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NRI, New York taxi drivers organizer wins Ford Foundation award


New York, Oct. 11, 2005
Atul Bihari


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 City.

"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 medical check-up.

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.

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Bhairavi Desai, organizer for the Taxi Workers Alliance in New York

BIO: Desai is a co-founder and Director of the Taxi Workers Alliance. She has been active in many organizations throughout her life, but has been working with the taxi industry struggle since 1996, two years before the Alliance came into being. Desai is a graduate of Rutgers University (NJ) where she recived a degree in Women's Studies. Both at Rutgers and outside of the university, she partcipated in human rights organizations. She fought against violence against women, was part of the Cuba, Palestine, and El Salvador solidarity movements, and was part of Manavi, a New Jersey organization that helps South Asian women in need.