Adhikaar: Frederick Douglass Award Honoree

Adhikaar, meaning “rights,” is a women-led grassroots organization committed to improving the lives of the Nepali-speaking community through organizing and activism. Adhikaar has touched the lives of millions of people in New York City and throughout the world. Guided by the needs and demands of the community, Adhikaar has successfully impacted policies and created new laws at local, state, national, and international levels. Adhikaar focus its social justice initiatives, direct service, and leadership development programs on workers’ and immigrants’ rights and access to healthcare.

Adhikaar was founded in 2005 to serve the growing population of Nepali-speaking people, including immigrants and refugees from Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, India, and Burma. North Star Fund was one of Adhikaar’s earliest funders, helping them grow from an office of four volunteers with a $500 budget to establishing the first active community center in Woodside, Queens—the heart of New York City’s Nepali-speaking neighborhoods. The Center has become an inclusive home away from home for Nepali-speaking women, men, and children. It is especially critical for women and youth who are often left out of the conversation in more mainstream, patriarchal groups. Ongoing funding from North Star Fund has supported key leadership and research projects that have bolstered Adhikaar’s significant social justice victories for almost ten years.

2015 was a banner year for Adhikaar’s decade-long effort to organize South Asian nail salon workers. Governor Cuomo signed into law legislation incorporating the reform priorities proposed by Adhikaar in a report developed from their Healthy Nail Salons campaign. The report documented the long hours, low pay, and health and safety risks, as well as language and immigration barriers that nail salon workers routinely face. In addition, the report spelled out provisions for enforcing the rules put forth in Cuomo’s legislation. Pioneering, long-term research led by Adhikaar’s members between 2011 and 2014 made this work possible, and was funded by North Star Fund. While the change is incremental and ongoing, regulations have resulted in safer workplaces, higher wages, and more respect from employers and customers. 

Concurrent with the policy work to pass new laws, Adhikaar co-founded and currently leads the New York Healthy Nail Salon Coalition which continues the advocacy needed to ensure the enforcement provision of the law is carried out. Adhikaar and allied groups help oversee the requirement of nail salon owners to secure wage bonds which will ensure that workers receive minimum wage, overtime, social security, employment and workers comp insurance, and other protections, including recapture of missing pay. The group led the effort to urge local government to sharply increase the number of nail salon inspectors to motivate owners to comply. The Coalition has also been instrumental in the ramp up of nail salon trainee registration, which allows salon employees to work while studying for licensing exams. The Coalition has added Nepali, Tibetan, and Vietnamese languages to exams and “Nail Salon Bill of Rights” posters, making it easier for workers to get licensed and to know their rights. The Coalition remains optimistic and engages with businesses that are interested in modeling healthy salons that prioritize the well being of workers as a critical next step to the transformation of the industry.

Reflective of the overall Nepali-speaking community in New York City, many of Adhikaar’s members are recent immigrants to the U.S., and work in domestic employment as nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers. Adhikaar worked in coalition with other grassroots groups to secure the New York State Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2010, the first legislation in the country of its kind. Adhikaar is now seeing the national and international impact of their leadership, as lawmakers are passing policies protecting domestic workers across the country and the world – in 2013,  the International Labor Organization adopted the International Convention on Domestic Workers with overwhelming majority, and has been ratified by 22 countries so far.

For Adhikaar, direct service and policy advocacy are interwoven. Founder and Executive Director Luna Ranjit says, “Our members typically come to the community center for a specific activity such as an English class, nanny training, or legal advice and gradually engage with more services such as trainings, workshops, and campaign work. Intentionally building on this model of helping individuals with their daily struggles then connecting, engaging, and empowering them to continue into leadership roles results in more successful and broader change. This interconnection is what allows a small, nearly invisible population to garner the power to make big change.”

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