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  • Shreya Pabbaraju

WLP 2020 Week 5: Storytelling - When the Personal Becomes Political

Updated: Jul 31, 2020

Illustration by '20 Scholar Hillary Shah of our wonderful cohort

This week, I find myself ruminating over a mantra by the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.): “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime.” Public policy work can seem demoralizing as we battle for a change in the national political current. But this year’s Washington Leadership Program cohort includes some of the most inspiring young people I have ever met, and week five was a solid testament to their enterprise.

We kicked off the week on Saturday by having a friendly cohort call where we pulled pranks on each other, squealed to some old school Bollywood tunes, and candidly bonded over our experiences as South Asians interested in policy work. Many of us echoed the same sentiment: growing up, we were not supported by our Desi communities on our path toward public service. We found ourselves caught between both sides of the Desi-American hyphen and continued to wrestle with and reconcile our complex identities with our mission to empower our community’s voices. We are fortunate to have joined a community that not only encourages our advocacy-driven passions, but actively engages in those endeavors. We kept this in mind on Sunday as we continued to design our cohort’s project: a “Get Out the Vote” campaign targeted toward encouraging a sense of civic engagement in older South Asians.

On Monday, I officially began my internship with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). I will be working for several teams within the newly inaugurated Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance, a merger of the former Office for Foreign Disaster Assistance and Food for Peace program. This union allows me the fortune of observing first hand how humanitarian responses have required more coordination over time. In particular, I was able to learn more about this by attending the week-long Joint Humanitarian Operations Course and by exploring the functions of each team I will be assisting for the upcoming semester. I was warmly greeted by the staff and had gratifying coffee chats with them. I cannot wait to begin working full-steam for them next week.

On Tuesday, we learned how to craft our resumes to better position ourselves for work and further education upon graduation. This workshop made me feel more confident in navigating the career space as a senior in college battling the uncertainty of the COVID-19 economy. Most importantly, I became privy to the contentious debate the cohort had on font choices.

On Thursday, we had the opportunity to meet with Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), the first South Asian female to run for and win a seat in the House of Representatives. As an English major and college journalist, I have found that storytelling is one of the most powerful tools we have to enact social change. When I asked Congresswoman Jayapal about how her own experience as an English major influenced the way she thinks about public policy, it was validating to hear her respond that stories guide issues onto the policy agenda by telling us what we should care about and why. As the Congresswoman went on to discuss her own experiences navigating her hyphenated identities, I was reminded of the cohort’s call last weekend and why we all care about public policy as much as we do. Our own stories as first and second generation South Asians have not yet been told, but we are fighting to make that happen. It was a beautiful moment to see nine pairs of eyes become full of hope and optimism. While our struggle is that of a lifetime, South Asian Americans like Rep. Jayapal are paving the way for progress.

We closed the week on Saturday with another cozy cohort call, where we watched the television series “Indian Matchmaking” on Netflix. We laughed and chatted all night long and told stories that I hope will change lives someday.

Shreya Pabbaraju

U.S. Agency for International Development

Emory College of Arts and Sciences

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