By Ketan Sengupta
In a world as defined by tragedy and travesty as ours is, it’s easy to lose faith in the very institution of government.
Quite frankly, a government of, by, and for the people seems – more than ever – like an idyll to chase, rather than a reality to savor. Those at the highest echelons of government seem to be remarkably out-of-touch with the people they represent. They ultimately serve the bureaucracy they’ve chosen to work for, not the electorate they’re obligated to advocate for. In an era as politically and socially bleak as ours, failing to maintain an unwavering belief in the moral fortitude of our highest offices might be excusable, but it’s anathema to someone who’s an idealist under ordinary circumstances. So though I can confess that, on my first day of work, I walked into Congressman Frank Pallone’s office with a healthy sense of trepidation and reservation, I’m also loathed to admit it.
I was entirely prepared to be disillusioned, once again, by pervasive bureaucratic opacity. At 9:00 AM sharp on an otherwise ordinary Wednesday morning, I waited, expectantly, by the door. This day was in many ways, a day of firsts – my first time commuting alone, my first time working at a legitimate job, and my first time entering a government building as an employee, rather than as a constituent – but I also hoped that it would be a day of seconds. What I needed was a second shot at having my faith in public service restored.
On my first day in Congressman Pallone’s office, I spent my day behind a phone, which rang constantly. Atfirst hesitantly, and then with growing confidence, I lunged for it as soon as it rang. The voice at the other end always varied. Sometimes it was a veteran frustrated with the lack of clarity in the veterans’ benefits system; other times it was an exchange student trapped in a foreign nation with no idea how to contact her embassy. Most often, though, it was an anxious constituent facing down the looming threat of deportation or asylum rejection for a loved one, struggling through the thicket of legal jargon and locked doors that is USCIS. Each of their stories worked their way into the fabric of my identity. As I picked up the phone, I began to live and feel the harsh realities of the marginalized and underprivileged. As a member of an ethnic minority in America, I’ve always thought that the lack of darker shades of skin in politics and government was the height of hardship. In retrospect, a mentality that blinkered is almost embarrassing. Having grown up in the cosseted ivory towers of the perfect suburb, I only grew to understand true difficulty when tasked with helping people through it.
My primary duty with the Congressman’s office was to watch and to learn. We interns strive to emulate our managers, and I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by some of the most consummately professional, polite, and capable people I know. Watching Alex, Jael, Janet, and Nick deal with constituents was inspiring, largely due to their tremendous poise and constant state of placidity. More than anything else, working at Congressman Pallone’s office has tempered my patience. It’s an opportunity that I’m immensely grateful to have and I can say with reasonable certainty that it will define me and the way I deal with the world for many years to come.
Beyond giving the opportunity to work at my summer internship, the New Jersey Leadership Program (NJLP) also offers me and my fellows a myriad of opportunities for networking, interfacing, and aggregating the best qualities of field professionals. Our first speakership series this past Saturday was filled with initial awkwardness, immense fun, and a number of opportunities for learning. We met with a number of industry professionals, aside from the members of the NJLP team, we had the opportunity to interact with the heavy hitters of the political world – people whose words were alarmingly capable of altering our socio-political landscape. Our first speaker, the Executive Director of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee Liz Gilbert, was a paragon of political virtue. The path she followed into the heart of the Democratic Party was an unconventional one, to say the least; now, she can comfortably call herself one of the most influential people in the state. Her influence might be further reaching than even she can imagine. Four years ago, when I signed up for the New Jersey Democratic State Committee’s daily email list, I never thought I’d have the chance to meet the woman who signed off each email. Now, I’m lucky enough to have asked her questions about policy and practice. Meeting her was an invaluable opportunity.
Al Alvarez, the current Chief of Staff for the New Jersey School Development Authority and former Deputy Chief of Staff for Community Outreach for Governor Corzine spoke next. His story was one of success and faith in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Confronted, early on in his life, by social rigidity and bureaucratic apathy, he worked his way up into the highest echelons of New Jersey’s political circles. As the Platonic ideal of a self-made man, Al stunned us with his unparalleled eloquence, wit, and approachability. Meeting him was an honor, and an experience I’m unlikely to forget anytime soon. Senator Vin Gopal was next and he immediately struck us with his humor and poise. A charming and charismatic leader, he told us about the nuances of politics – things we don’t often see on television or read about in the paper. The realities of politics, he said, were those of measured concessions and compromises, not obstinate idealism. A pragmatist, Senator Gopal was a shining example of what we, the South Asian community, could become with the right amount of effort, grit, and determination.
Perhaps the experience that resonated with us fellows the most, however, was the panel of South Asian-American speakers that followed Senator Gopal. Comprised of mayors and councilmembers of various townships, the four people who took the time out to speak with us – Teaneck Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin, Prospect Park Councilman Anand Shah, former Edison Councilwoman Sapana Shah, and my very own West Windsor Councilwoman Ayesha Hamilton had, as first-generation immigrants, lived our very lives mere decades before. They understood us in many ways, they saw and experienced the world exactly as we did, and the things they said lingered in our hearts and minds for days after our session with them.
The people we met were the ideal public servants that I had forgotten existed, people that continually sacrifice their time, energy, and patience to advance society as a whole and uphold the collective good. Suffice it to say that I have had my faith in public service totally restored and fortified beyond the slightest shadow of a doubt.