Conversation with 25 Leaders in Action: Luna Ranjit

Tue, 2015-09-29

To commemorate AAPIP’s 25 years of building a more democratic philanthropic sector, we asked you to help us identify 25 leaders who are making a difference in your local community and/or nationally. The 25 Leaders in Action honorees represent a diverse group spanning a wide range of organizations, years of experiences, roles and sectors.  We invite you to learn about these outstanding leaders, their inspiring work and what keeps them going in our blog post series.


Luna Ranjit, Co-Founder and Executive Director, Adhikaar

1. Why are you passionate about advocating for AAPI communities?

I'm passionate about advocating for justice and creating a space for marginalized communities' voices to be heard and have a voice at the table. As a part of the AAPI community, I advocate not only for our community but also within our community.

2. What do you believe are the most critical issues facing AAPI communities today?

One of the biggest challenges is the lack of data about our community, which makes it harder to identify the issues facing different AAPI communities. The Nepali community is often categorized as “South Asian” or “Other,” and it is very difficult to find data for our community. While the US Census only started disaggregating Nepali data since 2010, the Tibetan community is not even counted in the Census.  However, as a new immigrant community, the challenges faced by the Nepali-speaking community are different from other communities with longer histories in the U.S.

Data can tell stories; data can save lives. For example, while Nepali population is a small percentage of New York City, we have the highest rate of tuberculosis in our community. More than 4 out of 5 Nepalis are born outside the United States. Nepalis, among all Asians communities in New York City, have one of the lowest per capita incomes and are least likely to be homeowners.

One of the challenges the Nepali-speaking community face is language justice because more than half of the Nepalis have limited English proficiency. Linguistically appropriate services are hard to find in places such as hospitals and courthouses. Members of our community often go to these places and are asked if they can work with a Hindi interpreter because Nepali or Tibetan interpreters are not available. While most Nepalis and Tibetans can understand enough Hindi to watch films, they should not be forced to make important life decisions in a language that is not their native one. In another example, one of our members was arrested for child negligence, but stayed in jail for three days because the police couldn’t find an interpreter who spoke Nepali or Tibetan. We have also seen courts recommend counseling, but not finding counselors who speak our languages. This is happening in Queens, New York, which is considered a hub for the Nepali-speaking community. I can imagine what it’s like in other parts of the country where there isn’t a sizable Nepali-speaking population.

3. In what ways do you strive to address the unmet needs for AAPI communities?

My efforts and inspirations are rooted in a personal commitment to advocate for the visibility about the needs of emerging communities and for more resources to meet those needs. In New York, we're part of the “15% and Growing Coalition” and have successfully advocated for increased government funding for AAPI-led and AAPI-serving organizations. We also have advocated for wider inclusion of the Nepali and Tibetan community. Recently we got the health and safety guides for nail salon workers to be translated into Nepali. The New York State nail specialty licensing exam is now available in Nepali and Tibetan (and Vietnamese). The national recognition and local action surrounding the nail salon industry after the New York Times series have also brought significant legislative changes, which is great to see after organizing around this issue for almost a decade.

That said, we also always work in partnership with other progressive organizations to push for structural changes. Partnering with other organizations allows our staff and members to hear other stories, understand shared problems, and find collective solutions. For example, Adhikaar is an active member of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, where we have created a multiracial, multi-lingual space to fight for dignity and fairness for all domestic workers in the United States. At the same time, however, we show up as Asian workers in these spaces, and talk about what is different for our communities.

Nationally, because there’s no other resource center for the Nepali community, we get calls and requests for assistance from all around. Recently, the call volume has increased significantly due to the TPS (Temporary Protected Status). We’re doing regular legal clinics here in New York City, and long with the New York Immigration Coalition, we’ve compiled a list of free and low-cost resources around the country, which we are circulating through our contacts and on social media.

4. What keeps you inspired?

Every day, I’m inspired by the Adhikaar members who overcome great odds to speak up for justice. On May Day this year, there was a hearing at the New York City Council about three bills seeking to change the nail salon industry. Two Adhikaar members spoke on the record about the challenges in the nail salon industry. One of them didn’t face as many hardships as her peers, but she came to testify because she wanted to make her working conditions a norm for everyone else.

Luna has guided Adhikaar's programs, research, policy advocacy, and partnerships since its inception in 2005. Regarded as an expert on emerging immigrant communities, Luna has been quoted and featured in print and broadcast media on the issues related to data disaggregation, language access, and workers' rights. She is a co-founder of the New York Healthy Nail Salons Coalition and serves on the advisory board of the National Healthy Nail and Beauty Salons Alliance. Her groundbreaking work has been recognized by many community organizations and elected officials. Asia Society selected her as part of its Class of 2013 Young Leaders, a group of emerging leaders under the age of 40 in fields including government, business, policy, education, and arts. Luna holds a bachelor's degree from Grinnell College, and a master's degree in public and international affairs from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University. She currently lives in Jackson Heights, Queens.

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