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Two days before his scheduled showdown with corporate giant Dow Chemical, Boerum Hill resident Akash Mehta pondered some of the things that really bug him about the world today.
Injustices like sickness, war and poverty that allow some people to suffer and die simply because they aren’t wealthy.
“There are many terrible things that happen in the world because of really trivial things,” Mehta says. “The smallest amount of money can change a person’s life.”
Mehta then reels off numbers illustrating the devastation wrought by the Bhopal gas disaster in India 25 years ago this week - over 20,000 dead, 15 new fatalities every month, and a paltry compensation package that affords survivors little more than a cup of tea.
“Nowhere nearly enough for the horrific damage they’ve inflicted on people,” Mehta says.
He is 11 years-old, a sixth grader at the St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn Heights and has been a social activist for the last four years.
When he was in second grade, Mehta led a campaign that successfully helped fund the construction of a girls’ school in war ravaged Afghanistan.
Walkathons and other fundraising campaigns like the one to help rescue the child soldiers of the Congo followed.
On December 3, Mehta and a group of Brooklyn children belonging to a group he started called Kids for a Better Future [KBF] brought hundreds of tiny paper hearts cut out and inscribed by youngsters from all over New York City, asking Dow Chemical to make sure every child with an illness related to the Bhopal gas disaster is treated, toxic waste left on the former Union Carbide factory site is cleaned up, and fresh water is supplied to residents.
“The idea is that you seem to have no heart, so here, we are giving you ours,” Mehta says.
Mehta’s step-dad Stephan Shaw works with the Unemployed Philosophers Guild and his mom Sunita Viswanath is a woman’s rights advocate who has worked with many nonprofit groups.
“He has always had a huge heart,” Shaw says. “Most directly he gets it from his mom. I think he’s absolutely amazing.”
When he was only 7-years-old, Mehta says he felt bad about helping his mom wash dishes one night because he wasn’t doing a particularly good job of it.
“It struck me that I wasn’t doing anything,” the youngster recalls. “I was taking and getting so much, but not giving anything.”
Last winter, Mehta and his whole family traveled to Bhopal, India and volunteered at a clinic there.
“So few kids his age have this kind of consciousness,” Shaw says. “We try not to make it a big deal. We tell him it should not be about his own ego.”
Like other boys his age, Mehta’s step-dad confesses that they still can’t get him to take out the garbage.
While helping those in need is his “main extracurricular activity”, Mehta also likes to read. His favorite school subject is English. His favorite book is “The Catcher in the Rye.”
Mehta says his two main reasons for taking on Dow Chemical is to do something to help other kids in need, and to prove that children like him can make a difference.
Society, he says “almost discourages you to be a good person.”
In addition to cultivating his altruism, Shaw says that his step-son is also learning invaluable tools about leadership, community organizing and advocacy.
“I definitely want to keep doing some kind of activism,” Mehta says.
About 40 of Mehta’s classmates and other kids he’s met at walkathons were expected to converge on Dow Chemical this week.
“I don’t really know what to expect,” Mehta said. “I very much hope they’ll let us give them our hearts.”
©2009 Community Newspaper Group
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