More than a Dream: Making a Difference
by Mark Baechtel
As Luna Ranjit '00 herself puts it, "A young woman is not a typical prototype of a leader in Nepali communities - or any community, for that matter."
How, then, did one of this year's Wall Service Award winners come to found and head Adhikaar, a New York-based nonprofit organization working to promote human rights and social justice in Nepal, and among Nepalis driven from their homes by political unrest?
The answer, Luna says, is traceable to an activism forged in her childhood and nurtured through her time at Grinnell.
"I grew up having to navigate two different cultures, even in Nepal," she says. Raised in a working-class neighborhood in the old part of Kathmandu, the product of a mixed-caste marriage, she was nonetheless able to attend one of her country's elite schools, along with members of the royal family and the daughters of Nepal's wealthiest people. She says this experience, along with her status as a woman in a paternalistic society, a "lower caste" person in very hierarchical social system, and a non-native Nepali speaker, all gave her intimate acquaintance with discrimination.
Luna didn't allow these obstacles to stop her. After coming to Grinnell on a Nepal Special Scholarship, she received numerous awards, including election to Phi Beta Kappa and Mortar Board. With her newly-minted degree in economics, she worked for two years at New Voices, a national fellowship program for small nonprofit social justice organizations. Then she headed to Princeton (after wo, where she got a masters in public and international affairs. She then moved to New York City, where she began working with community-based organizations serving the area's burgeoning South Asian population.
"The more time I spent in New York, the more I became aware of the struggles of Nepali immigrants, especially the newer ones," she says.
Luna saw that Nepalis were often underserved or not served at all by organizations nominally dedicated to helping South Asians. So in early 2005, she and a group of "like-minded friends" founded Adhikaar-the word means "rights" in Nepali-to fill the gap.
"Actually, the 'seed money' for Adhikaar came from Grinnell, in the form of a check from Professors Mark Montgomery and Irene Powell," Luna says. "Other faculty, staff, alums, and even a student have given donations to Adhikaar. So, it was only natural for me to think about Grinnell when we decided to expand. I knew about the Wall Service Award since the time I was at Grinnell, and this year seemed like a perfect time to apply."
Luna will use the Wall Award money to fund a "Know Your Rights and Resources" campaign, with the aim of providing New York-area Nepalis with workshops, health fairs, and information to help them cross the treacherous shoals of new-immigrant life. She's already had plenty of experiences that tell her the need is there.
"While working for another South Asian group organizing low wage workers, I met many Nepalis who work 10-12 hours a day, six days a week, and get paid $300-350 a week," she says. "And [these] people I met were just a tip of the iceberg."
In serving her community, Luna says, "I will draw upon the two things I took from Grinnell - my dream of making a positive difference in the world, and the confidence that I can do it."