Jaslin Kaur on Community Organizing, Kindness, and Leading with Tenacity

January 20, 2022

Varshini Balaji (she/her/hers) graduated with a B.A. in Anthropology and at university, worked as a researcher, Social Justice Scholar, and writing consultant. Growing up in six different countries, Varshini has always been curious about the human experience and the cultural forces that shape it. Varshini’s anthropological training and passion for storytelling inform her current role as a design thinking associate, where she applies a human centered approach to solve complex business challenges. Varshini is driven by a deep commitment to building a multivocal, decolonial future through networks of care.

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In 2001, New York City auctioned off thousands of taxi medallions, each worth nearly $200,000. Several immigrants saw this as an opportunity to operate their own vehicle and as a pathway to financial stability.  In the following years, the involvement of predatory lenders inflated the market prices of taxi medallions up to $1 million thereby propelling the collapse of the medallion scheme. With the emergence of Uber and Lyft, taxis couldn’t compete. In 2014, the taxi market crashed causing medallion debts to surge. Several taxi drivers owed nearly $500,000 to their lenders. 

Following the medallion market crash, financial despair deeply impacted many taxi drivers. By the end of 2018, eight taxi drivers died by suicide. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) composed of nearly 25,000 members, under the leadership of Bhairavi Desai, has been advocating for the lives and livelihood of taxi drivers since 1996. For at least two decades, NYTWA in collaboration with elected officials, community leaders, and taxi drivers have been advocating to restructure the medallion debts and to make more equitable agreements between lenders, the city, and taxi drivers. 

On 3 November 2021, the taxi drivers broke their 15-day hunger strike, to celebrate a debt relief plan involving a city-backed taxi medallion guarantee along with a maximum debt limit of $170,000 for each driver. 

Jaslin Kaur was a supporter at the forefront of the historic Taxi Medallion Protests. Jaslin was born and raised in East Queens, New York to Punjabi, Sikh immigrant parents. She is a community organizer and a former candidate for the New York City Council. 

Read my interview with Jaslin Kaur:

Varshini: Hi Jaslin! First, thank you for taking the time to speak with me! I’m excited to learn more about your journey. To get us started, could you please tell me a bit about your upbringing and an instance that was particularly poignant in propelling your interest in community organizing?

Jaslin: I grew up in an immigrant, working-class household in Queens, New York. I think growing up in one of the most diverse places in the world meant that I was always around people who looked like me or had similar experiences. I felt a sense of community growing up. I think I was raised in a very progressive household, too. For my parents, moving to New York from a rural part of Punjab, India really set us up for a lot of disenfranchisement but also opportunity to raise their children with principles of solidarity, dignity, and opportunity. Also, my father is a taxi driver so I saw firsthand how much it takes to achieve what is offered to you as the “American Dream,” so to speak. For me, one of the really radicalizing parts of my life was seeing how hard my parents worked. That wasn’t just about inspiring me to work hard, it was more about how much their rights were being taken away from them? How much is the city willing to make a profit off of their exploited labor? These questions launched me to run for city council in the first place because I knew that their story was not unique. My parents’ stories were not isolated instances of exploitation. 

(Jaslin with her father, who is a taxi driver in New York)

I also did a lot of organizing supporting survivors of sexual harassment and assault on college and high school campuses. I joined an organization called Know Your IX, that really became a political home for me early on. They really helped me learn what it means to protect your civil right to an education and help other students realize that cause too. It was my first entirely youth and volunteer lead movement of learning what activism and advocacy looks like. For me, it’s community-based power building that is key in recognizing that our fights are interlinked. Also, when I turned 18 was when the taxi medallion market crashed. That was a life-changing moment for me. My family became dependent on me; we were propelled into financial ruin and financial crisis. We were put onto food stamps. I had to drop out of university because of the economic impacts of the taxi medallion market. That hurled me into a universe of understanding systems of power just through personal experience. 

Varshini: Thank you for sharing, this is really inspiring. As I mentioned earlier, I have been following the taxi medallion protests, which involved a series of different kinds of protests, including a hunger strike over a period of 15 days with leaders, allies, and organizers. You also participated in the hunger strike and stood in solidarity with the taxi drivers. There were also a lot of South Asian leaders involved in this movement. So what do you think are the potential and possibilities of community organizing?

Jaslin: We elected the very first South Asian members of our city council just this year (2021) alone. For me, it’s not just about representation for the sake of checking off a box, it’s about wielding our political power to have our demands met. For me, when I ran for city council in my district, [I noticed that] we have a diversity of Sikh Punjabis, Muslim Bangladeshis, people who have not been activated quite yet. These are people who vote every four years because it’s their civic duty but they never had a civic engagement mindset of what it means to elect somebody who is going to champion you. [My team and I] increased voter turnout in our district by 30%, and we overwhelmingly won the South Asian vote across our district because we campaigned in people’s languages. Policy and organizing events are so much easier to digest when someone is speaking your language. 

I realized that this work can be done intergenerationally, too. So I am 25 years old, but I had people my father’s age, in their 50s and 60s, knocking doors and talking to their neighbors. That’s what makes politics personal, it brings the fight to your doorstep and shows you that you are in control of winning victories, like the taxi medallion debt relief plan. Seeing role models of my own like Zohran Mamdani, Shahana Hanif, Shekar Krishnan, who were leading this fight and committing to the fight, not just to get the vote but to organize people around it, was really transformational. Voting is not just a singular act that you do every four years, it’s a constant engagement in the politics of your life, it’s about survival, especially for the taxi drivers. 

(Jaslin with Zohran Mamdani, Shahana Hanif, Shekar Krishnan (among others) at the taxi medallion protests)

Varshini: In preparation for our chat today, I was reading your interviews and listening to the podcast episodes that you’ve been on. I was particularly struck by how vulnerable you are. The stakes are high, you get a lot of visibility, and this is a deeply political space. The risks are also high. How did you build your capacity to be vulnerable in such a public way?

Jaslin: You’re right, there is a lot of risk. When a young woman of color cries, the responses are: “Oh, that’s immature” or “She doesn’t know how to handle her emotions.” I think vulnerability is a point of political necessity. If we don’t share exactly how much the state has failed us, we depersonalize issues, we decouple ourselves from the opportunity for liberation. 

I’ll never forget that I met this woman who lives 10-15 minutes away from my house. We were knocking doors, and I believe she was Guyanese. I knocked on her door and introduced myself. I was talking about my experience with the taxi medallion crisis and how hard that was. She, then, immediately started sobbing. She got very emotional and was looking at the card I handed to her, which is the pamphlet for our campaign. It turns out that while I was in a massive amount of financial debt with the taxi industry, she had been in a massive amount of medical debt because of a health emergency while she was a healthcare worker, and couldn’t afford the medical treatment. This reminded me that we are never more than 10-15 minutes away from somebody who is in a very similar struggle. That’s what vulnerability is about—being able to connect with somebody on something that might not be exactly the same but shows how the system is not working. 

Varshini: That’s a powerful anecdote, thank you for sharing. Despite the persistent challenges of this work, why do you still do this work? Why is this work meaningful or important to you?

Jaslin: I think organizing and building community relationships for a goal that you might never live to see but approaching it with a tenacity like it could happen tomorrow is what sustains me. That’s what keeps me going. You never know just how close you are. Look at the New York Taxi Workers Alliance; they have been shutting down streets since the 90s and it’s 2021 now, and they just won the taxi medallion debt relief fight. It’s very hard to see just how long it might take to get these victories, but they are necessary. It’s not just about one victory, it’s about the people you mobilize. 

I also deeply believe in the inherent good in people, that they are able to redeem themselves and support their local communities. That’s what I’m fighting for at the end of the day. The work that we do and why we organize points to a deep fight for justice. People have been deeply impacted, and I want everyone to have the rights to housing, healthcare, and education–the most basic needs. Every single person deserves that no matter what. I think that’s what keeps me going. 

Varshini: We at Born This Way Foundation are active advocates for kindness and bravery. Your journey exemplifies these two qualities. I’m curious if you can share a bit about what kindness and bravery mean to you. Could you also share an anecdote or story of when someone’s kindness impacted you?

Jaslin: I think being kind and brave, especially when it’s inconvenient, is one of the most important times when you have to exercise it. It’s very easy for us to shut other people out and to cast people aside, but for me, kindness and bravery is also about solidarity and hope. I think about Mariame Kaba who said, “Hope is a discipline but solidarity is a practice.” We have a deep commitment to each other because our destinies, our fates, and our dignities are inherently intertwined. So for us to be kind to each other is investing in each others’ liberation and for us to be brave is to bring to light how much these struggles have not only impacted us but challenge these systems that disenfranchise us.

There are so many random acts of kindness that it’s really hard for me to choose one, but I think one that sticks out was when I met a NYTWA member, Tariq. He was distributing copies of his daughter’s poetry book – the first page he showed me was a poem about carrying the struggles of your immigrant family. She [Tariq’s daughter] included an illustration of her father’s taxi. I was so moved, and saw myself in her work – he was clearly so proud of her. It was so moving that he wanted to share a part of his family with everyone at City Hall. I also realized that there are so many different ways to do the work, whether it’s art, public speaking, or direct action.

Varshini: I love that! I love that you are expanding the idea of what kindness looks like. We don’t necessarily think of kindness in spaces and relationships that are challenging or in moments of conflict. I love this notion of infusing kindness even in moments that are hard. I also echo the sentiment of practicing critical, deep, and intimate kindness. 

So to wrap up, could you please share what advice you have for youth who are interested in getting politically engaged but don’t know where to begin or youth who might be afraid of the consequences of getting politically involved? What suggestions do you have?

Jaslin: I’ll cheat a little and share a piece of advice that someone else gave to me, which is that you want to be able to look at yourself in the mirror every single day and like what you see. Take that kind of integrity to every single thing you do. I’ve had to take a lot of political risks in my life but I don’t see them as “risks,” I see them as opportunities to be on the right side of history. It’s helped me meet so many other people who share my vision. I also think it’s really important for young people to find a political home–organize with your neighbors, organize people in your workplace, those are some of the most important places where you can find a very hyperlocal fight for justice that’s near you. Those are some of the most life-changing conversations you will ever have. Do not be afraid to be tenacious, to be strong with your demands, and do not water down your message for anybody. I think we lose a lot by making our goals, ambitions, and dreams conditional for other people’s comfort. Have big dreams, and go for them. There will be a lot of people who will try to stop you, but there is a reason why they are pushing back, and it’s because you are challenging systems of power. That is always the right thing to do. We have a lot of power inside us. It’s time to stop saying that we are the future because we are right here, we have always been here. It behooves us to be ambitious, unapologetic, and unafraid in the work that we want to do. 

Varshini: Thank you so much, Jaslin! Thank you for your clarity, vision, and incredibly inspiring journey. I know it hasn’t been easy at all by any means but thank you for the work you’re doing!

To learn more about Jaslin and her work, follow her at @jaslinforqueens on Instagram and Twitter

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