Oona Chatterjee

Ashoka Fellow
Brooklyn, United States
Fellow Since 2007
My work: Empowering residents to advocate for their rights and improve conditions in their neighborhoods.


This profile was prepared when Oona Chatterjee was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2007.
The New Idea
Oona Chatterjee believes that each community can be the steward of its own future, and the path to a more humane, vibrant society lies in the effective, large-scale engagement of ordinary people. Oona’s idea is to engage the least powerful people in changing the systems that oppress them. Her insight is that every person who seeks social services is and must be viewed, not as someone in need, but as someone who is needed. Oona co-founded Make the Road New York, a membership-led organization of primarily Latino and African American residents of low-income communities in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island, to amplify residents’ voices and enable them to achieve self-determination.
Residents of the neighborhoods served by Make the Road New York suffer the harsh consequences of poverty. Make the Road provides the relief that residents urgently need from the conditions that undermine their health and well-being. However, the organization also engages every person who comes for assistance in understanding the political forces that perpetuate their situations. Oona’s vision is to build Make the Road’s base of active, deeply engaged members into a force so large and strong that its influence will equal that of any organized constituency in New York City and it will be the largest formation of low-income and immigrant people in the U.S. Across the country, poor communities are recognizing Make the Road’s unique scale, quality, and impact. Oona is setting a new standard for how to systematically inform and engage people on the fringes of society in civic life, and translate their influence into policies that challenge poverty at its roots.
Through its name and actions, Make the Road embodies a social change theory shared by legendary grassroots leaders Myles Horton, founder of the Highlander Folk School and Brazilian educator Pablo Freire. Oona is guided by their core principles: Love for people, respect for people’s abilities to shape their own lives, and the capacity to value others’ experiences. She is demonstrating the power of practical, participatory education in the service of social justice. The organization she leads takes its name from the words of Spanish poet Antonio Machado: Searcher, there is no road. We make the road by walking.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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