An Education in Social Change with The Sylvia Center

The Andrew Goodman Foundation Fellowship for Social Change is facilitated through a partnership with Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network’s Summer Academy program. This year our Social Change Fellow, Suprita Datta, was placed through this program with one of our 2012 Hidden Heroes organizations, the Sylvia Center.  The Sylvia Center inspires young people and their families to establish independent healthy eating habits—so that they may lead healthy and productive lives.


I chose the Sylvia Center as my internship site for a number of reasons. I had not done policy work in food justice but had been aware of the issues myself while growing up in a low-income neighborhood in New York City. The Sylvia Center took an unique approach to addressing many of the needs faced by these communities. Most importantly, they worked directly with these communities and cultivated relationships with the very people whose lives they wanted to impact.

During my time at the Sylvia Center, I had many opportunities to interact with the programmatic and developmental aspects of the organization. Their West Harlem shopping guide allowed me to learn more about the issues that plagued my neighborhood as well as understand the challenges that people faced. “Healthy”, a concept so often associated with counting calories and watching one’s weight, took on a different meaning when I looked at the health of the community. As I delved deeper into issues of food sourcing, seasonality, shopping techniques, food accessibility, and of course, cooking techniques, I could not help but broaden my understanding of “healthy”. This understanding was especially crucial for the policy proposal I was working on at the Roosevelt Institute of Public Policy that addressed obesity in the Far Rockaways. Although I had been superficially aware of issues such as a lack of supermarkets in lower-income areas and a need for nutrition-education classes, my internship at TSC forced me to delve deeper. What did it really mean for families to shop healthy and on a budget? How would busy parents make time to cook instead of resorting to ordering in? What was the value of teaching kids how to cook and taking them to the supermarket? How can children make the healthier choice by themselves? My work at the Sylvia Center also made me ponder the policy implications of our work. When I went to a talk on the efficacy of Green Street Vendors, I thought about the economic health of communities. How could communities provide more fruits and vegetables for consumers? How did the economic health of a community affect its physical health? (Quite significantly, it turns out.) Most importantly, how could a culture of not only healthy eating but also healthy living be fostered within communities?

The projects, classes, and events I did at TSC all focused on answering that last question. However, some of the development work exposed me to a whole different aspect of creating change. Nonprofits can be incredibly powerful and effective in achieving their goals and missions. This requires building the financial, administrative, and logistical relationships that will allow the organization to accomplish its goals. At the same time, these relationships have to be carefully chosen and cultivated. Doing research on potential partnerships not only helped me learn more about the philanthropic aspect of TSC but also exposed me to other initiatives occurring throughout the country that focused on issues of food justice. I have no doubt that this comprehensive exposure to the functions of TSC enriched my understanding of the issues and the healthy living community.

One of the most interesting aspects of TSC was its relationship with the company Great Performances and watching a for-profit and a non-profit organization work together to create a social change. Throughout my academic work, I have explored socially responsible businesses, their potential, and their impact on communities. This internship allowed me to see how this relationship works in real life. TSC has strong and fulfilling relationships with both its donors and communities. However, the relationships do not seem to be strictly financial or service-based. Instead, all of TSC’s partners pursue a higher goal of enriching the tastes, experiences, and cultures of people’s lives through food. It is this multi-dimensional understanding of people and change at the TSC that I appreciate the most. In school, I study how development occurs in communities around the world. What is often missing from many good-hearted developmental approaches is a real, human understanding of how people live, their cultures, and communities. Furthermore, in academia, students often study policy only through a macro or theoretical lens. TSC gave me a chance to interact with people, help cultivate relationships, and see how change occurs on the ground. I gained an unique and intimate perspective of the people, the culture, and the environment I was working with. This has shaped how I think of development in the international community, the role of outside actors, and most importantly, the manner in which the US and its various institutions should interact with the political, economic, social, cultural, and civil sectors of another state.

This experience has impacted the way I think about my career and what it really means to want to create a positive change through elements of social justice, human agency, sustainability, and compassion.

Suprita was the Andrew Goodman Foundation Social Change Fellow at The Sylvia Center this past summer with Liz Neumark, 2012 AGF Hidden Hero Awardee and is a junior at the Macaulay Honors College at the City College of New York majoring in International Studies and Economics and minoring in Arabic.

About the Author

Suprita was born in West Bengal, India and came to the US at the age of  five. She grew up  in The Bronx and was exposed to many different cultures and  communities in New York  City. As a part of the Macaulay Honors College at the City College  of New York, she  is majoring in International Studies with a focus on Conflict Stabilization  while pursuing the  pre-med track. Ultimately, she wants to work in global healthcare policy  and act as a liaison  between marginalized populations and government institutions. At  CCNY, she the Vice  President of the Government & Law Society where they strive to  connect faculty and  students in order to foster a community within the Political Science and  International Studies  departments while creating a space for intellectual discussions and involvement. She is part of the mentorship program at CCNY and helps incoming freshman transition to college life, focusing on not only their academic success, but also their personal development and maintain these relationships throughout their time in college. This summer, she is participating in a policy-based fellowship at the Roosevelt Institute of Public Policy. She will also be traveling to Panama to continue healthcare efforts and also look at the effects of deforestation within these communities. During her free time, Suprita enjoys boxing, scouring New York City for great food, listening to slam poetry, and frolicking through Central Park.