Amita Swadhin, Class of 2010
Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation Fellow,
Los Angeles Executive Director, Peer Health Exchange
The invitation to the 2010 International Achievement Summit came at a crucial time in my life. I had taken a huge leap that year by creating Secret Survivors (www.secretsurvivors.org), a theater project telling my story and the story of other survivors of child sexual assault/abuse with the avant-garde New York City theater group Ping Chong & Co. (www.pingchong.org) I was in graduate school studying public policy at the time, and some of my professors cautioned me against such a personal and risky move. Yet at the Summit, I heard one trailblazing speaker after another attribute their success to making bold choices and advise all of us to follow our hearts and our passion. I’ll never forget the words of wisdom shared by Jacqueline Novogratz, Anthony Romero, Michelle Rhee, Congressman John Lewis and Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I know it was an experience of a lifetime to have dinner at the Supreme Court and to have conversations in such intimate settings with CIA Director Leon Panetta and General James Jones. Of course, one of the biggest highlights was deepening my friendships with so many of my peers – relationships I know will last a lifetime – and being able to cement those friendships on the dance floor (in the company of Wolf Blitzer, no less!). The Summit gave me the confidence to continue my work with pride, no matter how far off the beaten path it takes me.
Since the Summit, I have graduated with an MPA from the Wagner School of Public Service at New York University, where I was a Reynolds Fellow in Social Entrepreneurship. In 2011, Secret Survivors premiered to a live audience of over 400 people at El Museo del Barrio in New York City. We have since created a documentary based on the show, expanding the number of survivors and advocates in the project to ensure that we illustrate the scope of the endemic violence of child sexual abuse (in the US, the CDC has demonstrated (http://www.cdc.gov/ace/prevalence.htm) that one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually assaulted/abused by the age of 18). Drawing from my background as an educator and trainer, I have also written a toolkit and curriculum guide to accompany the DVD, and hope this project will equip many individuals and organizations to take the crucial step of talking about this taboo but all too common violence. I gave my first talk about Secret Survivors at a TEDxYouth conference (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FJ3eU2xw03s) in 2010, and continue to give presentations about ending child sexual abuse, including at the upcoming National Sexual Assault Conference (http://www.nsvrc.org/nsac). The Secret Survivors project continues through Ping Chong & Co. I performed again with the rest of the original cast in a festival at the off-off Broadway venue La MaMa in October 2012 (http://theater.nytimes.com/2012/10/14/theater/ping-chong-delivers-a-new-set-of-undesirable-elements-plays.html?_r=1&), and the company is now creating additional works and hosting writing workshops with child sexual abuse survivors in communities from the Bronx to Minnesota to Michigan to Oregon.
A year ago, I moved to Los Angeles after three years of bicoastal living with my partner, riKu. I’ve been so lucky to find the perfect job for me – I’m now serving as the Los Angeles Executive Director of Peer Health Exchange (http://www.peerhealthexchange.org), a national nonprofit that gives teens the knowledge and skills to make healthy decisions. We do this by training college student volunteers to present health workshops in public high schools that lack comprehensive health education, and in which a majority of students are from low-income families. I was especially drawn to this role because our curriculum not only addresses the subjects one might expect in a health class – STI/HIV prevention, pregnancy prevention, nutrition, physical activity, and substance abuse prevention – but also includes workshops on healthy relationships, abusive relationships, rape and sexual assault, and mental health. Our curriculum is bookended by workshops on decision-making and communication skills. Our program truly empowers young people to make informed decisions about what choices are best for them. Moreover, every topic we teach addresses a health risk or challenge that survivors of child sexual assault/abuse are at disproportionate risk of experiencing. I am grateful to be leading a talented team of staff members, and 250 college student volunteers who reach 2,900 ninth grade students across 22 public high schools throughout L.A. County.
In my personal time, I enjoy giving back to my communities as a member of the Liberty Hill Foundation’s OUT Fund (http://www.libertyhill.org/), and Peace Over Violence’s Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Advisory Council (http://peaceoverviolence.org/), and as a founding member of South Asians for Justice (http://www.facebook.com/southasiansforjustice).
In 2011, I participated in the School for Creative Activism (http://artisticactivism.org/school-of-creative-activism/) and GLAAD’s National People of Color Media Institute (http://www.glaad.org/programs/pocmedia), and have since had the opportunity to publish and perform essays and poetry on various issues of social injustice that keep me up at night. I co-host and co-produce Flip the Script (http://www.facebook.com/flipthescriptla), a weekly radio show on Pacifica’s KPFK.
The rest of my time goes to thoroughly enjoying my new life on the west coast, including things the New Yorker in me only dreamed of doing (like raising a puppy, composting for a home garden, hiking every week, and watching the sun set over the mountains). Life is good, and I’m very grateful for all of the support I’ve had to get here!