Shikha Rastogi has always been dedicated to promoting diversity and inclusion. A few years ago, she was finally able to formalize her passion.
Two years ago, the West Windsor resident founded SR Mosaic, a non-profit organization dedicated to amplifying diverse voices and promoting empathy and awareness of different cultures.
“The idea for the foundation goes back multiple years,” she said. “Five women came together. Our mission statement is to bring the diverse community together—it can be through community events, cultural workshops, fundraising activities.”
When Paul Ligeti of the Historical Society of West Windsor approached her with an idea that seemed to cover all of those bases, she jumped at the chance to help out.
Together, they head the Voices of West Windsor project, a collaboration between the historical society and SR Mosaic that aims to allow people from all cultures tell their stories about life in West Windsor.
The initiative started in June and has since yielded virtual interviews with 16 West Windsor-based participants, who were nominated by their peers. They include Congregation Beth Chaim Rabbi Adena Blum, West Windsor Community Farmers Market director Chris Cirkus, Gratitude and Abundance head Jyotima Prasad and former councilman and school board member Yingchao “YZ” Zhang.
It was the perfect initiative for SR Mosaic to join, Rastogi said.
“Our mission in itself is to bring diversity,” she said. “It just fit with us.”
The goal of the program is to “fill in the gaps in our records of our town’s history,” the historical society says. “We interview contemporary inhabitants of groups and organizations not typically found in our archives so that future residents can get a more well-rounded perspective decades later—much like how our perspectives of old West Windsor were obtained through interviews of longtime residents in the past.”
Those older accounts, Rastogi said, don’t necessarily account for what the West Windsor of today looks like.
“We have data from the 60s and 70s, but it’s not covering the community we have right now,” she said. “We thought, ‘Why not create something?’”
They decided that person-to-person interviews would be the best way to get the full representation of the community.
Then, they had to figure out who would take part in the project. Rastogi and Ligeti settled on recruiting residents who made unique contributions to the community and who come from diverse backgrounds.
“We just wanted to highlight community members who have made an impact on the community, bring them forward and have them recognized by a variety of people,” said Megha Rastogi, Shikha’s daughter and Voices of West Windsor interviewer. “We think it’s important for the community to be united and to recognize the work we’ve done, as well as what still needs to be done.”
The first person Voices of West Windsor interviewed was Denia Smith, and that conversation stuck with Megha. Smith is a teenage political activist and advocate for human rights and social justice. She led a protest for Black Lives Matter and was a strong resource for people of color in the West Windsor-Plainsboro school district.
Her interview offers perspective on the town’s culture, educational system and future.
“She’s such a good example of a person who took it upon herself to change the community, to change what she was seeing being done and to take initiative to stop it,” Megha said.
And that’s what the project is all about, Megha said—amplifying those advocating for change.
“We talked to musicians, religious leaders, advocates,” she said. “We really just want to show people how a diverse community like West Windsor is working to make a change. It’s really cool to be able to talk to people who might just live next door to me but still are trying their best to make an effort to change the community.”
Another interview subject who impacted Megha was Tricia Baker, co-founder of Attitudes in Reverse. She started the organization to educate about and end the stigma against mental health disorders after her son, Kenny, died by suicide in 2009.
“The way that she works so hard to fight for something that has personally affected her and making sure that no other parents have to go through the same thing is beautiful,” she said. “It made me want to become a person who does more. I’m so thankful I got the opportunity to do this. I just think it’s such a great initiative.”
Being able to participate in something led by her mother was just an added bonus.
“It’s incredible,” Megha said. “My mom is so cool. She’s part of all these incredible initiatives, and I’m blown away seeing what she’s able to create and able to do. I’m so honored to be a part of something that hopefully people will remember. It’s a beautiful thing that she’s been able to do.”
All interviews were conducted over Zoom, and there was a bit of a learning curve at first, Rastogi said.
“Initially, we were taken aback because we’re so used to talking in person, because that gives the interpersonal touch to the interview and process,” she said. “On Zoom, it was a little challenging initially, but the interviewees and guests have been very nice and accommodating about everything. We sent questions beforehand. They knew exactly what we were going to ask them. It has been a challenge, but now I think I am more comfortable doing things online.”
Watching the program grow has been satisfying for Rastogi, too, especially during COVID-19. The pandemic even presented some new subjects, like LeeAnn Glozman, a nurse practitioner and co-founder of the Mercer Mask Project.
It’s also enabled them to get teacher and student perspectives on what Rastogi calls “the new normal” and how that has affected the school environment. It’s important for her to be able to document such a strange period in our history and how the pandemic has affected West Windsor.
“Through the project, we are trying to meet people and talk to people who have a voice, but are unsung heroes,” she said.
That’s not only Rastogi’s goal for Voices of West Windsor, but for SR Mosaic, too.
Her non-profit was inspired by Rastogi’s first days in the United States. There was so much she hadn’t experienced before—sights, sounds, smells, art, food, music. She knew she had to find a way to bring all of those elements together.
She’s certainly succeeded. This year, SR Mosaic launched the Quarantine Travel program, where presenters spent every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday over 10 weeks discussing the history, art, food and culture of a different country or region. That’s just one of the many events she has spearheaded over the last few years, including Speak Up, a public speaking competition that will be held virtually this year, and other culturally-based events.
Fow now, though, Rastogi continues to focus on Voices of West Windsor.
“It kept us moving a lot,” she said. “Everybody is stuck at home, and nobody knew what to do early on. It was the right time to start it.”
For more information or to submit a nomination, visit westwindsorhistory.com/voices-of-west-windsor.