Amader Golpo: SAPNA NYC; Promoting Health, Social and Economic Empowerment

By: Nowshen Pranthi

SAPNA NYC is an organization dedicated to supporting the needs of South Asian immigrants living in the Westchester Square and Parkchester neighborhoods of the Bronx. Their programs transform the lives of South Asian immigrant women by improving physical and mental health, expanding economic opportunities and building a collective voice for change.


1.) What inspires the work behind SAPNA? When did it begin?

Sapna NYC, formerly Westchester Square Partnership, is a community based organization located in the Bronx, New York. Our mission is to promote the health, social, and economic empowerment of women New York City’s South Asian immigrant communities. Our program development is guided by three core strategies. The first of these is scientific inquiry. Before designing a program, we review current scientific research on health and behavior change in the topic area. We develop detailed manualized interventions that allow for the rapid assessment of program fidelity. We test our interventions using evaluation strategies, both qualitative and quantitative. As a result, we are able to quickly quantify program results and correct problems when they occur. The second core strategy is community engagement. Our programs are designed with input from community members, who are involved with program design, testing, innovating, and delivering program contents through our community health worker and action group models, in which peers provide interventions in community settings. The third core strategy is cultural and linguistic competence. Sapna NYC designs programs that match the needs and values of our constituents. We are a tri lingual organization that delivers services in English, Bengali, and Hindi Urdu.

Sapna NYC has an unusual history. In 2007, a group of researchers, clinicians, and educators began meeting with women from the South Asian community in the Bronx to plan a research project for addressing women’s depression, which we knew to be at epidemic levels in the local community. Along with the group of researchers, clinicians, and educators, about a dozen women worked with us on the research project and we met with them in the waiting room of an HHC outpatient clinic in Westchester Square. Over the next 12 months, they discussed the reasons of why women’s depression is so widespread in the Bangladeshi community. They talked about loneliness, poverty, and deprivation, and told us about their need for jobs, education, health and social services, and social support. Sapna NYC was born the following year. SAPNA means “dream” in many South Asian languages.

2.) What are some of the struggles your constituents face? What resources are pivotal to the base of SAPNA NYC?

The Bangladeshi population in the city grew over 300 percent between 2000 and 2010, and as its growth continues, many families in this vibrant new community bring incredible skills and resources with them. There are hundreds of Bengali businesses in New York City and hundreds of newspapers — more per capita than any other group. Yet many families are unprepared for life in the US, have skills that do not translate well to the New York job market, and struggle with poverty, low English language fluency, overcrowding, discrimination, and cultural isolation. Health problems, especially diabetes, heart disease, and depression, are epidemic in the community, and women are especially vulnerable. Conservative cultural norms, as well as poverty and discrimination, play a major role in limiting life chances for some women.

3.) How does SAPNA build community? What values are centered in your work?

Building community is integral to our approach. We believe that the only way create individual change is through building community and strengthening social ties. Our health interventions are a good example. Most health programs involve a ‘bondhu’ structure, in which we pair participants with each other. Each member of the pair supports the other in providing support, setting goals and achieving health outcomes.

We also use an Action Group model in which participants in our programs provide services to others. We developed this model after learning a valuable lesson during a breast health education and screening project several years ago. In that project, we created pamphlets and health education materials in Bengali, and distributed them at outreach events around the city. Though we distributed thousands of flyers, only 31 women showed up that year for breast health screening. We realized that information alone is not enough to change behavior and engage women in care, so we created a new model using an Action Group methodology. In this model, women come together to learn about breast health or other health issues and needs in the community. They receive training in leadership, communication, and outreach skills. Action Group members then fan out into the community, seeking linguistically and culturally isolated peers in their families, neighborhoods, mosques, and temples. They provide education and outreach through one-on-one conversations in women’s homes, and if there is a need for services, they bring their acquaintances themselves. The year after we instituted the Action Group program for breast health, we screened 240 women. Most were older women in their fifties and sixties — many receiving the first breast exams of their lives.

Mammogram Screening Day at Queens Central Library

4.) What are some struggles SAPNA had to endure to get to where is it now?

Our challenge is to find the resources we need to continue helping low income South Asian women fulfill their dreams. Over the past eight years, we have passed through many phases in which Sapna’s very survival were at stake because of uncertain funding. Due to the loyalty of long term staff, as well as board and supporters, we have been able to stabilize some of our funding streams. However, we continue to search for new sources of support. A good example is our innovative depression treatment program that provides matched savings accounts for low income women. To date, we have had to rely on foundation support for this program, which is not always reliable. We are searching for more stable funding streams to support this flagship program.

SAPNA has graduation parties for their ESOL participants

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Mone Khan resides in the Bronx and had been involved with SAPNA for nearly a decade. She shares her thoughts and gives us her personal experience as a member of SAPNA NYC.

Mone Khan, a past board member and participant at SAPNA NYC tells us her personal experience with SAPNA NYC.

What was your role in SAPNA? How were your experiences being in SAPNA?

I had joined SAPNA NYC 8 years ago. I was a board member in SAPNA for about three years. I participated in a lot of SAPNA’s programs, like their English classes and wellness program. I used to be the vice president of the Mother’s Club at SAPNA. The women who used to take the English class were all newly arrived Bangladeshi immigrant women. I really enjoyed seeing how effective these classes were for these women. They would come in not knowing how to speak English well or how certain things are done but they were able to learn through the English classes.

WSP ESOL Class Graduation

The Mother’s Club was created 4–5 years ago. It was created as a safe zone for mothers and housewives. They were able to come and socialize with one another and openly talk to each other about their problems and fears. We were also involved in creating melas, and the mothers in the club were able to attend those. We would have traditional Bangladeshi pastry making workshops as a way to better bond with one another. The participants used to donate a dollar every now and then to the club. The money we saved up would end up going to creating a big event for the Mother’s Club and their families and friends. One of my roles as vice president was to coordinate with the president on melas and community festivals. The president of Mother’s Club at that time was Gulshan Chowdhury. Together, we would also organize huge events for Eid. Everyone in Mother’s Club used to bring in their own culinary creation and we’d have our own festival with music and food. Everyone would always have so much fun. Unfortunately the Mother’s Club was shut down around last year.

SAPNA’s Gulshan Chowdhury at a rally supporting Governor Cuomo’s proposed increase in minimum wage for the state of New York to $15 for all worker

What motivated you to be at SAPNA?

I enjoyed helping the women who would come in. We were all able to relate to each other’s experiences. Everyone would come in with a purpose. I was surrounded by dedicated and loving Desi women. When I was there, they were also there. The SAPNA community is filled with such good people. I still think about them and miss them dearly. When I have time, I still go to SAPNA but I can’t as frequently as I’d like to. We were all just like a family. Everyone was always supportive of each other. This program was extremely empowering and liberating.

Tell me about one of your most memorable experiences at SAPNA NYC

I remember being involved in a program with other women. We used to walk and learn about healthier lifestyle choices. Through this program I was able to lose a lot of weight and gain a ton of energy. This was a major achievement for me. The program’s name is Challo. I’m so happy to know that this program is still running because it is so important for Desi women to learn about health and better lifestyle choices.

SAPNA’s Challo Conference in May 2016. A potluck event celebrating healthy lifestyle choices

What are your hopes for SAPNA?

I want to see SAPNA grow and spread to more women in our community. The organization and its program is capable of supporting so many women and helping them lead fulfilling lives.

The Bangladeshi Historical Memory Project is an interactive visual and narrative based digital archive & political theater project documenting resistance.

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