An Interview With Azadeh Khalili: First Executive Director of the Commission on Gender Equity in NYC

June 10 2016, Washington, D.C. – PAAIA interviewed Azadeh Khalili, the first Executive Director of the Commission on Gender Equity in New York City, about her career in human rights as an Iranian American woman. Azadeh Khalili has worked for over 20 years to advance progressive policies and to create better conditions for marginalized communities in the field of human rights, sexual and reproductive rights, and the rights of low-wage workers.

Mayor Bill de Blasio (NYC) created the Commission on Gender Equity last year through an executive order. The Commission itself is an advisory body that works across New York City agencies in an effort to reduce gender-based inequity and build a safer, more inclusive and economically mobile city for women and girls. As the Executive Director, Azadeh Khalili will oversee the City’s first-ever Commission on Gender Equity, working to expand and increase opportunity for all New Yorkers regardless of sex, gender, or sexual orientation.

Prior to her appointment as the Executive Director of the Commission on Gender Equity, Khalili served as the City’s Executive Director of Language Access Initiatives at the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. There, she was instrumental in strengthening language access initiatives, expanding conversation groups for We Are New York (WANY) (an Emmy Award-winning television show created to help immigrant New Yorkers practice English while informing them of the city’s resources) , designing and directing the first ever Immigrant Women’s Fellowship at the Mayor’s Office, and building the Ethnic and Community Media Directory. Khalili has been on the Board of Directors of numerous organizations including Adhikaar (a nonprofit organization promoting human rights and social justice in the Nepali-speaking community) and the NY Community Media Alliance, and is the recipient of dozens of awards recognizing her commitment to human rights.

PAAIA: You were born in Iran and later moved to the United States. Please tell us about how your perspectives and experiences as an Iranian American have shaped your career.

Khalili: The warmth and friendliness of the Iranian people has always stayed with me.  Our society is older and wiser about the importance of relationships even in the smallest commercial transactions.

As an outsider and an immigrant, I’ve never taken anything for granted and can identify with marginalized populations in this country.


PAAIA: You have had extensive experience in government, philanthropy, and the non-profit sector. With over twenty years spent working on advancing progressive policies and creating better conditions for marginalized communities, what sparked your interest in public service? Can you tell me about your career leading up to this appointment?

Khalili: In my formative years, there was a deep hunger to improve society and that passion for changing the world for the better while caring for people has stayed with me.

After graduating from college in New York, I started my career working for the City’s Human Rights Commission. It was in the earliest days of the AIDS crisis and the City was trying to adapt its laws and civil protections to balance civil rights, individual freedoms and public health.  From there, I moved into the public health sector and created programs benefiting the poorest people who don’t have access to health care or even good information for prevention.

I joined the Bloomberg Administration to work on modernizing government to serve the diverse immigrant population we have in New York City.  And, based on the work I accomplished and bipartisan support for improving customer service nearly 4 million immigrant New Yorkers, I was invited to join the de Blasio Administration.


PAAIA: You were selected as the first Executive Director of the Commission on Gender Equity in New York City. What are your responsibilities in this Commission?

Khalili: My immediate responsibilities are to build the infrastructure of the Commission from the ground up – e.g., hiring staff, creating a website (www.nyc.gov/genderequity), etc.  I am also working closely with Commission members and other stakeholders to work through many good ideas and differing opinions to establish the initial policy priorities.  And since we have the good fortune of being located in New York City, we have forged a close relationship with UN Women.

It was a visionary idea to establish such a Commission, but because our work is necessarily forward looking, and outside the scope of traditional municipal finance, I am also responsible for raising much of our operating budget from private sources.


PAAIA: The Commission on Gender Equity was created last July, aimed at reducing gender-based inequity and building a safer, more inclusive and economically mobile city for women and girls. What is the importance of the existence of a Commission on Gender Equity?

Khalili: Despite our best efforts and intentions, in every corner of the world women and girls continue to experience inequities.  Sometimes, you find cases of overt gender discrimination.  Other times, it is a question of institutional bias.  And sometimes, we find complex and hidden unintended consequences from the best of intentions.   What is clear is that government has a responsibility to take a systemic approach to examine inequities that exist and identify their root causes towards finding solutions that can meaningfully address the status of women and girls.

I think the Commission on Gender Equity represents executive leadership at its finest.  From a management perspective, what we are doing is working with 50+ City agencies and getting them to examine their supply chains, service lines, budgets, staffing patterns, and key performance indicators from the perspective of gender.  It can only improve their performance.


PAAIA: Do you have any gender specific issues you are excited to tackle?

Khalili: Besides the larger systemic work that we are doing, we are committed to closing the gender pay gap in New York City and developing a strategy to better address the problem of sexual trafficking.  In addition to these, the issue that I am perhaps most optimistic about is new work we are creating in the area of healthy masculinity – working with boys and young men to change the cultural that enables sexism and violence against women and girls and give them a hand to establish better, healthier relationships for themselves.


PAAIA: As you know, Iranian Americans are among the best educated and wealthiest immigrant groups in the United States but few choose to pursue a career in public service. What has inspired you to take the path in service to gender equality issues and what does giving back in this way signify for future generations of Iranian Americans?

Khalili: I have met many other Iranian-Americans who are dedicated to public service and creating social value.  Some come from an altruistic place of wanting to make the world better for all humanity, others enjoy working on complex challenges that defy simple solutions.  Creating social value is more difficult that generating financial returns.  It’s not for everyone, but the levels of satisfaction and opportunities for achievement are immense.   I hope that more Iranian-Americans see the social sector as a meaningful option to fulfill their professional ambition.


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