International

Nasreen Sheikh Is First Fellow From Activist Artists Management-Backed Foundation

Nasreen Sheikh
Jennifer Alyse

Nasreen Sheikh

It's 8 a.m. and Nasreen Sheikh's back is burning. Getting word that water would be available that morning, she and all of her neighbors woke up at sunrise to turn on their faucets.

Most days, nothing comes through the pipes of her home in Kathmandu, Nepal. But today was different, a turn of the handle and water comes pouring out the other end, providing Sheikh with what typically is a week's worth of water.

"We have to fill all the buckets possibly we can and carry and store them — if we run out,  we have no water and it's so expensive to buy," explains Sheikh, who spent the morning filling and storing as many buckets of water as she could, before checking in with Caitlin Stone, her manager at Activist Artist Management where Sheikh joins a roster that includes Bob Weir, Dwight Yoakum, Michael Franti, the Lumineers and Empire of the Sun.

The lifelong activist and women's rights leader, who today helps women in Katmandu escape poverty through education programs, a training center and her Local Women’s Handicrafts store in Nepal, has been selected as the first-ever Activist Fellow for the The Activist Foundation, a 501(c)(3) co-chaired and supported by Activist Artists Management co-founders and partners Bernie Cahill and Greg Suess.

"Activism is in our DNA, it was a key driving force when Greg and I thought about the type of company we wanted to create," says Cahill, saying the focus of the fellowship program is to harness the benefits most artists receive as clients of a full service management company and dedicate those resources to an activist or change-maker dedicated to addressing systemic global problems like poverty and injustice.

With additional support from Activist's Matt Maher and Liz Norris, the two-year program provides a $20,000 grant and full open source pro bono representation for Sheik including a top-level management team of staff with the cost of staffing and work product underwritten by Activist.

"We’ve partnered Nasreen with team members in other areas to provide her with the same team as a global touring act," explains Cahill. "There's a connectivity that seeps into these different social issues and it's our goal to connect Nasreen with the resources and organizations she needs, including some of the most talented people in the music industry."

Her work on women's empowerment issues has taken on new meaning during the global pandemic brought on by COVID-19 which has infected more than 150,000 in the country of 28 million and killed about 800 people. As a result the country has gone into strict lockdown and residents are unable to leave their homes for 24 hours a day. That's spurned a shift toward mask-making within Local Women's Handicrafts and a goal to make one million masks with help from her U.S. partner organization, the Empowerment Collective.

"The sale of one mask can feed eight to ten people in Nepal," explains Sheikh who was born into poverty in a  small village near the border of India and Nepal she says "you can't find on any map or the book" where life for most women involves being in an arranged marriage at a very young age and then "getting pregnant and having five, six, seven, eight, even 10 babies."

Sheikh's mother was abused by her father, her aunt was murdered by her husband, and at age 12, Sheikh's sister was forced into an arranged marriage. Knowing she would endure the same fate, a nine-year-old Sheikh (she doesn't know her exact age or birth date) decided to flee her home and later joined a cousin living in Kathmandu, where she was drawn into an industry powered by young runaways — textiles.

Sheikh doesn't describe her life during that period as being a sweat shop worker. She insists she was a slave, living and working in a 10-by-10 room with another child and five other people making shirts and various products.

"There was no toilet or water systems. I didn't even have a bed all the clothing and the t-shirts we made would become our bed," saying she was often required to wake up at 4:00 a.m. and work until midnight. It was a life of bug-ridden meals, demands to work harder and threats of not being paid. She was supposed to earn $2 per day, if quotas were made.

One day the quotas were missed. And the man who had screamed at her to work harder and harder simply disappeared. And so again, at the age of 11, she was on the move again, living the life of a "street kid" as she calls it. And as an 11-year-old, it was a time of great fear, broken only by the kindness of a stranger. A person who she gently refers to as "Uncle" that helped her find a safe place to stay, and connect with other girls and women who had similar experiences in Nepal's sweatshops.

Today, she shares time between Nepal and Portland, Oregon and helping poor and unhoused women learn to make handicrafts through training programs that have impacted the lives of  hundreds of women.

"When Caitlin and Activist came, they just brought my work to a completely different dimension and they are wonderful partners for my mission and have helped me create real change within this community and empower these women," Sheikh says.

Stone, who heads up activism efforts at the management company and speaks to Sheikh on a daily basis tells Billboard, "We always laugh on our calls and discuss what do we need to do to move the needle today. What do we need to do to continue to impact the world? And it's just such a special place to be in, honestly."

The $20,000 grant the foundation provided has helped more than 4,000 people in Nepal says Sheikh, who says support is needed now more than ever.

"Activist is like my family, my soul family, we they came together to support me on so many different things, wherever we needed help, writing stories or fundraising. It gave me so much hope because where I am, there is no hope and everybody just need helps. So having that family that you always reach out to on an emotional and guidance level has brought so many people together."

Click here to learn more about Sheikh's work in Nepal through local women's Handicrafts and the Empowerment Collective.