Celebrating Kathy Sreedhar

By Derek Mitchell

Kathy Sreedhar, a champion of social justice in India for five decades, is retiring from the Unitarian Universalist Holdeen India Program (UUHIP) at the end of June. For the last 28 years she has built the program into a major force for grassroots social change in India. She has identified transformational leaders and organizations who are now at the forefront of India’s struggles to build a more just and equitable society. She has also raised wide awareness in the United States about poverty and social justice in India. Her achievements are a testament to the strength of UUHIP’s vision for international grant-making—a vision she was central in creating. Before serving with UUHIP, Sreedhar was renowned in the adoption community. She facilitated the placement of 1,000 children in the United States from Mother Teresa’s orphanages in India, all the while working as a volunteer. She herself adopted two children from these orphanages and raised them as a single mother. Prior to this she worked as an administrator with the Peace Corps in India and Afghanistan, as well as serving at non-profit organizations in Washington, D.C. She has long been known in Washington as the go-to person for all things Indian. On May 19th, 2012, friends and colleagues from around the United States and India gathered to celebrate Sreedhar’s outstanding career. Two of India’s leading women’s leaders—Ela Bhatt, founder of SEWA, and Vasanth Kannabiran, founder of the Asmita Resource Center for Women—spoke about their many years working with Sreedhar. Ela Bhatt said that Kathy is known as Sister Kathy to the women of SEWA. “Kathy’s support is not the result of strategic thinking or elaborate program development,” Bhatt, who has known Sreedhar for over 25 years, said. “Kathy’s support is based on two simple things: one, a Unitarian belief in the fundamental unity of all human beings and two, Kathy’s commitment to stand on the side of the weakest. If we need an example of what an individual can do, to make a big difference in India’s poverty or the poor’s ability to come out of poverty, Kathy is a text-book example.” Vasanth Kannabiran, who has also known Sreedhar for over 25 years, said, “I can’t tell you how useful it has been to have someone as sharp, as sympathetic, as warm has Kathy has been throughout the years…Kathy, you have been one of the most precious influences in my life. You have been a great support at very difficult moments. And I really love you.” The same love and deep admiration for Sreedhar was expressed by all who spoke. Kay Montgomery, Executive Vice-President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, said, “I am in awe of Kathy. I don’t know anyone else who has so directly changed so many lives for the better on behalf of the UUA. It’s been a privilege to be a witness to your incredible work.” John Sommer, who has known Sreedhar since the 1960s, served as Master of Ceremonies for the evening. He recounted that he was serving as Dean at the School for International Training in 1983 when a call came from the then executive director of the UU Service Committee. He asked if Sommer had any suggestions on who could lead a new UU initiative focusing on India. Sreeedhar immediately came to mind. “I still firmly believe that recommending you was my greatest accomplishment in life,” Sommer told her at the celebration, though with the caveat, “Except for begetting my children!” Derek Mitchell, who succeeded Kathy as Director of the Holdeen India Program in August 2011, presented her with an album bursting with tributes, photographs, and stories sent from her friends and colleagues around the world. Mitchell has known Sreedhar for less time than almost all the other speakers, but has traveled extensively with her over the last four years. He told the gathering that even when traveling in the remotest of villages in India, mentioning Sreedhar’s name has elicited recognition and smiles. People do not forget Kathy Sreedhar. Her legacy will continue on in the countless lives she has changed and phenomenal program she has built. Sreedhar will become Director Emerita of the Holdeen India Program when she retires at the end of June.

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