is eager to listen, and promote dialogue, she's also passionately spreading the PJC's central message. "This reality is our responsibility," she observes. "And we have the power to change it."