Sophia Jayanty was born to pick a fight.
When the 24-year old legal advocate for a Bronx criminal justice center was 16, she walked out of her first job in protest.
Back then, the feisty waitress said she was angry at the Houston, Texas fast-food joint where she worked, for refusing to pay workers’ overtime.
The petite South Asian picketed by herself outside Papa Joe’s BBQ. Most of the restaurant’s bus staffers refused to join her from the fear of losing their jobs.
“They had a lot more to lose than my little, privileged ass did,” referring to her then-coworkers, most of whom were undocumented migrants from Mexico. Although it was hardly a full-fledged strike, Jayanty’s cocky gamble resulted in the manager eventually being fired.
Jayanty recounted the story from her cluttered desk at the legal advocacy nonprofit Bronx Defenders, which specializes in civil and legal services for its indigent clients. The phone rang frequently. Her tone became noticeably gentler when she called a client, confirming an appointment at the Department of Motor Vehicles, where she agreed to help him restore his rescinded license.
Between her solo walkout and her current job helping the poor with the everyday legal problems, lies a long list of other activism for Jayanty, a list that has its roots in her childhood.
She was born wealthy, but not white—characteristics that have contributed to her compassion for the marginalized and her suspicion of power. As such, Jayanty continually questions authority: her own, the government’s, even her own job’s.
“It’s sometimes uncomfortable because in some ways it’s paternalistic,” she said of her role at the Bronx Defenders, whose progressive ethos separates it from traditional legal aid.
Indeed, she believes she was successful in her first protest, not because of her youthful idealism but because of her status. Jayanty and her peers were wealthy. Her father is a successful doctor, who still helps her out financially. And probably most importantly, the young activist attended high school with the restaurant owner’s niece at a predominantly white, private Catholic school.
Jayanty is a triplet, one of six children born in Houston to an Indian father and a Sicilian mother, both of whom made social justice a priority for their children. Although Jayanty’s income matched that of her suburban neighbors, her caramel skin color did not. As a kid, she was bullied for being for being brown.
“When I was in second grade, a boy wouldn’t let me go to the water fountain because he said I was brown trash,” Jayanty said with a laugh, her eyes bright and warm. She pushed him against a wall and verbally threatened him. “I identify with brown people more because of that experience,” the Crown Heights resident said. “I would never fit in, be white, even if I wanted to.”
Her identity, according to her sister Amelia Jayanty, 24, extended to an obsession with abolitionist Harriet Tubman and the pre-Civil War Underground Railroad. “She’d even wear a do-rag,” her sister said.
Amelia said her sister has always been fervent in her beliefs. “She was very argumentative. She would always tell you her opinion and what she thought was right,” Amelia said.
At first glance, Sophia Jayanty doesn’t seem as if she’d fit in in the Bronx. Her pageboy haircut and high-waisted jeans are maybe too hipstery for the low-income neighborhood in which she works, but her confident gait makes her look right at home.
On lunch break, Jayanty walked through the Grand Concourse area, pressing a filtered Camel cigarette between her teal-painted fingernails.
At a tiny Mexican restaurant on Brook Avenue called Coqui Mexican, she switched effortlessly into Spanish and called the owner, Diego, by name. She goes here because of the food but also because she supports its progressive community ethic: Diego keeps a bookcase for customers to leave or take a book, a way to counter the dearth of South Bronx bookstores.
In Houston, Jayanty was a community organizer at various grassroots nonprofits, where most of the people she served were black. Jayanty majored in Latin American studies and anthropology at Oberlin College, teaching English as a Second Language to community members there in her spare time. Now, as a legal advocate she protects the civil rights of those most at risk of having those rights violated.
“I’m a glorified paralegal,” she said in the sort of sweet sarcasm that pervades most of her casual conversations.
Jayanty eventually wants to be an attorney for a sexual health organization like Planned Parenthood because she’s a proponent of women’s rights, and she sees the Bronx Defenders as a stepping stone in that direction.
Buried in the basement beneath the Melrose welfare center, the Bronx Defenders’ satellite offices are very different than the chaotic and, as Jayanty said, “militarized” upper floors where armed security guards stand watch. The nonprofit is marked by clean lines, a calm hum of activity and a noticeable absence of cubicles. Its mission statement—promising the Bronx’s indigent legal and “holistic defense”—emblazons a bright red accent wall.
A stack of papers is all that separates Jayanty’s desk from another. The scattered documents that fill files and even floor space represent her caseload of 250 people. On any given day, Jayanty can be found assisting her clients in a wide variety of ways, from securing restricted driver’s licenses to renewing public assistance.
Mostly, however, she deals with police precincts, trying to obtain confiscated property—a pursuit she said is much more difficult than it sounds. “It’s just a vacuum of inactivity—police precincts. Sometimes they lie about if someone’s there or will say they’re on vacation,” Jayanty said. “There’s a lot of runaround. They try to exhaust you till you give up.”
Jayanty’s coworker and another legal advocate Ginger Lopez, 34, sympathizes with the intensity of the job. “It’s 24/7,” she said, “we’re always on the phone.”
But, Jayanty is good at it.
“She has the ability to be really personable, to really get on the client’s level so they trust her,” Lopez said. “She’s genuinely concerned with their issues and tries hard to find different avenues to solve them.”
Jayanty deals with complicated cases from complicated clients, some of whom have rarely seen the law work in their favor. “It’s not really my job to question what they’re telling me. I have to give them the benefit of the doubt,” she said. “You’re probably the only person they’re telling the story to who believes them, who’s on their side. Some people don’t understand the intensity of the violation that’s occurred to them.”
What’s occurred to them are often grave affronts to their civil rights, such as physical violence or unequal treatment by law enforcement. These issues, she said, are sometimes difficult to leave at work. Fortunately, Jayanty has seemingly interminable energy for navigating injustice and she possesses a fierce sense of humor. (On Facebook, she lists her political views as human dignity and Hezbollah.)
At the Bronx Defenders, she feels more comfortable among the largely Latina administrative staff than among the lawyers, who are higher up on the pay scale and whom she said are entrenched in the institution. Administrators, on the other hand, are more dispensable and have a higher turnaround, allowing them (and Sophia) to be “more critical of the structure of the Bronx Defenders.” For Jayanty, attorneys—even those at the Bronx Defenders, whose work she supports—represent just another symbol of power.
And their power, like her own, is something to be checked.