December 26, 2019

When you walk into Penny Abeywardena’s bright corner office, you’ve gained a window onto the world. Literally. Amid sweeping views of the city’s towering skyscrapers and bustling avenues, the United Nations building rises dramatically from across the street, a portal to the global community. It’s a fitting backdrop for New York City’s commissioner for international affairs to host foreign ambassadors, form partnerships, and collaborate on issues of international import.

But this same office is also firmly representative of New York City itself—and its people. On the floor near the door, visitors will notice a colorful, three-tiered rack of women’s shoes, housing everything from daytime flats to Sergio Rossi heels. After all, like many new moms, Abeywardena is running after a toddler before getting to work, where she makes a footwear switch at her desk.

“Ambassadors see my shoe rack all the time,” she says, laughing.

Abeywardena brings this same genuineness and transparency to her role as commissioner for international affairs, in which she serves as the primary liaison between the city and its extensive diplomatic corps. With the United Nations headquarters, 193 permanent missions, 116 consulates, 70 international trade missions, and numerous UN affiliates like UNICEF and the United Nations Development Programme, New York has the highest concentration of foreign diplomats in the world.

“I essentially have the privilege of being New York City’s ambassador to the global community,” Abeywardena says. “How do we make New Yorkers feel the value of being host to the largest diplomatic corps, and how do you get [that corps] to feel more engaged with us? Given the political climate, city leadership and diplomacy are more important than ever, and we’re proud to be driving subnational leadership on issues like climate and migration.”

It wasn’t always this way. Historically, the role of the commissioner for international affairs was to ensure that the diplomatic corps could navigate New York City smoothly from an operational perspective. “[Th e office] was primarily focused on mitigating diplomatic incidents, security issues, and enforcing the parking program,” says Abeywardena, adding that her office still handles these tasks. But with the support of Mayor Bill de Blasio MIA ’87, Abeywardena has transformed the Mayor’s Office for International Aff airs into a true partner to the global community—a place for exchanging best practices and collaborative problem-solving.

“My office’s programming allows us, as New Yorkers, to better engage beyond borders,” she says. So, while Abeywardena and her team bring “the New York City values of diversity and inclusion, and leadership on climate and other issues to [the UN] to help push the larger global conversation,” she says, they’re also asking, “How can we learn from the global community?”

To help drive these conversations, Abeywardena first legitimizes New York City as a source of knowledge and experience by pointing out its size—in terms of its population, infrastructure, systems, and economies.

“It’s as big as, if not larger than, 141 countries,” she says. “If New York can get something done, then other cities and countries can realistically consider it.”

Abeywardena also acknowledges the structural inequities that challenge New York City and makes it clear that she wishes to learn from others, especially from megacities like São Paulo and Nairobi.

This balance of give and take in these conversations has proved invaluable to Abeywardena in effecting change during her tenure.

Turning Her Past into the City’s Future

Abeywardena is particularly well suited to helping foreigners feel welcome. Th at’s because she knows firsthand what it’s like to feel like an outsider.

Born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, to Sinhalese-speaking parents, she immigrated to the United States at the age of four. Her parents settled first in the San Fernando Valley in Southern California and eventually moved to Culver City, California, in Abeywardena’s teen years. Not only was she one of the only nonwhite and non-Latino members of her community, but she was undocumented. She became a citizen at the age of 15 after being granted legal status the year prior by President Ronald Reagan’s Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, known informally as the amnesty law.

“I was very aware of being different,” Abeywardena says. “I know that kind of insecurity, and my desire to protect the most vulnerable in my community has informed all of the consequential decisions in my career.” After stints volunteering for women’s rights organizations and interning at Human Rights Watch, as well as taking her first trip back to Sri Lanka at the age of 19, Abeywardena became committed to “women’s rights issues with an international lens.”

She went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Southern California in 1999 and her master’s in international affairs from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs in 2005. Even in graduate school, Abeywardena’s entrepreneurialism shone.

“SIPA allowed me to develop my own curriculum,” she says.“I wanted to have a human rights lens on women’s issues in sub- Saharan Africa while also learning how to run a nonprofit. SIPA offered me this opportunity, and so I took classes at Columbia Business School and at the law school. It made my graduate education extremely worthwhile.”

A few years after graduating from SIPA, Abeywardena had assumed the role of director of the newly created girls and women integration program at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI). In this role, she advised multinational corporations, philanthropists, NGOs, and other institutions on gender-focused development initiatives while also expanding the number of CGI member organizations that invested in these initiatives.

“I was that kid that always got in trouble for talking too much,” Abeywardena says, “[but it] has served me well as an adult. My ability to get people invested in ideas has proven integral to shaping opinion and eff ecting change.” This knack for effective communication, as well as her innovative thinking and commitment to social justice, caught the eye of Mayor de Blasio, who was hoping to revamp his office of international affairs to create better synergies between the UN, the consular corps, and the city. Upon assuming the commissioner’s role during the 2014 UN General Assembly, Abeywardena took an entrepreneurial approach upon her entrée into government work.

“I restructured [the office] soon after I joined,” she says. “We functioned as a startup for the first two years. We created roles and hired people, and we made things up. I believe the saying is that we ‘built the plane while flying it.’ We identified gaps and saw new opportunities. We asked questions and were committed to finding creative solutions—what all good startups and entrepreneurs have to do.”

Local Impact Goes Global

Abeywardena and her team target four primary areas in their work: youth engagement, public policy, economic development, and the diplomatic corps.

In 2015, to engage the city’s youth, Abeywardena’s office rolled out the NYC Junior Ambassadors program. Through this program, seventh graders from all five boroughs of the city are invited to get involved with the UN and help address the world’s most pressing challenges. The students, who typically come from the most vulnerable and disenfranchised neighborhoods in the city, are asked to select a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG)—a collection of 17 global goals set forth by the UN General Assembly in 2015 for the year 2030—learn about it, understand the global movement behind it, and then do something to address the issue locally.

“SDG 14, for example, is ‘life below water,’” explains Abeywardena, referring to the global effort to conserve and sustainably use oceans, seas, and marine resources. “We now have, in the South Bronx, junior ambassadors who are activists helping to clean up the South Bronx River, one of the dirtiest waterways in New York City, which they walk by every day to school. They are taking something so global and lofty—an issue that could feel insurmountable—and bringing it back home. They are having an impact.”

As part of this program, Abeywardena joins UN ambassadors on visits to speak with junior ambassadors at their schools. The commissioner sees this as another benefit of the program: students engaging with an immigrant woman of color—“somebody that looks like them,” as she puts it—in a powerful position. “Many of the students in the junior ambassador program are first- or second-generation immigrants, and having a relatable role model can have lasting impact,” she notes.

On the policy front, Abeywardena’s team has made numerous advancements, including leading a global coalition of cities during the UN’s Global Compact for Migration negotiations and launching the Global Vision | Urban Action initiative. Abeywardena is proudest of the GV/UA initiative, which maps the mayor’s OneNYC development agenda—the city’s strategic plan to address issues like poverty and climate change—to the SDGs. This creates a common framework for talking about New York’s progress, allowing ambassadors to adapt the city’s successful programs to their home nations, Abeywardena explains. The GV/UA platform organizes site visits, UN events, and panel discussions to facilitate this exchange of information.

To further the GV/UA program, Abeywardena’s team has created a voluntary local review, or VLR. The VLR is a tool to help subnational leaders frame, assess, monitor, and communicate their work and success in addressing the SDGs. The idea is based on the voluntary national review (VNR), which member states submit to the UN during the annual High-Level Political Forum to showcase their nations’ progress regarding the SDGs. At its core, the VLR showcases the leadership of mayors and governors on issues of worldwide importance, such as climate and migration. It’s important, Abeywardena says, because these subnational leaders represent an increasingly important constituency when it comes to addressing such global issues, given the abdication of responsibility in these areas by national governments in the U.S. and abroad. The VLRs are also intended to highlight what isn’t working.

“We work to be public and transparent about the challenges,” she says, “so that our colleagues from different countries see us and say, ‘We have a great model, a better way to do that. Can we connect?’”

Through programming dubbed “Connecting Local to Global” (CL2G), Abeywardena’s office also partners with other city departments, including the Office to Combat Domestic Violence and the Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Affairs, to help share local solutions to global issues with the international community.

“We have proven,” Abeywardena says, “that we are serious participants in this global conversation.”

When it comes to her office’s third mandate—to spur economic development—Abeywardena says she works to ensure other countries know that New York City is open for business, while simultaneously trying to encourage entrepreneurship within the city and support its immigrant-, women-, and minority-owned businesses.

Furthermore, the de Blasio administration is putting its money where its mouth is: there are more women running New York City than ever before. “I think we’re about 52 percent in terms of senior management and commissioners,” Abeywardena says.

This commitment to diversity has led to new, economically significant policies and procedures for the administration, such as its paid parental leave policy, which the mayor signed into law in 2016. The policy offers six weeks at 100 percent salary for maternity, paternity, adoption, or foster care leave—and up to 12 weeks fully paid when combined with existing leave.

“I got to live the policy,” notes Abeywardena, who was the first woman at the commissioner level to have a child while in the role and to take advantage of the city’s new parental paid leave. “I’ve seen the way it’s impacted staff. We have a different approach to the way that we think about how people take care of their families and themselves. It makes me feel really good about where I’m at right now.”

It also reflects the more holistic approach that Abeywardena’s office takes when engaging with the city’s consular corps, which is its final and perhaps most pressing mandate. Here, too, Abeywardena and her team have rolled out new measures and revamped existing programs to be more proactive about working with this important diplomatic corps.

One of the first things Abeywardena did on the job was transform her office’s mostly ceremonial “courtesy meetings,” in which she would briefly meet newly appointed diplomats to introduce herself and her office, into much more robust, actionable exchanges.

“During my first three months,” she says, “I was like, ‘These are the most powerful people representing their countries here. How are we not talking about the issues that matter to their communities or what they’re doing in terms of these issues?’ So [now] when I meet with an ambassador or consul general, it’s about asking, ‘Where are the areas that we are commonly aligned, and how can we further those issues?’”

Abeywardena’s office routinely offers itself as a resource to diplomats and immigrants, and it responds respectfully and swiftly to diplomatic incidents. This relationship building, which has been critical to her office’s success in many areas, was really honed during Abeywardena’s time at SIPA.

“Not only did Columbia give [me] an excellent academic foundation, but it’s in New York City—it’s the people,” she says. “There’s a community to it. I’m still friends with many of my SIPA classmates, and quite honestly, the other half with whom I’m still cordial I see at the UN or development meetings. The ‘SIPA mafia’ is a thing. Seriously, it allows you to have the richest experience in international affairs, full stop.”

Thanks to this network and her belief in and commitment to relationship building, Abeywardena’s office has been able to enlist the help of the diplomatic corps to roll out some key initiatives. For example, when the mayor launched IDNYC—a government-issued identification card available to all New York City residents over the age of 10, regardless of immigration status—his administration wanted to ensure that the city’s undocumented residents weren’t the only users, lest the card become a symbol of someone’s legal status. Abeywardena’s office turned to the diplomatic corps.

“We [made] sure that the most senior people in their communities— the consuls general, UN ambassadors, in fact, the UN secretary general— got one,” Abeywardena says. As a result, the consulates “became a very important middle ground for [immigrants] to understand what New York City will do, and what the NYPD will do, to protect you while you are here in New York City.”

Challenges and Opportunities

Abeywardena says she believes the ultimate role of her office in this political environment is to serve as a “beacon of sane public policy” when it comes to issues that matter around the world, such as climate action and gender equity, and to demonstrate that NYC is a leading force in and wants to collaborate with the international community. To achieve this, two of her key objectives, she says, are to ensure everyone she works with at the UN or in a consulate feels that they are being heard and to help transition any disagreements into compromise and actionable policy. You might argue she’s tasked with being—just like her counterparts across the street—diplomatic.

“The most challenging thing is how to channel issues that feel very personal and very raw into effective public policy and programs,” Abeywardena says. “As a survivor of domestic violence and as an undocumented immigrant for much of my childhood, the headlines that dominate our news are very, very personal to me. It’s just about how we’re navigating today’s politics to make sure that we are having an impact in an effective way.”

At the end of the day, Abeywardena adds, “people are willing to work with you if they feel good about you, if they feel like you listen to them even if you disagree with them, that you aren’t wishing them ill. That is something that I spend a lot of time doing.”

Looking ahead, Abeywardena wants to expand some of her office’s current work, creating tools and programs like the VLR that continue beyond her administration. “I believe very strongly that this is turning into a movement that will live beyond this office,” she says of the VLR. “I see either private foundations or the UN taking it up. I would love to see and want to invest in cities having a strong voice in multilateral institutions, starting with the UN.”

Ultimately, Abeywardena wants to ensure that her office and its counterparts in other cities are anticipating the needs of their constituents and looking to address global issues.

“We are trying not to be reactive to anything,” she says, “and instead are asking, ‘How can we lead? Where can we lead?’”

Agatha Bordonaro

This story appears in the most recent issue of SIPA Magazine, published in December 2019. Read the entire issue below: