A Portrait of Adhikaar’s Director

It’s been a year since Pabitra Benjamin was named executive director of Adhikaar, a nonprofit organization based in Queens, and in that time her involvement at countless community events has made her a household name in the Nepalese community.

Benjamin, 37, immigrated to the U.S. from Nepal with her mother at the age of 7. While she has been an activist since her teenage years, she was quite unknown within the community here before her appointment. Prior to taking the position at Adhikaar, she had worked for Amnesty International USA as their field director and interim campaign manager for gun violence and criminal justice.

In part, it has been Benjamin’s openness about her sexuality and caste that has helped her to gain more attention. A member of the Dalit community (the so-called “untouchables”), Benjamin is a gay rights activist. She married her longtime friend, Marisa Alonso, in 2016, and was open about this with everyone.

“I interviewed for the job (of executive director) in November 2016 and when I interviewed I said I can’t take the job unless you all are willing to have that conversation with the community,” she said. “Sometimes it’s better when somebody that’s not gay has the conversation with the community, but it is the conversation we have to have.”

Benjamin also said that she is never a “one-person show” type of leader. “I like to make sure that all our staff are the leaders and have them really decide how we are going to move forward,” she said.

She plans for the organization to continue to promote the rights of domestic and nail salon workers, as Adhikaar has always been known for doing, she said.

She also stressed that, at present, the organization is busy focusing on the renewal of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Nepalese in the U.S., which is due to expire on June 24. “We are reaching out to different stakeholders so that it gets renewed,” she said. After the devastating earthquake in April 2015 in Nepal, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) granted TPS status to qualifying immigrants from Nepal on June 24, 2015.

Although Adhikaar is based in Queens, Benjamin continues to live in Washington D.C. with Alonso and their baby girl. But she says that does not hamper her work. “It’s a little hard sometimes to meet people but people can always call me.” She added: “We also have a very brilliant and smart staff” in New York. In addition to Amnesty International USA, Benjamin has worked with the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance, and she had served on Adhikaar’s board since 2015.

Multimedia journalist Anuz Thapa is a 2017 graduate of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

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