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Meet Firebrand Social Activist: Bhairavi Desai

Rutgers University educated Bhairavi Desai, co-founded the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, to lead a diverse group of cab drivers in their fight for work contracts, health benefits and fair treatment.
BY Uttara Choudhury |   11-02-2015

Soft-spoken Bhairavi Desai, is a formidable woman in a man’s world. After all, most drivers behind the wheels of New York’s signature yellow cabs are still macho men from Africa, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Desai co-founded the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) in 1998, when she was twenty six. As the executive director of the NYTWA, Desai leads a diverse group of taxi drivers in their fight for work contracts, health benefits and fair treatment.

Bhairavi Desai is the co-founder and executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance; Photo courtesy of

Desai made news when she initiated a strike, that to protest new rules imposed by former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, kept the city’s yellow cabs off the street for a day. Since then, the NYTWA has grown to claim 15,000 members. Desai can often be seen on the news campaigning on behalf of cabdrivers armed with statistics and left-wing rhetoric. 

Desai always saw herself as an organiser; “Growing up for me social justice was as much part of the menu as bread and butter.” She grew up in New Jersey and became “political” after a childhood incident; “I remember being chased down the road because of my colour.”

Desai has a degree in Women's Studies from Rutgers University in New Jersey and is pretty well read in feminist theory. After graduating from Rutgers, Desai worked at Manavi, a South Asian women's organization that helps victims of domestic violence.

Desai received the Ford Foundation's Leadership for a Changing World Award in 2005.

Desai is a soap-opera addict and once memorized the lyrics to every Jim Morrison song.

Desai talked to about her fight for social justice.

  1. You have become a recognizable voice for New York taxi drivers. What prompted you to take up this activist role?

  2. I grew up in a working class family. My parents moved from Bhadheli village in Gujarat to the US in 1979 when I was six. Both my parents worked. My mom worked in a factory in New Jersey and my dad managed a small store. There was no big pot of money so we all worked hard. I did end up going to college.

    I always wanted to be an organizer. A lot of the taxi drivers are immigrants facing tough work conditions. We started the Taxi Workers Alliance in February 1998 to help struggling drivers get better work contracts. Fighting for social justice is a responsibility.

  3. What did you study?

  4. I graduated from Rutgers University with a degree in Women's Studies. The first accredited Women's Studies course was only held in 1969 at Cornell University, but since then Women's Studies courses and their activist orientation have come of age.

  5. Does all this activism leave time for a private life?

  6. I love what I do so I don’t mind the hours. I believe that at the end of the day when you look in the mirror you should be comfortable with what you do and your morality. When I am at work I am with taxi drivers, among friends, so I don’t quantify time.

  7. You are lionized as a role model for helping a vast pool of drivers who occupy one of the lower positions in the city’s economy. But some of your harshest critics, City Hall officials, accuse you of being disruptive.

  8. I can live with that as long as it is the taxi drivers who have the positive image of me. If it was the other way around there would be something to worry about. If I am criticized by the bosses it only means I am doing my job.

  9. You once called a taxi strike at the height of the New York Fashion Week and U.S. Open to protest over costive technology upgrades that the authorities wanted. Would you call it a Gandhian protest in New York?

  10. That is an interesting observation. It did bear all the Gandhian hallmarks of being a peaceful, mass protest. But I would say that whether it is in India or the U.S. the labour movement knows no borders.

Uttara Choudhury is Editor, North America for TV 18’s Firstpost news site and a writer for Forbes India. In 1997, she went on the British Chevening Scholarship to study Journalism at the University of Westminster, in London.



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