Bhairavi Desai, the founder and executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA), attributes her success and advocacy to her Indian heritage.
Desai, who was born in Gujarat, India, came to the United States at age 6 with her parents and two older brothers in 1979 at a time when her home country was in a recession.
Her aunt and uncle were already settled in the United States with their children, so they sponsored Desai and her family, who lived in a North Carolina hotel where her parents worked. Desai said she that learned the English language at the hotel.
After a year of living in the south, her family relocated to New Jersey, where underwent culture shock. The transition from India to North Carolina had been slightly easier due to southern hospitality and the green scenery, Desai said. While she was able to play outside and socialize with her neighbors in North Carolina, it wasn’t the same in Jersey.
“When we first moved to Jersey, I would sit outside on the porch and say ‘hi’ to whoever walked by,” said Desai. “After a while, people started crossing the street because it wasn’t the cultural norm.”
Desai said that in India, children would play on the street in their village. But when she moved to New Jersey, she had to be careful on the streets, which had more vehicles. Desai said that her biggest adjustment was during lunch time at school when the children were given meat.
“We [her family] didn’t eat meat, so I would cry in the school cafeteria for the cows,” said Desai.
Although her parents moved the family to the United States, they didn’t leave their cultural traditions behind.
“We would speak Gujarati at home, eat our Gujarati meals, watch Bollywood, had a temple at home and celebrated all the Hindu and Indian holidays,” said Desai. “I grew up on stories about the Indian Independence Movement and the role my forth parents played in it.”
Desai said that while growing up, her father would frequently talk about India’s history of resistance and liberation, stories that contributed to Desai wanting to become an activist.
“It made me want to change the world,” said Desai. “Most importantly, it made me believe that I could. I found so much dignity and courage in my parents’ struggle as immigrants and poor people. I was determined to contribute to creating a world that could be better and to recognize people like them. You always hear about parents who were inspired to build a better world for their children, but my parents inspire me to build a better world for them and people like them.”
Desai founded the NYTWA in 1998, which now represents more than 21,000 city taxi drivers.
“We wanted to build an organization that looks to take care of drivers day to day and fundamentally build power, so they can control their own destinies and have a better life,” said Desai. “I am really proud of the work we’ve done as an organization. I feel enormously thankful for the drivers and their faith. Every day, the feeling that lingers in me is that I don’t want to disappoint them.”
Last week, the NYTWA celebrated a victory after the City Council voted on legislation that included capping For-Hire Vehicles (FHV), such as Uber and Lyft, which have been cited as a cause for the loss of business for cab drivers and six recent suicides.
“We worked so hard for this victory,” said Desai.
Desai said that the next step is to make sure that the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) follow through on their promises to the union.
“I know first-hand the indignities of poverty,” said Desai. “Drivers work under such harsh conditions, but they don’t give up—so, how can I? They inspire me to be more courageous every day.”
– Ariel Hernandez