On Relationship-Building and Change, Pooja Raj’s Year in Review

Working in a remote setting has been a battle between recharging our energies and settling into new boundaries. As a team, we are exploring what it has meant to shift work that we never could have imagined as anything but in-person, to a virtual setting. We have found both new challenges and possibilities in the process. In reflecting on the past year of virtual adjustments, we sat down with our colleagues to dive into their year, and discuss what made 2021 a memorable year for them.

[author] Pooja has a long standing history with Sakhi and re-joined the team as a Counselor in February 2019. She graduated from Columbia University with a Masters in Social Work, with a focus on Clinical Social Work in International Social Welfare, in 2014. Prior to Sakhi, Pooja provided trauma informed services to the aging population (survivors of the Holocaust) and worked abroad with refugees from Syria. She is fluent in Punjabi, Hindi, and Urdu. In addition to dreaming of obtaining a PhD in Intergenerational Trauma, Pooja enjoys dancing, being lost in her reading nook and secretly hopes to finally learn to swim this year. She can be reached at . [/author]


  • What has 2021 meant for you (at Sakhi)?

This was my first year as an Associate Director, so it was my first year stepping into this new role. It has certainly been one of the more taxing years in my life, as I was also supervising a new program– the Youth Counseling program– on top of the adult survivor Counseling program and the Internship program. So much of my year was focused on growing into my various roles, and developing and aligning these programs with our organization’s mission.

Although this year has been taxing, it has also been so great to have the opportunity to support folks in the ways that I would have wanted support.

  • In what ways has your new role shifted the way you approach your work?

We often throw out this term of being “trauma-informed,” which generally manifests through our work with survivors, but the majority of folks with whom I work are also survivors, so I find it very important to bring that meaning and intention into the programs. I hope to make these programs more focused and organized, and truly support our team in a trauma-informed lens– it has been a really challenging process.

We are an org that does GBV direct service work, but we are not known in the same way as clinical providers. It has become my role, as a clinical provider, to structure clinical services at Sakhi by creating new modules, policies, and protocols. Our counselors know what they are doing and I very much trust their clinical skills, but how can we bring this knowledge to the rest of the team? The experience a survivor has in one program should mirror the experience they have in another– that cohesiveness is important.

I was able to better reflect on gaps since I wasn’t providing direct services anymore. It has been a privilege to have that bird’s eye view, communicate my observations, and co-create solutions.

And we are thinking, as well, about serving whole families– and then the community. We have survivors in the community that may never reach out to us: either we are not accessible to them, or there is stigma, or something else. We need to build trust so that we can reach these individuals, and I finally have the power to do that as an Associate Director.

It has also been vital to ensure that we maintain the same quality of programs for survivors, despite Covid-19. How do I improve the access my team has to me, the access survivors have to me? How do I also address burnout in our workplace? And as the only clinical director, this is the perspective that I bring to our diverse team. For example, Rashmi is highly organized and has a legal, strengthening background; Kusum has a financial mindset that is built for collaboration; I bring a lens that is focused on building community and support for our team.


  • How have you seen COVID-19 affect yourself? And the survivors with whom you work?

COVID is a collective trauma that we are all experiencing, so I naturally feel a lot of empathy. Much of what survivors were experiencing, we were experiencing too. Humans are wired for connection, so sharing our experiences and stories has been restorative but also taxing. Feelings of anxiety and loneliness were common.

A lot of folks showed signs of an adjustment disorder. For me as well, it took a lot of effort to adjust to all that has occurred, especially in terms of working with someone in person and then switching to only seeing them virtually. My team and I went from learning techniques to overcome the adjustment period to knowing and reacting to signs in body language through a computer screen. We have always been taught to meet survivors where they are at, so we are focusing on identifying survivors’ needs as they stand right now.

A lot of survivors are living in abusive family households. Many of the survivors with whom I work tend to speak about their relationships: relationships with other people, a lack of relationships, unhealthy relationships, or relationships with themselves. Constantly living in close quarters, because of this pandemic, can put significant stress on a relationship. I think a lot of survivors are facing something very similar, but navigating abusive relationships within their families.

For example, there is a client that has shared with me that their relationship with their sister is fraught. I mentioned to them how so much of this is intergenerational– their grandparents, uncles, and aunts all likely faced a similar situation of fraught interpersonal relationships. In therapy, we are seeing all of that history play out in one person. They are forced to confront all of these relationships at once.

These transitions have been particularly difficult for me as well because I am pregnant. I am empathizing in new and different ways and thinking deeply about intergenerational traumas. I am thinking about my own family’s history and trauma, particularly as it relates to Partition.

I am very mindful of parenting my children, and – as I told my therapist – I am very scared that I am not going to have a secure attachment to my child. My parents did not know how to be parents in the way that I needed them to be because they were dealing with their own traumas.

A lot of the survivors with whom we are working have similar experiences, and are working through similar journeys. I think that is a recognition that has been integral in 2021.

How do you continue to better yourself during the pandemic, given the loss of relationships–– or, now that these relationships have taken center stage?

We are working on setting boundaries. We are working on modeling these personal lessons in our own relationships. Maybe that ripple effect continues on.


  • What accomplishments and/or challenges were most meaningful to you?

I think my biggest accomplishment has been building trust and rapport with the folks I supervise as we do this challenging work together.

I hope to continue modeling healthy relationships and improving upon my own. I have had meaningful conversations with the individuals I supervise, checking in with each of them about their needs and how I can show up for them. And that process has been really rewarding for me, as I have not always experienced that in a supervisory relationship.

I love working with survivors, but this year, I am also especially focused on the reparative work among colleagues that is necessary to keep us nurtured. How can I be the type of supervisor *they* need, and not just the kind that I want to be? If they feel cared for and supported in supervision, this energy trickles down into the work that they do. If they feel supported, they can feel able and ready to show up as 70% or 80% of themselves rather than as 50%.


  • Is there a moment or interaction that is most memorable to you?

I remember speaking with a team member about a moment in which she could have made a different decision in an interaction with a survivor. She was actually comfortable and willing to come to me and say, “I feel like I could have done this differently. I feel like I messed up.”

That really resonated with me. We are humans and we make mistakes; and after we make mistakes, we do a lot of the reparative work to grow. I often hear interns worry about messing up, that the last thing they would want to do with a survivor is mess up. But that is how we grow.


  • Where and how have you experienced growth in this past year, either of yourself, or the world around you?


This is the first time that we have had a male survivor in the Counseling program– the first time that they have engaged with counseling services– so that has been a monumental step for the Counseling team. It has been a huge step for Rachana, who is working with this survivor, and it has also been a huge step for Sakhi to think through what it actually means to be survivor-centered.

How do we actually ensure that we are supporting all survivors, regardless of gender? How do I equip folks to offer gender-affirming care? It has been a humbling experiencing to learn in these ways, because, to be honest, most of my previous work and my work at Sakhi has been to provide services to cisgender women. So how do I learn more? How do I shift my mindset to consider the gaps in the care we are providing to people of other genders? This process has been beautiful in that, as someone who enjoys learning, I have not been stagnant in my work and in the programs that I can affect.

We are also training the next agents and catalysts of change in the Intern program. These are folks who come with their own educational backgrounds, and are entrusted to us so that they can continue learning. It is wonderful to then see these people go off and do so many incredible things. And this impact has me thinking– how do we expand our reach and impact? How can we build momentum and introduce mental health to the South Asian community in New York? How are we actually showing up in these spaces as educators? It has been an honor to grow the mental health space at Sakhi, and within the South Asian community.

In so many ways, it has been a humble but taxing year. I am really looking forward to 2022.