Text by Cassidy Valbrun/
Photos courtesy of Cassidy Valbrun
This story highlights a woman leader making a difference in the South Asian community of Atlanta, impacted by domestic violence.
Aparna Bhattacharyya received her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice at Georgia State University because she originally wanted to be a criminal justice attorney. Upon graduating, she began working for the Atlanta Victim Witness Assistance Program. She was able to help coordinate training for the Olympic Crisis Response Team in this role. This opportunity would expand her mission’s field to connect with refugee survivors and organizations cultivating communities for people in need, as it proved that humans are far more powerful when we work together.
Bhattacharyya was born in 1971 in Atlanta, Georgia, where she has lived for most of her life. The vibrant diversity and inclusivity of living in Atlanta informed her life’s work. Her parents, Sumitra (mother) and Ashok (father) were born in India. Their experiences as children motivated them to want to provide their children a life filled with abundant resources and opportunities in a new environment. Her grandfather decided to keep her sister, Sreeparna, in India because he feared the struggle would be too much.
Thus, Sumitra and Ashok set out on an adventure to the United Kingdom and then Atlanta to pave the way for their upcoming child, Aparna. They came into the United States as immigrants and their story began by walking the streets of Peachtree searching for jobs. In many ways, they were pioneers and started the first Indian restaurant in Atlanta in the 1970s. With this accomplishment, they were able to serve their beloved Bengali community in Atlanta as they encountered many Indian families and would invite them to eat at their restaurant or home. This commitment to community was engraved into Bhattacharyya’s mind at a young age and gave rise to her early work.
Bhattacharyya knew during elementary school that she wanted to work with survivors of domestic violence and child abuse. In high school, she aspired to become an attorney, like her grandfather. Yet, she believed her work was designed for domestic violence and child abuse victims. Throughout her early childhood and adolescence, Bhattacharyya challenged her parents by resisting much of her culture and identity. Her mother was clear that there was richness in knowing her language and culture. But Bhattacharyya did not like being different.
She noted, “At that time, in the 70s, if you were to look at my birth certificate, I am listed as Caucasian.”
There were not many South Asians living in Atlanta then, compared to today. Bhattacharyya’s elementary school’s graduating class consisted of about three or four South Asians out of one-hundred and twenty. Cultural appreciation and identity were not encouraged, which contributed to her avoidance of accepting herself, as different, especially in high school. However, in college, she began to realize the importance of her cultural identity, especially after joining Raksha, Inc.
Throughout her youth Bhattacharyya resisted her culture and faith, but Raksha was a place where she learned to love and accept the beauty of her culture and community. Bhattacharyya first learned about Raksha from her father when it launched in 1995.
She remembered him saying, “The organization is starting, and you might be interested in getting involved.”
At the time, she was working for the city of Atlanta as a victim advocate, which involved working with victims of crime and dealing with individuals impacted by child abuse, domestic violence and sexual assault. Bhattacharyya hoped to bring her skills to help her community and began volunteering. Twenty-six years later, she is still working with Raksha Inc. as the executive director.
Raksha Inc. advocates not only for women but also for men, children, gender non-conforming individuals and people from various backgrounds of religions and sexualities. At first, this approach encountered a lot of resistance. Young women were often victims of heinous crimes, yet many people thought Raksha was trying to break apart families by bringing their stories to light.
“We cannot ignore those stories … ” Bhattacharyya states.
Some resistance came from cultural and faith leaders who had experienced the tumultuous Indian Partition (1947) that divided Pakistan and India and resulted in religious conflict and violence. Raksha Inc. commits to serving everyone from South Asia, regardless of religion, country of origin, sexuality or gender identity.
Healing, empowerment and justice are the three core themes of Raksha Inc. These words are dear to Bhattacharyya’s heart as she hopes for these women and others to find healing within themselves, empowerment through uplifting one another and justice for all who need it. Her husband supports her, and she has many supportive friends and family members who encourage her to persevere on her path and continue changing lives for the better.
She reflected, “How do we hold the current system accountable, while trying to create another path to healing?”
She emphasizes the importance of establishing trust and dialogue across communities to hear the voices of those who have been hurt to begin the healing process.
“We cannot ignore those stories, and we cannot ignore that reality either,” Bhattacharyya states.
Student Biography: Cassidy Valbrun is a recent graduate from Kennesaw State University with a B.S. in Psychology. Her love for research and storytelling inspires her to share resources with others for their opportunities, growth and knowledge. She is passionate about theology, psychology, and nursing and is pursuing a master’s in nursing.
Women’s Leadership through Virtual Exchange: Youth Sharing Digital Stories (WLVE) is a project engaging 100 undergraduate and graduate students from Hassan II University Casablanca with 100 undergraduate students from Kennesaw State University in a unique cross-cultural virtual exchange experience focused on better understanding women’s leadership through research, analysis, and digital storytelling. This virtual classroom-based project will collect biographical stories of successful women leaders in both countries written by the students and publish them online on Bokeh Focus.