By: Meet Patel
During the American Civil War, the famous author John Lothrop Motley observed that the “Local self-government is the lifeblood of Liberty”. This notion couldn’t have been better reflected than through the theme of the speakership this week at the New Jersey Leadership Program. From the onset, I had the great privilege of experiencing diverse forms of governments at every tier of the political hierarchy. I gained insightful first-hand experience from interning at the Governor’s office at the state level, and up to and including meeting the representative of the federal government. There is a common misconception that local government is too low a rung on the political ladder to be able to make an impact on society. However, from education to family planning, the local government is essential in defining our way of living. It further offers our nation and identity by forming communions and commitment for better and peaceful lives.
Growing up my initial impressions were more in line with those exact misconceptions the public holds. I was never impressed by the local governments. They never had anything interesting going for them in my inexperienced eyes. It seemed like they were really boring in the work they do, both in the execution and simultaneously in the efforts. However, this summer really shaped my views on the importance of the local government. I came to the realization that I was the product of the community that I grew up in. The local public schools that I went to shaped my thinking and allowed me to have a more global mindset. It further strengthened my beliefs that this is how the future leaders and the titans of the civilizations come to be.
The very first speaker we had was Courtney Hruska, who works for Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur. She spoke briefly about her career at the Hill in Washington D.C. and left us very interesting insights on leadership styles between a Congressman and a Congresswoman. While taking questions, Amit mentioned that she had been very helpful in making our trip to Washington D.C. so memorable by arranging the logistics at the U.S. Capitol for our panels.
The next speaker and my personal favorite speaker was a charismatic leader from Middlesex County who now serves as the Freeholder, Kenneth Armwood. Freeholder Armwood started off the discussion with his experience as the student government president for Piscataway High School. As someone who has been in that position, I was interested in hearing his thoughts about the challenges he faced, especially as a minority. As he started going into details of his terms and the pushback from the administration, we were at the edge of our seats. It almost became an action movie. The only thing we were missing was the popcorn. He went on to further say that his senior year graduation speech was taken away by the school administration and they were in no mood of telling him why. He reminded us that there will be times when people in power will try to belittle you with decisions out of your control but the thing to remember is that you have a choice to stand bold and challenge them. And that is exactly what he did. He eventually ended up winning his speech back from the administration. Here was a major plot twist to reminded us that power is transitory, not fixed. At age 19, this student went to become the Board of Education member at Piscataway School District while being a full-time student at Rutgers University. However this time, he was in charge of the administration thereby showcasing the fruits of his struggles and providing us with a source of inspiration.
Our next speaker was Congressman Frank Pallone Jr., whom I have met at various events previously and was happy to have seen again. He gave us an insight into his philosophy of governance and how the politics in Washington has changed and evolved since he has been in the office. Following him, we had a conversation with Matt McDermott who served as Director of Appointments under Governor Christie’s Administration. He inspired us with his experiences and the role he played in the state government.
Our final panel consisted of three freeholders, all of South Asian descent. From Middlesex County, Freeholder Shanti Narra, From Passaic County, Freeholder Assad Akhter and from Burlington County, Freeholder Balvir Singh. One of the highlights of this panel was the discussion on how their journeys led to them to the place they are today. Each one of them reminded us that it took efforts of hundreds and thousands of people to fight for equality and we should be grateful.
After the panel ended, I felt that blessed would be an understatement if I were to use it to describe this program. Never did I nor had I realized the dreams of working for the Governor or going to the White House directly as my first visit to Washington D.C. In a matter of weeks, I’ve met so many incredible speakers who made me realize that public service isn’t just about being in power but also changing and inspiring the generation as a whole. These individuals are kindling the torch of equality and dignity as promised by this land to us and generations more to come.