‘Health is not just absence of illness…’
‘Health is about the ability to reach your full potential. Domestic violence too is considered a health issue, because it is something that impacts the body.”
Hersh Sehdev was all of 22 and just married when she arrived in Canada in 1977. A protected childhood spent in Kolkata and Delhi, with a convent education at institutions like Loreto and Lady Irwin, Hersh braced for a new life ahead in Canada with a supportive and an encouraging husband.
The executive director of Kingston Community Health Centres (KCHC), Hersh Sehdev is today responsible for community building and providing care to the disadvantaged populations in Kingston, Nappanee and surrounding area. Community building came naturally to her, as she gained experience from South Riverdale CHC, the United Way of Greater Toronto, Riverdale Immigrant Women’s Centre, YWCA Toronto and Unicef India. With several research publications under her belt, Hersh is a veteran in the field of multiculturalism and health care, counseling, community building and health care planning.
“I would describe my 36 years of journey as interesting,” says Hersh smilingly. After her initial equivalency from Ryerson, a stint as a dietician, Hersh went to University of Toronto to study Masters in community health. “I think I was the only non-white person in my class,” she reflects. “The environment outside was different. Toronto was much more ‘white’ those days; and there were incidents of racism.” But in spite of that, “I met people who looked beyond my skin colour. They met someone who had a degree here and could speak English.”
But after doing her Masters, Hersh went through the same travails of finding a job. “It wasn’t easy to get a job here, because I didn’t have any Canadian experience.” She decided that she just didn’t want to be “that Indian girl”. “I didn’t want any labels on me. I just didn’t want to stick to my Indian community.” While doing her Masters, she started volunteering at different places. “I had a small child to take care of but I went beyond the family pressures and was out and about. There was a hunger in me to learn and grow. May be this was my spirituality, I wanted to do my best and wanted to be myself,” she tells us.
In 1981-82, Hersh landed with a research project on health and eventually wrote a book on multiculturalism and community health. The book was published in 1985. Hersh became the first director of Riverdale Immigrant Women’s Center and came across cases of domestic violence on an everyday basis. As she points out, “For women to flourish, they have to be economically independent.” Health is a broadly defined term – “it’s not just absence of illness in the body. Health is about the ability to reach your potential.” In her opinion, violence too is considered a health issue. As a health care organization, “violence is something that impacts the body”. Besides this, South Asian community has huge health issues – they have problems with cardiovascular diseases and they lack exercise. “But the bigger issue is how we see ourselves as members of a larger community. The question is: how do we raise our children, and what expectations do we have from ourselves?”
Hersh sits on the Association of Ontario Health Centres’ Strategy Group and Performance Management Committee. In the past, she has been a part of the Mayor’s Task Force on Poverty, the Planning Advisory of the Ontario Early Year’s Centres and a board member of the Community Social Planning Council of Toronto to name a few. She is a recipient of the International Women’s Day Award (2011) and the Ontario Medical Association’s Community Services Award (2012).
Hersh and her family are followers of Sikhism; her husband and sons wear turbans but, as she points out “we are very modern in our approach”. There are children of immigrants who lead a dual life. “Children of immigrants face a tougher time than immigrants themselves. Our children are always struggling with their identities.” In some cases, there is a rapport among family members and so people talk. In some cases there isn’t. “We need to be with our children. We need to face challenges of parenting our children in a dual-culture society,” she says.
Coming to Canada and settling here all over again can be quite a challenging task for many. “You need to be prepared once you come here, especially if one is immigrating in his 30s or 40s,” says Hersh, citing the story of her brother who faced a hard time settling here. It, therefore, becomes important “to get out and mingle with people outside your community, getting your language right and learning all the soft skills for employment purposes”. Indians are smart people, she says. “But sometimes we get sucked into our comfort zone – I too need my Indian parties, my visits to the gurdwara, but I also need to be out there in the community. I’ve chosen my Canada as my home, so I push myself out a little bit.”
Hersh’s decribes her journey as “bumpy in the start, but smooth later”. Climbing to the top wasn’t an easy ride either she faced her share of discrimination. “I’ve been called a Paki b***h on the streets and several other things.” But she ultimately met some excellent people who saw beyond her race. “You just need that one break for things to start rolling.”
Hersh feels blessed to have children who share a brilliant relationship with their parents; it’s a “democratic household”. She advises on the importance of children expressing themselves, albeit respectfully.
Today she is the CEO of KCHC, but she still wants to push the envelope – she wants to do more writing, spend time with her grand children and take up issues of women and the South Asian elderly. “Our elderly are suffering. I want to do something in that direction,” she signs off.