Oona Chatterjee

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Oona Chatterjee

Make The Road by Walking

Oona Chatterjee and Andrew Friedman, co-founders of Make The Road by Walking, ended up finding their calling--and launching their feisty Bushwick community activist group--through starkly different paths.

Friedman, 29, in 2000, was a punk rocker during his high school days in Washington, D.C. He gravitated from that culture of protest to global activism, demonstrating outside the Nicaraguan embassy in his teens, and against Columbia University's South African investments while a student there.

Chatterjee, 28, grew up near Philadelphia and went to Yale to study English; once she got there, she was inspired into political involvement. "A couple of my activist friends at Yale were very articulate about their work," she recalls. After moving to New York, Chatterjee worked as a campus organizer.

But both Chatterjee and Friedman have political activism in their blood. Chatterjee's maternal grandparents were freedom fighters against the British Raj in India. Friedman's were members of the Communist Party USA.

Today, both have become part of the immigrant mosaic of Bushwick, running this three-year-old organization with the aim of "showing the community how to determine its own future." What that means, in part, is setting up seminars and study groups showing young people how to organize for the causes they care about most, like after-school programs and safe streets, and mobilizing welfare recipients to push for their rights. Chatterjee's home is literally an extension of her work: She lives above the organization's office on Grove Street. Friedman lives only a few blocks away. "We wanted to live in the community where we work," Friedman says.

Q: How have people responded to your efforts?

Chatterjee: There are immigrants here who've come from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Ecuador...from countries already struggling for social justice. This is not new to them.

Q: How do you feel about the generation before you?

Friedman: I feel there's a gap in understanding the structure of an activist group. Older activists tend to organize their groups along strictly hierarchical lines. We make decisions by committee.[1]