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Desi Making Waves

By Elaine G. Flores

On The Shy

For thousands of New Yorkers, Bhairavi Desai is a reluctant star

In more than a decade of journalism, never have I found an interview as hard to get as this one. I’ve spoken to Hollywood stars, legendary musicians, and a Pulitzer Prize winner, but no one else needed this much relentless pursuit. A couple of months into my quest, I started wondering why I wasn’t assigned something easy, like getting the dish on Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

Who was my elusive prey? Bhairavi Desai. Demurely pretty, soft-spoken and a little bashful, she is an unlikely New York City power player; yet, she serves as the voice for thousands of New Yorkers. As director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA), Indian-born Desai spends her days tending to the concerns of the city’s drivers. In this male-dominated field, she is the one they turn to for help. And they seek her out frequently, which is why her schedule is so hectic.

Bhairavi Desai. Photo by Jaishri Abichandani

On one of the rare occasions when Desai can take my call, in between drop-in visitors and ringing phones, she discusses her role: “The Taxi Workers Alliance is basically a union for the city’s yellow-cab drivers. We currently have more than 6,000 members; we defend, protect and represent the interests of the workers in this industry.”

Desai, 32, was born in Gujarat before moving to North Carolina with her family at age 6. “I learned to speak English with a southern accent,” she says with a laugh, “It slips through every once in a while.” The clan eventually settled in Harrison, New Jersey and even today, Desai proudly refers to herself as ‘A Jersey Girl.’ “Somehow I never got over the bridge,” she adds.

Desai is equally as passionate about protecting the disenfranchised, a sense of mission nurtured at home. “No one in my family has ever driven professionally, I’ve never driven a taxi cab, but I come from a line of union members and union supporters. My mom was a union member; she worked in a factory. Both of my parents are socially conscious. They raised us to hate poverty and to love the poor. We were poor,” she says.

Having worked with the organization Manavi, aiding South Asian women who were victims of violence, Desai co-founded NYTWA in 1998. “We started the Taxi Workers Alliance because there’s a need. I think taxi drivers are definitely one of the most exploited [group of] workers in the city, in the country,” she says. “They work long hours and barely make a living wage. They have no health care and are considered 60 times more likely to be killed on the job than any other worker, that’s according to the Department of Labor…. That’s just from the violence, when you calculate the accidents within that percentage, it’s even a higher risk. And just the stresses of the job, I don’t know how drivers do it, you know picking up strangers all day long from 20 to 30 people a day and you’re driving strangers to destinations that only they know well. You don’t know what’s going to greet you once you’re there or what is going to happen midway through your ride. On top of that, they have to contend with harassment from the police and from the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC). I think they are harassed because the city sees them as easy money and — really the main reason — is because it’s a workforce mostly of people of color. Racially and class-wise and religion-wise, taxi drivers as a community represent the most marginalized people in our society.”

The NYTWA has made efforts to fix these problems by providing healthcare and legal services and by acting as advocates in dealings with the TLC. The organization’s work has garnered accolades such as the Fund for the City of New York’s Union Square Award for addressing social justice needs in the city and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund’s Justice in Action Award for advancing racial and economic justice.

Her demanding job dominates Desai’s “still single” life. Pressed about how she spends her rare free time, Desai has to think about it. “I enjoy spending time with family and friends. I’m a total TV addict. I’m a soap watcher.” Her favorite soap opera, General Hospital, has become too violent she says, “but lately I’ve been getting into One Life To Live.” Pausing, she offers, “I’m kind of boring, the only thing fun about me is really my job. I’m not into profiles because I just think I’m going to bore the journalist.”

So that explains why it was so hard to get a hold of her.


Elaine G. Flores is a feature writer for Soap Opera Digest, columnist for the St. Louis American and freelance writer. She is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and lives in New York.

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