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Geeta Pradhan - Associate Vice President For Programs, Boston Foundation

Nirmala Garimella

As a child growing up in the beautiful valley of Kashmir, Geeta Pradhan recalls her fascination with the beauty that surrounded her, of lush valleys and the Dal Lake in particular. Along with her  three siblings and her parents, she remembers growing up in a typical middle class home. “The atmosphere at home was very much like growing up in India, chaotic, learning the culture and having the luxury of so many extended relatives". Although her parents had traditional careers, Geeta says they were ‘progressive' when it came to the children’s upbringing. “We were always taught to be independent. My parents encouraged all of us to take up careers of our choice and so I landed in Delhi at the school of architecture. College was about fun but somewhere in between, I became interested in community development and urban planning” she says. Kashmir remained an ongoing interest so in her thesis she took up the conservation of the Dal Lake at a time when the government was planning to relocate the community to save the lake from rampant pollution. " I fought for retaining these local people and my proposal was how we save their livelihoods as well as make the Dal Lake worthy of tourism “

This fighting spirit and an inexhaustible energy for doing what is right and good would define her passion for community development and also become the central theme of her work at the Boston Foundation. Currently she is the Associate Vice President of programs at The Boston Foundation, responsible for the foundation's Housing and Community Development, Civic Engagement, and Nonprofit Sector portfolios. She has co-authored a major study on the financial health of the Massachusetts nonprofit sector titled "Passion & Purpose: Raising the Fiscal Fitness bar for Massachusetts Nonprofits; and, as co-creator of the Boston Indicators Project, has co-authored two indicators reports

Why did you choose to pursue this particular career path?

After arriving here in the early 80’s when my husband Rajesh was at MIT, I dabbled in oriental painting, held a couple of exhibitions but finally went back to what I loved best – urban development and planning by enrolling myself at a graduate program in urban design at Harvard. While attending a class, I approached my professor and shared my interest in third world development. He said, have you considered working for inner cities America? I was surprised because the issues of poverty, equity and social determination  surrounding a country like India could be applied here too. One incident that remains etched was while working in the city, I would take the Orange line to Downtown and I heard a bunch of kids talking. They were bragging saying ‘my uncle was shot’ and they were building upon each other. For the first time it hit me that the problem here was the sense of hopelessness, of the disadvantaged and poor. It was not finances alone, but that urban America felt that they don’t have any future.

Describe some of your work at the city and the foundation?

I have been working with community development for 25 years.To be able to understand the problems of urban America is very complex and most of my experience in Boston has been in the neighborhood of Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan. I have come to understand that although they are way down in social indicators in every dimension, I have grown to appreciate the wealth of these communities, the warmth and commitment of ordinary people doing extraordinary things in their neighborhood. My research on the nonprofits  sector culminated in a paper called ‘ Passion and Purpose'defining the sector,  highlighting the three major value propositions– engaging peoples passions, civic engagements and volunteer spirit. Fourteen percent of the state force is employed with the non profit sector so they are economic engines too. I also worked with a team on creating a state association of nonprofits which is a great resource and designing an executive course at Boston University on nonprofit education, a nine month program suitable for emerging leaders and those interested in community development. I also worked on a program of 'sustainable' Boston but currently my work is to maximize effectiveness and create alignment among the people and the community efforts in Boston’s Fairmount commuter rail corridor which are home to approximately 88,000 residents and extends for 9.2 miles north to south. 

What are the challenges that you have faced and what are the personal /environmental attributes that have helped you succeed in your career?

 I am quite fearless, I push through. It maybe working in government that made me like this.I have this strong feeling about respect and dignity for human beings, and it bothers me how people are treated differently, when someone is of a different economic stature. I cannot understand it.  The only thing they have is their self-respect and if you take that away you have taken humanity away. That is the biggest motivation in all my work, how people are treated and the compassion you need to have . You should have the humility when you are well off and the grace to treat everyone with a level of respect. It is fundamental in what I do and work and had helped me the person I am today. I am very tenacious, I cannot do things for myself, I have no personal ambition but if you put me in a soapbox to make a case for someone else, I will be good about that. I cannot advocate for myself but I share the warmth and appreciation from so many people.

What is the secret to your maintaining a work -life balance?

When my kids were little,my husband Rajesh  was doing his PhD and we had busy schedules. He really enabled me, I was doing evening meetings, I had to go out quite a bit, he is very supportive of me. I was working on 20 hours a day schedule, I would start working and sleep late during the Boston indicators project. I still do crazy hours but I think it is a wondeful understanding between us that helped. It is an equal relationship in all respects. Incidentally, I want to share that a book on 'Sadhus' written by my husband is going to be released in a few months.

What is your approach to parenting? Any special advice you have for women on parenting of sons and daughters?

I have two wonderful sons Manu and Aman. My  older son is married to a wonderful Japanese girl and I am now a proud grandparent. We were busy parents but we tried to bring small disciplines in their upbringing. For instance, we decided that they needed something in addition to academics - the big thing in this case was music.  Our son plays the saxophone and is now a musician and my other played the piano but is  a lawyer. We went to all their concerts. Our parents would come and stay for extended periods so they got to know their grandparents, we would travel to India almost every year. Early on, we also decided that we all love good food.  No matter what we did or where we were, we ate dinner together, there was no eating in front of TV. That was the family time.

Do you have a favorite song/ musician?

My son’s of course. We listen to his music all the time, Reggae, Jazz. etc. We love classical too but now we listen to old Hindi songs, Thumri, Ghazals. My husband comes from a family of singers so in a way, music runs in our family.

Do you like to cook? What is your favorite  dish to make?

I enjoy cooking – Both my husband and I love Kashmiri cuisine. I prepare authentic dishes from the region which you cannot get in restaurants. There is this dish called Harissa made in Srinagar in winter– mutton cooked overnight with plenty of spices in  slow cooking method and I think I have mastered that. My friends love it and  I make it at every thanksgiving. Other dishes are Yakhni and Rogan Josh and I cook both styles of Kashmiri cuisine – the mughalai and the Kashmiri Brahmin variety.

Do you have a favorite book

A very small book called ‘ Invisible Cities’ by an Italian author  Italo Calvino. It is an imaginary story between Marco Polo and Kubla Khan,  I am inspired by it because it is about the power of small ideas and how it can bring about big changes.

People who have inspired/looked up to in your life?

My mom for her amazing inner strength, pride of independence, and unconditional love.My father, who taught us how to treat people equally, no matter what their social status and his generosity of spirit.

Your philosophy of living

Nothing is more important than human dignity, so treat people the way you want to be treated…. also, you never know when you might encounter them again and in what situation.

Any advice for women looking to working for a nonprofit?

Listen to your heart as much as you listen to your head…compassion, caring and a sound strategic thinking is critical for the field of philanthropy.

Happiest moment of your life

At the end of my life, if I look back, I think it would be the children – their graduation, their performances, their growing up. The thing that gives me the most joy  and my proudest achievement is that my two sons are kind, compassion human beings and that is what matters.

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