As a second-generation American Guyanese, Amanda Koonjbeharry stood out among her peers growing up in Savage and Prior Lake. It was experiences with racism and domestic violence that inspired her to become part of the solutions against racial injustice and gender-based violence.
Koonjbeharry was an instrumental player in the implementation of Hennepin County’s No Wrong Door initiative, which involved being an advocate for local youth caught in sex trafficking. As the director, she educated and facilitated policy efforts to end and prevent the sexual exploitation and trafficking of children and youth. When the Super Bowl was hosted in Minnesota in 2018, she and others worked to build national awareness of these issues.
Now, Koonjbeharry is public policy director at the Citizens League, which allows her to bring together in conversation people with different perspectives about issues such as water quality, education, and aging in communities.
Having a career that is injustice-laden and emotionally taxing has required Koonjbeharry to find ways for personal expression and escape. “I am into spoken word poetry, and thinking more about how to tell stories — not just my own,” she says. “How can we use those platforms to amplify other peoples’ stories?”
As a child, Koonjbeharry was trained in classical Indian and Bollywood dancing, then moved to salsa and zumba. Recently she has returned to traditional Indian dancing, specifically Kathak dance.
“Kathak connects me back to my roots, to my lineage, and to my ancestors,” she says. “Both these forms are important to me in this moment. They allow me to be fully human. To feel and express myself in a world where I am told through messages, media, and cultural norms to be someone else in order to fit in. I am able to liberate myself from constructs and systems that don’t serve me and that often oppress me and others.”
Koonjbeharry is recharging to be able to focus again on the topic that hits close to home. “I am a survivor of domestic violence in a relationship when I was a teenager and into my early twenties. There was so much shame and blame I felt during that time. I now speak about it publicly. I do this work because I don’t want other people to experience that — to feel like they are to blame or to feel shame because of what happened to them.”
Domestic violence is prevalent among Guyanese women. “Global estimates show that 1 in 3 women worldwide experience physical or sexual violence, mostly by an intimate partner, at some point in their lives,” she says. “In Guyana, it is 1 in every 2 women. That is a public health crisis — such a staggering number that it is almost incomprehensible.”
“For me, 2020 has been about personally finding ways to talk about these things and to get everyone involved in ending it. To break that shame and stigma, so that we as a community can have these conversations.”
Koonjbeharry also has deepened her racial equity work, is working with people in her own community to address the anti-Blackness that exists, and is encouraging voter registration. “I’m focused on promoting civic engagement and a strong democracy by getting folks to fill out their census and to vote.”
Koonjbeharry views self-care as more than just treating oneself to manicures or binge-watching TV shows. “It is taking the time to engage in our own healing work, whether that is through therapy, yoga, meditation, or whatever speaks toyou.”
In a world often focused on efficiency and results, she recommends taking this time to reflect, examine, and align actions with hearts. She encourages everyone to realize that it doesn’t require a job as policy director to make a difference. “Empower yourself and create platforms for your community to be heard.”