April 15, 2012
SEVA Immigrant Community Advocacy Project, a nonprofit, community-based organization cofounded by Gurpal Singh (’08), won a prestigious Union Square Award in December for its work mobilizing and training residents of under-resourced immigrant communities as community organizers.
The Union Square Awards recognize grassroots activism in New York City, supporting that work with grants for $50,000. “I was personally really shocked,” Singh said about receiving the award. “Fifty thousand will help us take it to the next level.”
Singh and co-founder Ravisharon Kaur, an attorney from the Richmond Hill neighborhood of Queens, formally established SEVA in 2006, while Singh was attending law school. It has since grown into an organization with more than 20 trained organizers and several hundred members. SEVA is based in Richmond Hill and works closely with the South Asian and West Indian communities there and nearby.
Since its inception, SEVA has been focused on civic engagement. Organizers have registered thousands of people to vote and have plans to register up to 3,000 more people this year. They have also organized legal clinics, health fairs, and U.S. citizenship fairs. In 2010, they began educating residents of Richmond Hill on the impact that the 2010 census could have on their community. Now that the census results are out and subsequent redistricting efforts are under way, SEVA is organizing residents to address the effects of redistricting.
“We’re defining communities of interest as immigrants themselves,” Singh noted. Current district borders, however, cut through Richmond Hill and nearby neighborhoods, dividing immigrant communities.
SEVA is now working with local attorneys to build a legal response to the proposed new district maps released in January. “Our goal is to empower people in the community to represent themselves, their interests, and their resistance to the proposal,” Singh said.
These efforts caught the eye of Himanshu Suri, a member of the rap group Das Racist. He joined SEVA’s board of directors in January and has helped bring more media attention to the issue. Suri is a childhood friend of CUNY Law alum Ali Najmi (’09), who introduced Suri to Singh and the mission of SEVA.
Suri’s participation coincides with SEVA’s newest focus: reaching young immigrant artists. “We’ve begun focusing on giving voice to young artists in immigrant communities, largely because there is no medium for young immigrants to voice their issues,” Singh said. “Art is really the only way to do it.”
In addition to Najmi, other CUNY Law alumni are joining SEVA’s efforts. Singh highlighted Michael Son (’08), Reena Rani (’09), and Laura Perez (’08), in particular, for taking the lead in some of the group’s organizing.
Discussing the role of his legal background in his current work, Singh said, “It’s helpful to a lot of people in the community who are lawyers, who want to do this stuff, but don’t feel like they have it in them. When there’s an organization like SEVA to support them and they know about my legal training, it provides a backbone for them.”