Aminta Kilawan-Narine is a lawyer, community organizer and writer. She is a co-founder of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus, an organization founded in 2010 and dedicated to merging the values at the heart of Hinduism with those at the heart of social justice. A prominent voice in NYC interfaith activism, Aminta has fostered ecological stewardship through beach cleanups, promoted immigrant rights through Know Your Rights workshops, and fostered gender equity through a feminist faith lens.
Aminta is also the founder and Director of South Queens Women’s March, a gender justice movement-building organization with a mission to meet women, girls and gender-expansive people where they are and connect them to the tools necessary to thrive. Through South Queens Women’s March, Aminta has fought food insecurity and period poverty hyper-locally by organizing essential distributions, curbed gender-based violence through healthy relationship and healing workshops, promoted youth and professional development, championed civic engagement and building political power, and promoted the arts as a catalyst for social and political change.
Aminta is a columnist for the local newspaper, The West Indian, as well as Brown Girl Magazine. She also serves as a board member for Chhaya Community Development Corporation. Professionally, she is Senior Legislative Attorney at the New York City Council with a portfolio including homelessness, public benefits and child welfare. Aminta graduated from Fordham University with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science in 2010 and from the Fordham University School of Law in 2013 with a Juris Doctorate. She is licensed to practice in the State of New York.
NB: Other than the amazing diversity, what do/did you love most about living in Queens (or Queens in general)?
AKN: I love that Queens feels like home. I love that I can walk down a block and say Good Morning to a stranger and it doesn’t feel awkward or strange. I love the sights, smells and sounds of Queens. I love that Queens opened its arms to my immigrant parents and so many like them who aspired to achieve their American Dream of purchasing homes and sending their children to schools they themselves would never have had access to.
NB: How does Queens inspire you? What are some of your favorite places to be inspired in Queens?
AKN: Hands down (and of course I’m a bit biased), one of my favorite places to be inspired in Queens is our South Queens Women’s March office, which opened in April 2022. There I am surrounded by empowering art, including a large-scale mural designed by a local Queens artist Seema Shakti, that push me to be the best human I can be and to dream big. I am also inspired anytime I walk down Liberty Avenue in South Richmond Hill. I think of my ancestors who toiled on the plantation fields of Guyana, who struggled so hard to retain their culture and tradition. To see that culture and tradition reflected in the offerings of Liberty Avenue moves me.
NB: What do you wish more people knew about community organizing?
AKN: Though it often ends up this way, to me community organizing isn’t about being the most prominent face or the loudest voice. It’s about putting in the work to mobilize the masses so that they can emerge as the leaders of movements. Oftentimes in community organizing, especially when serving under-resourced neighborhoods, it’s easy to steer away from what brought you to the mission to begin with and to allow funding sources to guide the work. I wish organizers had the ability to run sustainable organizations where the mission is always the primary driver for programming.
I’ll also say that community organizing isn’t easy, especially when you are juggling a full-time job! The work can be taxing on physical and mental health unless you establish boundaries and take time to rest. I’ve learned this the hard way! What do they say? “Put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others”? This definitely rings true in community organizing.
NB: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
AKN: Right before I started law school in 2010, my former supervisor Ann Murray told me to never forget who I am and to not get lost in the competitive nature of law school. Those words stuck with me through and through. No matter the accolades, we need to remember where we’ve come from. In the end, we’re all just people, regardless of whatever titles we may have garnered along this journey of life.
NB: If you could choose only one concept or idea to represent Queens, what would it be and why?
AKN: “You are welcome here.” Recently, I saw protests against a possible tent city opening at Aqueduct Racetrack. Some of the visuals that were presented in response to this possibility deeply troubled me. Signs had the words “Welcome to New York City” crossed out, as if to imply that immigrants weren’t welcome here. Immigrants make up the fabric of New York City. Now, the questions of whether another tent city that will ultimately just end up demolished makes proper fiscal sense and whether these are liveable conditions for migrants who are often fleeing from violence and deserve a warm welcome are separate points, to me. Policy-wise, better decisions could be made to ensure that we’re doing the responsible thing economically and humanely. But one thing I have always loved about Queens is that immigrants are welcome here.
NB: Do you have any events or projects coming up that would be of interest to our readers?
AKN: South Queens Women’s March:
On July 29, South Queens Women’s March will be hosting a virtual workshop on Period Health 101: Fibroids and Endometriosis in collaboration with Neuemoon Health. To register and receive the link, you can visit tinyurl.com/sqwmperiodhealth. On July 30, we will be hosting an in-person workshop at our South Queens Women’s March office on Period Education facilitated by our partners at For Women, By Women Period. To register, visit tinyurl.com/sqwmperiodeducationworkshop. At the end of August, we will have our annual Back to School Giveaway so do track our calendar events on our website for more details on that! On August 18, we will have a Talent Show and Comedy Night at our office.
Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus:
Sadhana hosts monthly beach cleanups from April through November. Our next cleanup will be at Jamaica Bay’s North Channel Bridge on Saturday, August 12 from 10am-12:30pm. Registration is required at tinyurl.com/projectprithvivolunteer.
NB: Can you tell us more about South Queens Women’s March?
AKN: For many years, I had been working to promote gender equity in South Queens’ Indo- Caribbean Hindu community, uplifting the issue in my weekly columns for the West Indian newspaper, hosting healthy relationships workshops at a local library and bi-annual street outreaches along Liberty Avenue in Richmond Hill in my capacity as co-founder of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus. In this role, I was fortunate to join with volunteers to speak out against gender-based violence and provide tools to area businesses, including roti shops, barber shops, nail salons, bars and rum shops and more. Yet, as a gender-based violence survivor myself, I continually felt not enough was happening in my community to meet people where they are and to truly shift patriarchal culture promoting systems of oppression. Year after year, another vigil would be held for a fallen sister at the hands of an abuser. Those vigils were so necessary, and provide a healing space, for sure. Yet, I contemplated what it could look like to mobilize at the grassroots at large. What could it look like to break down silos and organize in an intersectional way, recognizing that our lived experiences as women-identifying people are inextricably linked?
In November 2019, I was on vacation when I learned of the death of Donna Rehanna Dojoy, a 27-year-old Ozone Park resident who was brutally murdered by her husband before he committed suicide. It felt like South Queens was being hit with such heart-wrenching news year after year. Donna’s precious life was taken prematurely. She joined many other fallen sisters including Stacy Singh, Rajwantie Baldeo, and Guiatree Hardat, all whose lives were extinguished as a result of gender-based violence. I felt moved to action. I posted on my Facebook page about the idea to hold a local resource-rich women’s march and teach-in workshops around gender-based violence. Community members of all backgrounds were warm to the idea, but agreed that it needed to be coupled with education, services, and more, to make a difference. In a November 19 article outlining recommendations for what might be needed to stop violence, I wrote what I felt: “WE NEED TO TAKE TO THE STREETS.”
Upon returning home to Queens, I began making phone calls to turn the idea into a reality. Leaning on service providers, gender justice activists and survivor-centered advocates for their advice and insight, many agreed that the effort should be inclusive of South Queens’ various identities; truly reflective of the people. Hence, “South Queens Women’s March” was birthed as a concept.
Recognizing I couldn’t do this alone, I had conversations with women who had previously expressed interest in getting more involved in the local community, and those who could lend their expertise to needs that would inevitably emerge in cultivating South Queens Women’s March. Among these women were Umila Singh, the creative behind SHE Co-Lab who can be credited for South Queens Women’s March’s logo; Fatima Shabbir, Brown Girl Revolt founder who created what would become posters for the march; Nirmala Singh who was then working to promote volunteerism at NYC Service; Tannuja Rozario, a reproductive rights scholar and gender justice professor; Candace Prince-Modeste, the President of the Jamaica Branch of NAACP; and Harmehar Kaur Kohli, the founder and Executive Director of Kaurageous Love.
Together, Candace, Fatima, Harmehar, Nirmala and Tannuja joined me in becoming the first Executive Board of South Queens Women’s March. The pandemic put the brakes on a physical women’s march occurring in the community; however, we met every single week during the peak of the pandemic to plan out how we were going to fulfill South Queens Women’s March’s mission to cultivate a world where women, girls and gender-expansive people could not just survive, but where they have the tools to thrive.
Since our inception, we have taken to the streets to unify women and gender non-conforming individuals in our community and provide them with the tools and resources necessary to empower their own lives and thrive. We have been curbing food insecurity, period poverty, building healthy relationships and promoting wellness within South Queens. Our movement is powered by dedicated members and volunteers who give so much of their time and energy because they are so passionate about co-creating the most equitable world.
NB: What are your favorite Queens restaurants?
AKN: I love Heat Caribbean Kitchen for their unique menu, including Corn Mutton Balls and the most delicious Lamb Sliders. Trinciti Roti Shop is my go-to for the best Doubles With Everything that you’ll ever eat. Portofino is always solid for family style Italian cuisine. I also find The Local Press in Ozone Park to be a hidden gem. Growing up, I was always excited to grab a Buffalo Chicken slice from Pizza Port I, but for a regular slice nothing can beat New Park Pizza. And finally, there’s this Yemeni restaurant on Rockaway Boulevard in South Ozone Park called Dar Al Yemen that my husband and I stumbled upon. I love the Fillet of Salmon from there, accompanied by their bread and salad. And on the days I’m fasting, Veggie Castle is a must!
NB: Can you tell us more about Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus?
AKN: Together with Sunita Viswanath and my then-boyfriend, now-husband Rohan Narine, we co-founded Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus in 2011 to fill a void when it comes to a progressive Hindu voice in the public discourse. Sadhana, which means “faith in action,” has since often been the lone Hindu voice in interfaith activism in New York City and beyond. We’ve fought for social justice in all realms, whether it be racial justice, immigrant rights, gender-justice, eradicating caste-ism, LGBTQ rights, and so much more. Our most visible project over the years has been our environmental initiative Project Prithvi. Prithvi is the name of Mother Earth in Hinduism. Since 2013, we’ve been cleaning up Jamaica Bay in Queens, having recognized the ways in which worship is done in ways that are far from eco-friendly. Hinduism itself is an Earth-honoring faith practice, and we’ve done these cleanups for a decade now to both advocate for local Hindus to promote eco-friendly worship, while also raising awareness in the community at large about who Hindus are.
This column was originated in July 2013 by Nicollette Barsamian.