“You cannot learn the things I have learned here through some textbook,” was what Jesel Pothi’s felt after spending a few days as a fellow with the Washington Leadership Program (WLP) this summer.
The Pomona College graduate who was assigned to the office of Congressman Ami Bera, D-California, was among the 9 students selected for the highly competitive 8-week program that seeks to introduce South Asian youth to the policy skills and political savvy needed for achieve success in their future endeavors.
Started in 1995 by Gopal Raju, the late publisher of News India Times and India Abroad, WLP was rejuvenated by alumni of the program in 2009, following his death.
Capitol Hill has changed from the 1990s, when Indian-American and South Asian faces were a rarity, to one where they are ubiquitous in the corridors of power inside the Beltway. Today, Indian-Americans are on the legislative staff of numerous lawmakers, and in top positions in administrations, some holding the highest posts, like Rajiv Shah, former administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development; Aneesh Chopra and Vivek Kundra, President Obama’s Chief Technology Officer and Chief Information Officer respectively; and more recently, Richard Verma, former Ambassador to India; former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy; and currently President Donald Trump’s U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, the first cabinet-level position ever for an Indian-American; Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai; and Administrator of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services Seema Verma.
Washington Leadership Program can boast of former interns who have gone on to become state level leaders like former Maryland Assemblyman Sam Arora, and current Ohio State Rep. Niraj Antani. Antani credits WLP with his decision to run for office when he was fresh out of college; or Chirag Shah who interned with former South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson and today is head of government affairs at the Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA); or Batul Contractor, who worked in Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and today is in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. An alumni of WLP, Amit Jani, started the New Jersey Leadership Program on similar lines.
Harin Contractor, a WLP alumni who has led the effort to resuscitate the program which places interns for 8 weeks with various government and legislative offices, told News India Times it has been getting progressively harder to choose the 8 to 10 fellows each year, but for a good reason. Several of today’s applicants have significant local experience in state and local offices even before they apply to WLP, a sign of the growing politicization of Indian-Americans.
It also indicates parents of second generation youth are open to these avenues of public service after witnessing the high level appointments of Indian-Americans and South Asians in successive administrations.
Blogging About It
The July 4th celebrations fell on the fourth week of the internship, and the WLP interns gathered to watch the fireworks from the steps of the Capitol. “We had all seen fireworks on the Fourth of July before, but this was an entirely different experience,” wrote intern Akshar Patel in his blog.
Now nearing the end of the 8-week program, interns have been penning their experiences in Washington, D.C. In several blogs, they describe their meetings with Reps. Bera, Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illinois, Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, and State Rep. Antani, a Republican. They also met Lakshmi Sridaran of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT); Brian Kaissi of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA); Sunil Mansukhani, a lawyer who worked on education policy initiatives at the Department of Education, and who is now an education policy consultant at the Raben Group; Sonal Shah, who was director of the first Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation in the White House, and is the founding executive director of the Beeck Center for Social Impact & Innovation at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. They were also scheduled to meet Judge Srikant ‘Sri’ Srinivasan of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
During one of the weeks, the interns discussed healthcare policy with Vijay Das of the public policy organization Demos, and Akash Chowgule director of policy at Americans for Prosperity, which describes itself as the nation’s largest free-market grassroots advocacy organization. They got to hear two very different views about healthcare in America.
“WLP is a bipartisan organization and we place interns on both sides of the aisle and they get to meet people of different ideological persuasions,” Contractor noted.
“In WLP, you are surrounded by strong, South Asian women. From the WLP board members to the high profile South Asian women we have been meeting, these women are resilient, intelligent, and authentically themselves,” wrote Riya Patel of Tufts University, one of this year’s interns. They met among others, K.J. Bagchi, chair of Desis for Progress, Rina Shah Bharara, a Republican strategist, and Vanita Gupta, former chief of the Civil Rights Division in the Justice Department and now head of the largest civil rights organization in the country – the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Pothi also got to volunteer for the visit of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, where he says in his blog, he got to meet film maker M. Night Shyamalan and Miss America 2014 Nina Davuluri.
World Of Possibilities
Intern Sharmeen Khan’s world has opened up with possibilities and may indicate what makes WLP a rich and invaluable experience for impressionable young minds.
“I came to D.C. hoping to solidify what area of government and politics I want to pursue—and instead of narrowing down my options, this city changes my mind by the hour,” Khan writes in her blog. “I’ll walk by a foreign policy think tank and will realize that I want to conduct research; I’ll visit the Capitol and can see myself working for a Congressman or Senator I admire. I’ll meet a lawyer working on policy I hope to impact and think I will attend law school … ,” Khan goes on in the same vein.
Students are placed in political offices and in government departments. Miriam George, from Boston College, was assigned to the Labor Department. Riya Patel of Tufts University was deputed to the Defense Department. “They know the high quality interns we recruit for our program and look forward to having them work in various offices,” Contractor said. A network of contacts is helpful as well. Parag Mehta, former chief of staff for ex-Surgeon General Murthy; former USAID Administrator Shah, and others have been keen to get the interns, as have numerous lawmakers.
“We hope in future to have Rep. Ro Khanna (D-California) and Senator Kamala Harris, be part of the program,” Contractor said. The WLP also held an annual fundraiser during the Summer program.
Right now, WLP is sponsored by AAHOA and Comcast as well as individual donors from the Indian-American and South Asian community in Greater D.C., and some of its alumni.
It wants to expand the program and Contractor hopes others around the country will step up to support WLP, one among the few that actually pays a stipend to the selected fellows.
Pothi will remember what Rep. Bera told him while he worked at the lawmaker’s office. “In life, you are always going to come to a crossroads. Life is full of tough decisions. The challenge is not, however, deciding whether to choose option A or B,” Bera said. “We always have a conviction about what the right decision is, a gut feeling. The challenge comes with finding the courage to go with your conviction. My advice to you…is to find that courage.”