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NYC Commissioner Penny Abeywardena: A Powerful and Entrepreneurial Spirit

7 min read

*Content note: mentions of the Sri Lankan Civil War

“This is going to be a different interview experience for me,” Commissioner Penny Abeywardena lightheartedly forewarned me as we began our interview only moments after her (former) colleague, Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot, resigned from the NYC Mayor’s Office following what journalists have been labeling as a “mass exodus” from Mayor de Blasio’s leadership.

By the end of our 50 minutes together, she shared, “I never talk about this shit in interviews,” she continued laughingly, “This felt like a good therapy session.”

We finished the interview both voicing our mutual appreciation of one another. Sitting to talk with Penny felt intimate, disarming and freeing, even on a day as difficult as this one, during a year as difficult as this one. With a casual top-bun and a smile radiating over her face, Penny carried herself with a natural charm and a relaxing aura.

Penny identifies as a highly optimistic “glass-half-full” person working in politics, which might sound oxymoronic to you — to me it sure did. Yet as I spoke to her, Penny clarified that she views optimism as “purposeful,” indicating that she believes it is an active, rather than passive, way of being. I learned that Penny draws strength from the person she’s built herself to be over the years. She’s her own motivation. Even as a child Penny was “able to find so much joy” despite everything happening around her. And indeed “a lot” was happening.

“Nobody could’ve written this story [of mine]” she said. Notwithstanding, I hope this feature does justice to narrating the pathos of Penny’s lived experiences and the power instilled within her.

Penny’s family moved from Sri Lanka to California in waves between the ’70s and ’80s. Penny’s grandmother became a pioneer for the Sri Lankan diasporic community living in Los Angeles, many of whom overstayed tourist visas and became undocumented in the hopes of a better life. Penny’s was one of those families. Halfway across the world in Sri Lanka, Penny’s maternal uncle faced deadly violence during the beginnings of the civil war, arguably making an undocumented life preferable to the life they were fleeing from.

But their life was imperfect. Penny’s parents were challenged in their own ways. Penny’s father was “violently mentally ill” and struggled with alcoholism. This confluence of problems got in the way of him working, which resulted in Penny’s mom needing to work several jobs to support their family. During our interview, Penny narrated the exhausting yet admirable schedule her mom would follow: going to work at 6 am, coming home from work at midnight, getting up early to iron shirts and make her children hot dog lunches.

[Read Related: Dear New Mom: Don’t Forget to Love Yourself, Too]

“My mom lived the hustle and I will forever be grateful of that,” Penny said. Penny’s brother also had to “work 25 jobs” and “hustle since age 13.” Today, Penny is considered an entrepreneur working in politics, but this entrepreneurial spirit originates from a family ethic of hustling. She self-identifies as the “most successful person” her mom knows, illustrating how far she has come since her upbringing as a child.

“It is hard to exaggerate how truly miserable my childhood was,” Penny said.

When Penny was 11, the cops showed up at her family’s doorstep and Penny had to be the one to navigate and negotiate through that crisis. Experiences similar to this forced Penny to grow up quickly. Penny saw her mom become encrusted with an emotional hardness around her that deprived Penny of the connection she searched for as a child. Despite her dad being the certifiably “abusive” parent, I intuitively decided to delve deeper into conversing about the imprint that motherhood left on Penny. As I followed my intuitive questioning, there were moments when I felt like I was talking to my sister.

I asked Penny what emotion she believes is at the root of her mom’s core. Penny paused for five seconds in pensive silence and then responded, “Probably a lot of fear.” The way Penny described the nuance of her relationship to her mother rang similarly to how I’ve witnessed mother-daughter relationships in my brown family: constant judgment, complex admiration, distant concern, detached indifference. Fear can do a lot to a person. Fear can also do a lot to generations.

“This will probably come back to bite me in the ass but I think it is OK to be honest and say, when I had a child, I never thought I would full-time parent.”

And now with shelter-in-place, Penny has been both a full-time mother and the full-time Commissioner for International Affairs.

Penny jokes that there have been times — even as Commissioner — where her mom hasn’t understood what she does for a living, but after hearing the salary responds with “Good, excellent.” Penny’s mom always motivated her to land better jobs with higher salaries — in other words — to live the professional hustler lifestyle.

[Read Related: The Classic ‘Get ’em Married’: Exploring Marriage and Mental Health]

Unlike stereotypical patterns in desi culture, Penny’s mom never pressured her to get married or have children early. “While she couldn’t have explicitly said or coached me or held my hand in the right way, she set the right path.” And today, Penny concerns herself over the path that her child, Wilmet, will follow.

“My biggest concern is how to not raise an asshole because I am who I am because of those early years. But my son is living his best life in his early years,” Penny said, as she pointed out the ironic cause-for-concern. The story that Penny tells herself is that she’s “always equated struggle with the depth of a person” and hopes that her ability to provide more for Wilmet, compared to what she was provided as a child, will still allow her child to have a depth of character as well.

As a child, Penny approached challenges with the mission “If I’m gonna survive, I’m gonna come out of this shit winning.” This was also true at her school in Los Angeles where she was the only South Asian since all the other brown students were Latinx. And “Kids were not nice about that,” she said.

It was while in school that Penny changed her Sinhalese-origin name from “Piumi” to “Penny” to avoid being bullied. For her, assimilation was a survival-tactic because her teachers were not concerned about the bullying she was experiencing. They were more concerned with pulling Penny aside to call social services due to evident family matters.

Penny’s inherited instinct for survival manifested in her differently than it did for her mom. For Penny’s mom, emotional guardedness was the ideal tactic, yet for Penny it manifested as savvy assimilation, allowing her to meander the lifelong search for joy and meaning. Penny has brought joy and meaning to her role as Commissioner while working in “the whitest space” — the world of diplomacy. Verbatim from the words I used during our interview, which Penny laughingly instructed me to use in this feature, Penny melanated the fuck out of the NYC Mayor’s Office of International Affairs. “I did do that,” she said with a secure smile.

[Read Related: Indian-Americans, be Vocal in Standing in Solidarity With Black Americans]

As an appointed Commissioner, she witnessed the Office of International Affairs functioning as it always had — not functioning well at all — and wasting taxpayer money. The existing office staff failed to rise to the occasion under Penny’s entrepreneurial vision. So she replaced them. With people, namely—womxn—of color—most of whom are Black, African, African American, and African-American (depending on how they identify).

Penny sees Black and brown solidarity as nuanced because she acknowledges how privilege is differential between groups, especially in this country. Penny has experienced firsthand how even brown-and-brown solidarity is challenging. She hasn’t historically felt a sense of belonging to most South Asian spaces. She used to approach Pakistanis and Indians and quickly realized acceptance and inclusion were “not the case at all.”

She distinctly remembers Indian comedian Aasif Mandvi “massacring” her name at the 2019 Global Citizen Festival. He “extra killed it” in Central Park in front of thousands of people after having practiced her name in the green room prior. Penny narrated to me how she acutely responded by going back on stage and flipping her hair to make a memorable statement.

[Read Related: Say My Name, Say My Name (Or At Least Try, Dammit)]

So with that said, who runs the world? Well, in the words of four-year-old Wilmet, “Mommy’s the boss” — to which Penny laughingly admits, “I don’t know what that actually means to him other than he has to listen to me.”

Whether Wilmet knows how to articulate it yet, we need people like Penny doing the job like Penny is doing it. We don’t need perfect South Asian womxn leaders. We need honest ones. And we need ones who are honest about their imperfections.

Penny was honest with me in our interview:

“In terms of representing ‘brown,’ I’m not sure I do it very well because I recognize — for me — that on a spectrum of privilege, I have so much more than my African-American or my African colleagues and friends. And so I come with a humility to show up as an ally in a different way. And I don’t know if that is right or wrong, but that is a consciousness that I have that I don’t ever equate the Black and brown experience. Because in the American context, I have far more privilege than my Black friends.”

I asked Penny how she balances her humility with pride. And she responded with the term “Code-switching” which makes perfect sense since not everyone supports empowered versions of us. Penny mentioned knowing “exactly what [AOC] went through” after being called a “fucking bitch.”

Thus, Penny shares a truth when she said, “The humility [aspect] is about recognizing who I know I need to be humble around.”

Penny fiercely said, “I dare anybody to come in at any time and say, why did this [thing] happen during Penny Abeywardena’s tenureship and to question its legitimacy” as she explains the “institutional memory” she is building so that our communities can be guaranteed a better future.

[Read Related: ‘Send me Back? Piece by Piece, yet I will Remain Intact’]

I started our interview asking Penny where she gets her strength from, but I ended with the inversion of that question. I wanted to know who Penny believes benefits from the strength she exudes. She lists her (highly-melanated) staff, her constituents, her friends, her husband and her chosen family.

But despite her strength and influence, as we all know, “COVID has turned into a marathon,” she said. “Everything [happening] just reinforces the fact that we are not gonna get out of this fucking shitshow anytime soon.”

Fortunately, Penny acknowledges she has “a well of foundations” that will get her through this moment. So while Penny’s son Wilmet knows to say “Mommy’s the boss,” he’s also gradually learning the concept of that. Maybe in a couple of years, he will be able to articulate this concept more clearly, but regardless, he will always have the same “well of foundations” that Penny has to draw from to get us through the tough times.

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