People Who Inspire Us: Chaumtoli Huq

People Who Inspire Us:: Chaumtoli Huq 

In this month’s (June) “Inspiring Sakhi” series, we feature Chaumtoli Huq, a labor and economic justice activist.  Chaumtoli is proud mother to Zarif and Liyana Cabrera and partner to Marvin Cabrera. She is also General Counsel for Litigation at NYC Office of the Public Advocate.

261“It was in 1993 that I learned about Sakhi. It was very powerful place for me to join because I observed unhealthy familial relationships, economic insecurity, and the ways race and class worked together to make life complicated and unjust.

I grew up in a diverse working-class environment in the Bronx and am a part of the Bangladeshi immigrant community in New York. My father left home to do social justice work in Bangladesh, leaving my mother on her own to be a single parent. Being a member of the union, my mother had a little bit more economic security than we otherwise would have had. I lived a real race-class experience that has shaped many of my convictions and commitments.

I was the 2nd staff hire, and Sakhi was about to celebrate its 5th anniversary. When I joined, I think I may have disrupted some notions about ABCD’s. (American Born Confused Desi’s) I was Bangla-speaking. I was rooted in my culture, I was an American, and I spoke up. At the time Sakhi was driven and lead by its Founders (many who lived their formative lives in South Asia and had different life experiences than me). These differences created some positive growing pains, which I look back at and think of as valuable for the growth of the organization.

At Sakhi, I coordinated immigration trainings for our volunteer advocates and developed support groups. I felt it was really important for women to have a space to talk, share and support each other as they traversed the challenge of abuse. During that time, Sakhi hired Nahar Alam, who formed the Domestic Workers committee through which she supported South Asian domestic workers experiencing employment violations and abuse.

A year and half later, I decided to pursue law school. I noticed that many of the fierce and amazing people on Sakhi’s Board were lawyers. I took that as a cue and focused on Public Interest law. Funny, at the time I had skewed sense of law school. I thought I’d be meeting more fierce brown women like I had seen around me, but going to school at Northeastern was a very different experience.

After returning from law school, I developed the South Asian Workers Rights project. It was the first project anywhere that looked at using law to support labor rights of South Asian immigrant community. Through the project, we represented the Taxi Workers Alliance, construction workers and day laborers. I specifically remember going to Richmond Hill, to speak to Sikh construction workers about their rights as they waited to be picked up for jobs by contractors. I also did a lot of work with Bangladeshi workers in Coney Island on wage cases.

I became very interested in putting my law degree to use and expanding my trajectory. I noticed that lawyers chose a specialization and practiced in that area. This didn’t feel right to me, because I wanted to be able to help everyone who came to me. I wanted to say yes to people who came to me with all sorts of issues, and that’s when I realized that I wanted to be a ‘people’s lawyer.’

To realize this, I joined Legal Services of New York that provides free legal services to low-income folks in New York. The impetus for me was to be in, live in and represent people in community. It was really great because I would go on a walk and run into people I worked for. I really liked that. Clients saw me with my kids and husband, and I was seen as part of the community.

While the work was great, there wasn’t anyone I knew that was striving to do the community centered lawyering as a person of color. Then and now, I hope to be that mentor to others. I don’t want others to struggle if they can just learn from me.

Around that time, I had the opportunity to teach at New York Law School. That felt like the right next step. During my time teaching Law, I started a blog called Law at the Margins.  I write for and curate this blog to highlight the ways our laws and legal institutions expand or limit the rights and social justice aspirations of people and communities.

I invite anyone working at the intersections of labor, human rights, labor and immigration, and anyone who values social justice to read or submit pieces for the blog.

2013 was a very reflective year for me. So I explored different projects to see what would be the right next step.

Then at the end of 2013, I was invited to join the Public Advocate of New York City, Letitia “Tish” James as her General Counsel for Litigation. I welcomed this opportunity because she cares a lot about economic justice and the experiences of the poor and working class. Not being politically connected, I was not sure whether the role would work out. Today, I am happy to serve as General Counsel of Litigation at the Public Advocate’s office.

In the 20 years since Sakhi, and after I started organizing in the South Asian community I’ve noticed how organizing work has changed. For a lot of young people, social justice work in the South Asian community is a career to aspire towards. I am glad that this is a possibility because it has helped me, and others to do what matters to them while making a living of some kind. At the same time, I think that it can be harmful. Once you begin to professionalize organizing work, it has the effect of excluding certain voices and perspectives, specifically voices of working class communities. This happens.

People who are in leadership roles have privileges and it is extremely important for those in leadership roles to bring others along and open opportunities for those who are most marginalized by our system.  My personal experiences around race and class make me particularly attuned to voices that are often left out. We have to bring our people along with us as we grow. I hope that my work reflects that.”

Our series continues here and on Twitter. Tweet

@SakhiNYC with #InspiringSakhi and tell us who is a source of inspiration and action in your life.