Aminta Kilawan-Narine first graced the cover of a newspaper in 2012.
Before she co-founded Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus, and well before the creation of South Queens Women’s March (SQWM), Kilawan-Narine was on the front lines in the communities of Richmond Hill, Ozone Park and South Ozone Park.
She was Borough Hall holding a sign that read “Keep Richmond Hill United,” pushing for fair redistricting in her neighborhood.
And while much has changed in the communities that have deep Guyanase and Indo-Caribbean roots over the last nine years, Kilawan-Narine’s mission to empower her neighborhood has remained a constant in her fight for political representation.
“I knew that I wanted to create a platform here in my neighborhood, a platform that felt accessible to all people,” said the 32-year-old activist.
Kilawan-Narine, who was born to Guyanese immigrants and raised in Queens, was initially inspired to form SQWM by the deaths of two local women.
Stacy Singh, a 26-year-old mother of two children, was stabbed repeatedly by her abusive husband and left face-down in the couple’s Richmond Hill home in the early hours of New Year’s Day in 2018.
Donna Dojoy, a 27-year-old Ozone Park resident, was stabbed to death by her 33-year-old husband on the night of November 8, 2019.
In both cases, the husband committed suicide.
“I was really shaken by this,” said Kilawan-Narine, who is also a survivor of gender-based violence. “I felt there was a need to create a hyper-local, proactive grassroots movement in the community that acknowledged and identified the struggles that women, girls and gender-fluid people in our community face.”
Starting with just a handful of members, the organization planned to hit the streets in May 2020 with their first local march.
That was until a global pandemic put a temporary stop on those plans, leading the group to host more creative and timely outreach events in the neighborhoods of south Queens
The group has helped organize pop-up food and clothing pantries, voter registration events and distributed PPE on a weekly basis.
In addition, the group’s virtual art gallery became the “Made in Queens” art exhibit at King Manor Museum in Jamaica this past summer. In the former home of Rufus King, an original framer and signee of the U.S. Constitution, the group sought to represent their stories through artwork.
With more than 60 current members, Kilawan-Narine says there is a newfound “sisterhood in the streets.”
“What I’ve seen grown out of that is a really beautiful sisterhood of women who are thinking out of the box about what our community deserves,” she said.
In her demanding day job, Kilawan-Narine is a senior legislative counsel for the City Council. Since 2014, she has helped draft and negotiate legislation relating to women’s rights and child welfare.
And with the redistricting process underway again in Queens, which will take into account public input for the first time ever, Kilawan-Narine is again advocating for her community to be represented in local government.
“The path towards achieving true equity requires that we build political power at this hyperlocal level, where it impacts us most on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “We’re a very formidable voting bloc, but many are apathetic towards government and politics for valid reasons. As a result of that, we’re often marginalized and under-resourced.”
On a mission to promote civic engagement in South Queens, SQWM recently partnered with the Caribbean Equality Project and the Asian American Federation to encourage local residents to get more involved in their communities.
A voter registration event on Little Guyana Avenue (Liberty Avenue) brought out dozens of Richmond Hill residents last month.
SQWM is also a member of Asian Pacific Americans Voting and Organizing to Increase Civic Engagement (APA VOICE), which advocates for expanding voting access for Asian Americans.
Kilawan-Narine says that for decades, parts of Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park have been fragmented into multiple districts, causing the voting power of certain communities to be diluted.
Those communities were well represented at the Independent Redistricting Commission’s virtual hearing in July, where over 100 residents spoke to the fact that the three neighborhoods are divided among seven assembly districts.
“What ends up happening is you get further marginalized,” said Kilawan-Narine. “We know that this particular election that is coming up is literally going to determine the future of our city in so many ways, from the mayor to the local City Council person.”
As an organizer, Kilawan-Narine says she’s focused more on cultivating leaders than being the face of any advocacy group. She hopes to plant the seeds of leadership among SQWM and watch it grow.
“I don’t want to be the person that gets the attention, but I’ve been fortunate to be in spaces where I am able to be the loudest voice on behalf of my community,” said Kilawan-Narine. “I am able to be in spaces where I have networks and I have people who are willing to listen to me.
“If I can put my community forward in all of those spaces, I’m going to damn well do that for the rest of my life,” she added.