Week 3 - NJLP Goes to Washington

By Emma Singh

My alarm sounded off at an unspeakable hour: 2:45 am. Normally, I would resist the torture of crawling out of bed in lieu of hitting snooze, but I was immediately met with a surge of excitement for our NJLP class field trip to the nation’s capital as I donned my best business professional. We filled the van at 4:45 am, full of energy with our constant chatter which kept me from sleeping through the entire 4-hour ride. Stocked with snacks from the Delaware Rest Stop, I was ready to begin an exhilarating day exploring the Washington political sphere, spanning all three branches of the government.

Our first stop of many was the White House, for a tour of the East Wing. The setting was awe-inspiring in every respect, from the portraits lining the halls to the grandeur of the North Portico where I took about a hundred photos with the other fellows. Around the bend of the East Colonnade, I saw a blond woman with recognizable hair–was that Kellyanne Conway?? –who I had seen and heard countless times on CNN?  Not only was it Kellyanne Conway, fellow New Jersey resident and Counselor to the President, she was gracious enough to take photos with us and share some advice for the future: A lot of people will tell you “no”, but you have to say “yes” to every opportunity. Irrespective of our political differences, I think that message is salient as we navigate our own way in Washington and elsewhere in our careers.

With Domino’s pizza in hand, we reconvened outside the White House to speak with Jay Teitelbaum, a Digital Service Expert at the United States Digital Service, which recruits members of Silicon Valley to solve the government’s technology problems. The USDS is housed in a townhouse a few steps from the Oval Office, but it seemed worlds away from the pomp of the White House itself.  Littered with colorful La Croix cans and string garlands, the townhouse was inviting and thoroughly intriguing. Here was a prime example of government’s transition into the 21st century, where the new generation of civil servants is coming up to help the American populace in the digital sphere.

Contrasting with the modernity of the USDS, we then walked to the Supreme Court. The building itself was only dwarfed by the amount of history held within its storied halls, from the case of Bhagat Singh Thind in 1923 to the Hobby Lobby case in 2013. We were ushered through the Supreme Court library, which was filled with stacks of state and federal laws and zero people. But the main attraction was the courtroom itself, which to me, felt religious in its sanctity. I even got to sit in the front row which made me feel extremely important (even though I am a pint-sized high school senior). The last stop of our tour was the West Conference room to meet with Usha Vance, law clerk to Chief Justice John Roberts, who we peppered with questions about her clerkship and about who was the most philosopher-esque of the justices (Justice Breyer apparently, who knew!?).

Of course we couldn’t visit Washington without a visit to the third branch of the government – Congress. As a young high-school sophomore, my first foray into politics was an internship in the district office of my Congressman, Bill Pascrell Junior, so it was particularly interesting for me to see the other aspect of Congress down in DC. I was taken aback by the palatial women’s bathrooms and the brassy plaques engraved for each Congress Member as I meandered down the echoing halls of Congress with the other fellows to our next meeting with the Director of National Policy and Advocacy for South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), Lakshmi Sridaranon, on the history of the South Asian community in the United States and the concurrent issues our community faces today. This week in my internship for Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, I wrote several policy memos on progressive immigration reform bill ideas. Lakshmi and I connected over the issues I researched plaguing the undocumented Indian population in America, the 4th largest behind Mexico, which helped further my understanding of the complex immigration system.

To round out the night, we engaged in a bipartisan panel with South Asian staffers working in advocacy, lobbying, fundraising and outreach –  Former Associate Director of Public Engagement for the Obama White House, Gautam Raghavan; Chair of the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Caucus of the Democratic National Committee, Bel Leong-Hong; Vice President of Government and Public Affairs for Wipro, Kapil Sharma; and Policy Director for the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA), Nisha Ramachandran. Washington has always felt like a daunting place to start my career in public service, but all the panelists gave great advice on networking and shared their stories of their own entré into politics that reaffirmed my interest in one day working on Capitol Hill. The panelists were exceptional in their own right, but I was further inspired by my peers, who not only asked sharp and poignant questions to the panelists but continued to surprise me throughout the long day with their burning and infectious
optimism for public service.

The day ended by eating Taco Bell in the storied halls of Congress after hours, which I might add, is a pretty cool story to tell. Overall, this trip was an incredible experience and I am exponentially grateful to the NJLP program for giving me the tools to connect and further my political education. Spending time with a group of youth who are as passionate about helping the world through politics as me was a thoroughly buoyant experience and only reinforced my desire to enter a career in public service.