Back in the mid-90’s, when the most recognizable South Asian American was Apu from The Simpsons, one individual had a dream to bring relevancy and a political voice to our growing community. Gopal Raju, founder of the newspaper India Abroad, went on a mission to learn how other groups amassed political influence. Mr. Raju was already giving donations to candidates and his friends, and peers would join to get pictures with Members of Congress, but he learned that having a voice at the table, having someone who looked like us and reflected our values working for Members, was a key driver in creating an impact.
So with little support, Mr. Raju created and self-financed the India Abroad Center for Political Awareness. It was the first organization to have full-time staff in Washington, D.C. dedicated to advocating for the Indian American community. The Washington Leadership Program (WLP) was a key initiative for the Center with the goal of bringing college students from around the country to learn in the halls of Congress and become the first generation of political leaders for our community. While Gopal’s Center never met its full potential, the internship program grew beyond his wildest dreams. We were interns of that program and like many of our fellow interns, it changed our lives. We developed lifelong friendships and gained professional and personal mentors, and it is because of the WLP, Harin was able to serve in the Obama Administration as the Economic Policy Advisor to the U.S. Secretary of Labor and Nisha became a Democratic pollster.
The program meant so much to us, that after Gopal’s passing in 2008, a group of WLP alumni came together to re-start the WLP as a alumni run initiative that now supports the broader South Asian American community. WLP as a whole has brought over 200 South Asian American college students across the U.S. to Washington, DC for a summer of discussion, reflection, and professional growth in an effort to encourage public service and develop a pipeline of future civic leaders.
WLP is a unique experience. Each year, WLP selects up to ten South Asian American students for an opportunity to intern in congressional offices and federal agencies. Additional programming and resources are provided to WLP Scholars to contextualize their internships. WLP provides mentors, professional skill development, panel discussions and intimate sit downs with trailblazers like Judge Sri Srinivasan, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, Former Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal, DNC CEO Seema Nanda, and Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.
The alumni of the program have gone on to work to the top of their various fields and some have continued the mission of providing a voice for the community. Our alums include two elected officials, Niraj Antani, an Ohio State Representative, and Sam Arora, a former Maryland State Delegate. Alumni from the program have gone on to win prestigious scholarships like the Rhodes, Marshall, Fulbright, and Truman, as well as acceptances into top-notch medical, law, public policy, and other graduate programs.
Our alumni are also passionate about service to the community – one, Suneet Bedi helped SALDEF start their internship program, SikhLEAD, and another, Amit Jani, helped start the New Jersey Leadership Program, modeled after WLP. See his blog for Indiaspora here.
To get a glimpse of the promise of the next generation, we just have to look to this year’s class, who not only served in rigorous internships in places like the office of Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi and the Department of Health and Human Services but also led a public service project. Highlighting a diverse array of South Asians running for elected office nationwide, the scholars asked candidates about why they are running, their personal experience as South Asians, and their advice for future leaders. You can read more about their project here.
Vineet Raman, a scholar in the 2018 class, spoke positively about his experience, “With WLP, I’ve found so many paths back to DC, through both the public and the private sector. I was surrounded by tremendously qualified and dedicated career civil servants who inspired me daily to explore new avenues to improve all facets of American healthcare.”
WLP is entirely volunteer-run in large part by our alumni, and with support within the South Asian policy and political community. Together, they organize over 25 events for the summer scholars and conduct intense trainings, workshops, and seminars with political and policy leaders in the community. The alumni also serve as mentors to students, guiding them throughout the summer and beyond.
“I absolutely loved getting to know my mentee. It wasn’t too long ago that I was in her shoes, so helping someone else navigate DC and their internship was really rewarding. It was the best way to pay it forward,” said Rina Patel, class of 2016.
Because WLP is volunteer-run, the majority of our fundraising goes directly to Scholars in the form of stipends for housing and other living expenses so they may partake in otherwise unpaid internships. We are grateful to our sponsors – Comcast NBCUniversal and the Indian American Impact Fund – who make our program possible and see the value in empowering the next generation of innovators and leaders.
Whether in elected office, law, or entertainment, our alumni have gone on to do great things. Through our internship, workshops, and seminars, our scholars learn about the various paths to succeed as leaders and take what they learn to their communities to help make an impact.
Nisha Jain is WLP Co-Chair & Vice President at GBA Strategies. She conducts quantitative and qualitative research for political and advocacy campaigns and helps progressive candidates and causes translate data into strategy.
Harin Contractor is WLP Co-Chair & Director of Economic Policy at the Joint Center. He is a self-described data nerd, using government data to empower communities. He previously worked at a start-up and the Obama Administration at the U.S Department of Labor.