Eight years ago, Penny Abeverdena met with Mayor Bill de Blasio on the front porch of the Gracie Mansion to discuss reforms to the city’s Office of International Affairs, which, until that time, was managing social events and parking tickets. was known for.
Ms Abeverdhana, 43, who is a Sri Lankan American and the first woman of color and immigrant to serve as commissioner for international affairs, has also set out to diversify her office and make it more accessible. To that end, she founded the NYC Junior Ambassador Program, which introduces middle school students to the United States and encourages them to use their knowledge in their neighborhoods.
As the UN General Assembly convened last month, Ms Abeverdhana sat down with The New York Times to reflect on her term as she prepares to step down in December. This conversation has been edited and condensed.
> How do you think the relationship between the city and the United Nations has changed during your tenure?
A. UN employees are real people who have lived in our city for many years. I wanted them to feel like they belong here, as New Yorkers.
We released the first Impact Report on how the United Nations brings $3 billion in revenue to the city, so New Yorkers can see it as more than just a building on sovereign land east of First Avenue.
This is just my observation, but most of the diplomatic corps, including Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, remained in the city during the early months of the pandemic. I think my office has worked to build relationships.
What has been the role of your office during the pandemic?
I don’t think anyone thought international affairs would be particularly important, but my team and I went on to become procurement officers for foreign governments.
The United Nations donated 250,000 face masks to New York City. We also worked to get ventilators, oxygen and other aid from countries that saw us all struggling during those difficult times.
We have held town halls with the Corps over the past 20 months to inform them about the different stages of the pandemic, safety precautions and how to get vaccinated.
What are you thinking about after your time in the office is over?
I think a lot about how hard it was personally during the Trump presidency. It felt like women like me, who were immigrants or who came from immigrant families, were being attacked by their administration.
My career is almost complete where I am now. I want to be an ambassador for one of the greatest cities in the United States of America, in which we take pride in our diversity and our inclusion. The funny thing is that in my office, I have Rudy Giuliani’s old furniture.
You were leading efforts for women’s and girls’ rights at the Clinton Global Initiative prior to City Hall. What inspired you to that point and your current style of work?
I’m the 1980s version of a streamer, and it’s something I think about a lot now as I prepare to leave the office. My family fled the civil war in Sri Lanka when I was 4 years old, longer than our tourist visa. I had been living in a Los Angeles Sri Lankan community for over a decade without documentation. The only reason I got citizenship was Ronald Reagan’s 1986 Amnesty Act.
I grew up on the margins of the South Asian American community, so I wanted a sense of belonging to be important in the diplomatic corps.
When I was 16, my mother became a single mom. My brother, mother and I are domestic abuse survivors. We were poor, but she was a hustler, working to support us seven days a week. I also started working at the age of 14 to help.
It sounds ludicrous, but lived experiences really do matter, don’t they? You have a lot of principled conversations with people who are trying to empathize as they should, which is great. But when you go through those experiences yourself, there’s something very clear about fighting for women and girls.