New York, Oct. 11, 2005
NRI (non-resident Indians) Bhairavi Desai,
31 organizer for the Taxi Workers Alliance
in New York, who works long hours, sometimes
without pay, to improve conditions of taxi drivers
has won the Ford Foundation's Leadership for
a Changing World Award. Desai, executive director
of New York Taxi Workers Alliance, is among
the 17 awardees chosen from a pool of nearly
1,000 nominations. Each awardee will receive
$100,000 to advance their work and an additional
$15,000 for educational opportunities to strengthen
their individual or organisational effectiveness
over the course of two years.
"I remember being chased down the street
because of my colour," Desai was quoted
as saying in a recent interview. The hostility,
she said, politicised her. Four years after
graduating from Rutgers University, she co-founded
New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA), the
organisation she now heads. Desai says the people
she serves inspire and motivate her. "Through
taxi drivers, I have learned the true meanings
of honesty and humour, forgiveness and fairness,
the maturity to handle difficulties with grace,
and, at all times, the importance of dignity.
"The drivers reminded me of the town in
which I grew up, where I learned to struggle,
fight hunger and poverty, and see the dignity
of the working class
In May 1998, Desai, labor activist went head-to-head
with the city's combative mayor, organizing
one of the biggest 24-hour taxi strikes in New
York history to protest city policing of the
industry. For one day, 40,000 drivers parked
their taxis and refused to work in New York
"I wanted to organize around issues of
labor and class," says Desai. "I wanted
to organize the immigrants, and it was important
for me to go beyond what the AFL-CIO was doing.
It was important to focus on life issues and
not just the labor."
Desai is the daughter of Indian immigrants
who now live in New Jersey. Her father worked
in a shop and her mother in a factory.
Desai's family had emigrated from Gujarat to
Harrison, N.J., when she was six years old.
Her father, who had been a lawyer in India,
had trouble finding work and resorted to running
a grocery store, and some of Desai's earliest
memories were of racist attacks by skinheads.
"I remember being chased down the street,"
she says. "I remember the hostility, and
that politicized me.
"Taxi drivers perform one of the most
dangerous jobs -- and in some ways, the most
thankless -- in New York," she says. "More
drivers are killed than the police." About
a dozen drivers were killed or seriously mugged
in the past year. "We believe in not only
giving them a voice but also some benefits."
NYTWA has just begun offering them a free annual
At the beginning, some taxi drivers weren't
fully appreciative of her work, some wondered
how a delicate-boned woman, who speaks English
and Gujarati, could work with street-wary men,
who speak Punjabi, Urdu, Bengali and 50 other
languages "But those who were serious about
organizing themselves helped others realize
that I -- and my colleagues -- were serious
about our mission," she says.
"Now, I am a part of their world,"
she says, adding that often a cabby drops her
home in the early hours of the morning. "It
is one of the perks of the job," she says
with hearty laughter.