Our 5th week of WLP included seminars with leaders who operate at opposite ends of the policy making process. On one hand, we met with South Asians in the White House, individuals who are dedicated to executing the policies that Congress has passed. On the other, we met with Sunita and Daniel Leeds, passionate advocates for education policy reform, and Suman Raghunathan, executive director for South Asian Americans Leading Together (S.A.A.L.T.). As passionate advocates, these individuals are far more focused on encouraging congressional action to create policies.
The week began with a meeting with South Asians in the White House on Tuesday. After having the exciting opportunity to take photos next to the West Wing and White House, we proceeded to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building where we met with Gautam Raghavan, Rohan Patel, and Ajita Menon. It was especially interesting hearing about the “typical day” of each of these individuals as it highlighted just how varied the responsibilities of White House Staff can be.
For Gautam Raghavan, a member of the Public Engagement Office, Tuesday consisted of attending meetings in preparation for President Obama’s executive order regarding LGBT discrimination, and speaking about what the White House is doing to address transgender issues. As a former employee of the Department of Defense at the Pentagon, Gautam Raghavan, played an important role in the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and now serves as a leader in addressing issues surrounding LGBT rights. In contrast, Rohan Patel works on intergovernmental affairs and climate change. His typical day involves speaking on issues ranging from Veteran’s homelessness to immigration issues. Finally, for Ajita Menon of the Domestic Policy Council, the average day consists of working on executive actions relating to higher education policy and identifying a path moving forward on addressing college education and performance.
One of the most valuable lessons learned from interacting with these individuals was the importance of focusing on what we are passionate about while beginning our own career paths. For Gautam Raghavan, that meant coming to Washington D.C. in 2004 because of his frustration with government policies at the time. Rohan Patel’s path to public service was the result of an impromptu trip to D.C. during the summer after his first year of medical school. Finally, Ajita Menon continually followed her love for community organizing and advocacy work in her path toward where she is now. After a fruitful discussion on topics ranging from obstacles to public service for South Asians to differences between working on Capitol Hill and in the White House, we were left with the following words of wisdom: stop planning everything, work hard, and treat every-day like an interview for the next opportunity.
On Wednesday, we had the opportunity to meet with Representative Ami Bera (D-CA) in the home of Sunita and Daniel Leeds. We were later able to have dinner in the Leeds’ beautiful home in Georgetown. Rep. Bera reflected upon his time as a Member of Congress thus far and took questions from us on a variety of topics. He said that if someone had told him a few years ago that he would be a Representative, he would have laughed at them, which just goes to show how quickly life can change even if you don’t expect it. Moreover, when he told people that he was planning to run for Congress back in 2010, they told him to think smaller and perhaps run for municipal government. If he had listened to those people, he wouldn’t be where he is today. Given his own experiences, Rep. Bera’s biggest advice was to take chances and not be afraid to take risks when opportunities present themselves. One of the most interesting parts of our chat with Rep. Bera was when he asked us where we see ourselves in 5 years. The variety of responses that we heard from our fellow WLPers were surprising – answers ranged from consulting, to medical school, to working in politics, and everything in between. The value of WLP is that it is able to take all of these diverse backgrounds and expectations and relate them to the policy and politics in Washington, DC.
The dinner (Indian food!) with the Leeds family was incredible as well because of the in- depth “education” we received in education policy and the challenges associated with it. Both Sunita and Daniel have truly tried to make a difference at a grassroots level. They founded the National Public Education Support Fund and the Alliance for Excellent Education. The Leeds’ work deals with bringing together philanthropic organizations like the Gates Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, the Ford Foundation and others to support educational initiatives efficiently. Altogether, these philanthropic organizations provide more than $1 billion in funding to various educational causes. An interesting fact that Daniel shared with us is that although the United States’ public education system performs below expectations, the United States actually leads the world in educational research. Countries like Singapore and Finland, which far outscore us in standardized tests take their research from American universities and think tanks.
The problem is the lack of implementation of innovative policies that can help our schools, and the solution to this problem of implementation must come from the bottom up. The Leeds told us that we, as students, could play a substantial role in education reform simply by being this change at the root of the system and advocating for the things that we care about. To this end, we were asked about how the current system of student loans affects us and our friends personally. In recounting our experiences with the student finance system, we saw common threads of affordability and transparency came up, making us realize that our shared experiences as students would make it easier for us to effect the change we want to see in the system. All in all, the education policy dinner was as enlightening as it was delicious.
Finally, we finished our week with a meeting with Suman Raghunathan.
As the executive director for South Asian Americans Leading Together (S.A.A.L.T.), Raghunathan offers extensive experience due to her long history of advocacy and capacity building work. As an advocacy group for South Asians, S.A.A.L.T addresses a range of issues including immigration reform, family-based immigration, and racial profiling. One of the most fascinating discussions we had addressed the question of the South Asian identity and what it means to be South Asian. As Raghunathan pointed out, defining our identity as South Asians remains an open question. However, we as college students have the important opportunity to bring together and organize “South Asians,” while focusing on finding commonalities among ourselves. Raghunathan’s parting words were as follows—“The South Asian Community needs you. It’s time to take our place at the stage.”