Interview with Shivana Jorawar, Co-Chair at Jahajee Sisters and State Legislative Counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights.
Please provide a brief overview of your career trajectory including what led you to Jahajee Sisters.
My first job out of college was at Sakhi. It’s where I embraced feminism and understood for the
first time that my personal experiences of gender injustice were political. I grew up seeing domestic violence in my community and am a survivor myself. Sakhi changed my life, and I wanted to bring the work to my Indo-Caribbean community so that more women like me could be transformed.
Resources and services for Indo-Caribbeans in New York City were essentially nonexistent, and I wanted to be a part of closing that gap. In 2006, Sakhi supported me to bring the first domestic violence awareness event—a community mela—to Richmond Hill, the epicenter of Indo-Caribbean life in the United States. I was also able to train volunteers in cultural competency for my community. However, I wanted to do more. As fate would have it, two fierce Indo-Caribbean women I knew were having the same dreams.
In 2007, they were organizing a summit for Indo-Caribbean women and invited me to participate. As the summit was being planned, Natasha Ramen, a young Indo-Caribbean woman, was killed by her rapist. Her tragic story infuriated women and catalyzed them to turn out. Two months later, Guiatree Hardat was killed by her fiancé. The outcry was deafening and we heard the call loud and clear for a women’s organization rooted in the Indo-Caribbean community. Jahajee Sisters was born.
After co-founding Jahajee Sisters, I went off to law school. I became a reproductive justice and LGBTQ activist, serving on the board of OUTlaw and helping to bring Law Students for Reproductive Justice to my campus. After graduation, I moved to Washington, D.C. for a role with the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF), where I led reproductive justice programming for almost 5 years. There, I became one of the few voices for Asian American women on Capitol Hill and learned so much about policy advocacy, organizing, campaigns, and coalition-building. It was a small organization, and I had the opportunity to wear many, many hats. That experience stretched and shaped me into who I am today.
I also learned a lot about non-profit management and fundraising from serving on the board of the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance. After NAPAWF, I became the federal lobbyist for the National Abortion Federation, representing independent abortion providers. I recently moved back to New York to be closer to my family and community, and began my current role at the Center for Reproductive Rights where I lead a team that fights state restrictions on reproductive rights.
What inspires you in your work? What are some challenges?
I’m inspired by the survivors who come to Jahajee Sisters broken from their trauma, who somehow find the courage and self-love to become whole again. I’m continuously grateful that they trust us to hold their hands while they heal. I’m grateful that they make the choice to turn their pain into power, and that we can give them the mentorship and skills to become movement leaders for gender justice.
I’m also inspired by the groundswell of people who are stepping up to take action in this moment. While 2016 brought us a president who brags about violating women and inspires violence against people of color, it also ushered in a new wave of progressive activists and expanded the power of our movement. There is a growing fire in the hearts of so many people across our country, and we need to keep kindling it.
A major challenge is the invisibility of the Indo-Caribbean community. Although we’re a large population in New York City, we do not receive resources or have political power to match our numbers. Even among Asians and South Asians, we are often overlooked or lumped in. We are less wealthy and educated than Indian Americans and have a unique history- our families were indentured laborers, replacements for African slaves on Caribbean sugar plantation. Because
our purpose was to labor, men outnumbered women—at one point 10 to 1. This led to widespread sexual assault and brutal violence against women. The residue of that time still exists, and the cycle continues. This is how the story of Rajwantie Baldeo, who died last year when her husband tried to decapitate her in the street, is possible today in New York City.
What does Women’s History Month mean to you?
Women’s History Month to me means taking back the narrative, telling our own stories and shedding light on our experiences that have been silenced for ages.
How do you view collaboration and community as a part of your work?
No one and nothing can thrive in isolation. As every living thing depends on elements outside of itself to survive and grow, people and organizations must be connected in an ecosystem of our own. When we come together with shared values, rooted in love, possibilities abound. I’m invested in relationships with others, especially other women of color, and know that are liberations are inextricably linked together. In fact, one of Jahajee Sisters’ earliest programs, our
Arts & Empowerment program, was a partnership with Sakhi.
What would a “better tomorrow” look like for you?
A better tomorrow looks like joy and safety for all. It looks like new models of power where strength is shared and no one is oppressed. It looks like Black and trans people no longer being on the margins, but in leadership. It looks like every person being able to make their own decisions about their body, sexuality, and life—free from judgment.
Please share one of your most powerful memories working with Jahajee Sisters.
I recently worked with a survivor of sexual assault who we are supporting to tell her story as away of shifting culture. What she went through was so painful, and her fearlessness—feeling fear but doing it anyway—has been amazing. Together, we recently met with a city council member and she shared her experience and how it has turned her into an advocate for women. Watching her turn her hurt into power, moving our elected official emotionally, was so powerful
and affirmed that we are making a difference at Jahajee Sisters.
Would you like to share any additional information, upcoming events, calls to action, etc.?
Jahajee Sisters will be hosting the 2018 Indo-Caribbean Women’s Summit on May 5-6 in Queens. This is our flagship event, and funds raised will support us to move beyond being volunteer-run and bring sustained programming to our community.
May 5, our opening night, will be a reception as well as a program featuring performances and critical dialogue to address gender-based violence. This event is open to all.
May 6 will be a conference-style event for women only, featuring workshops on various social justice issues. If you are interested in attending, you can sign up for our newsletter at www.jahajeesisters.org.
If you would like to sponsor the Summit, please email .
Thank you for your great work. We are proud to feature you as a valued and important part of our community!