Week 5 - Learning the Ways of Trenton and West State Street

By: Shayori Romi Pal

Over the past few years, South Asians and South Asian Americans have been gaining more and more recognition. Whether you are reading the news or scrolling through social media, people like Priyanka Chopra, Hasan Minhaj, Kamala Harris, and Nikki Haley are the main focus of everyone’s attention. Despite being aware of their accomplishments, I believed that the lives they were living were unattainable. It seemed as if they took risks without any fear or vulnerability, and that did not apply to me or my life. However, that sense of struggle quickly disappeared after I became involved in the New Jersey Leadership Program. This summer, I have had the privilege to witness South Asian Americans like myself make strides in the world of politics and government. Although I am an undergraduate student nearing the end of college, I believe that NJLP has opened multiple doors for me to success. This is just the beginning.

Interning at the Department of the Treasury at the Office of the Governor this summer has been quite a learning experience. Having done previous internships relating to international development and immigration, I was unsure as to what my duties would be or what kinds of tasks I would be involved in. To my surprise, I found out that the work that I do is not solely confined to economic policy. Creating a presentation detailing the Trenton250 Master Plan, an initiative dedicated to improving the city of Trenton socioeconomically and politically by 2042, was one of my favorite activities at the Treasury. Conducting research on the New Jersey Business Plus Survey, and collecting information on how neighboring states supported minority and women-owned businesses gave me insight into the diversity of the United States economy. I even helped write a press release!

The Treasury is not the only place where I am able to gain valuable knowledge. Throughout the speakership series, I have had the opportunity to meet and interact with distinguished individuals who were once just like me, thinking about the future. Now, they are esteemed professionals succeeding in their respective fields. This week, my fellows and I heard from Nadia Hussain, who works at Moms Rising and is the founder of the Bangladeshi American Women’s Development Initiative (BAWDI). Ms. Hussain was able to speak candidly about supporting single mothers and children who are incarcerated in the United States. Being one of the few minorities living in a majority-white town after the 2016 presidential election did not hold her back, but pushed her to become part of her local economic council. As the founder of BAWDI, Ms. Hussain was able to create a network of Bangladeshi women to empower one another and tackle issues such as housing, healthcare, and education. We especially enjoyed hearing about how she started a Bengali 101 foreign language class at Rutgers University that still exists today.

Our next speaker was Amol Sinha, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union New Jersey (ACLU-NJ). We discussed with him the ACLU’s role in defending free speech regardless of political leanings. In light of the recent rise of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups, there is a question of whether or not there should be a cut back in the protection afforded to speech that expresses hatred, advocates violence, or otherwise undermines equality. It was concluded that it is difficult to find a solution to this ongoing issue, but it definitely needs more awareness.

The next panel of speakers allowed us to think about the significance of diversity and youth involvement. Raj Parikh, Sharmila Jaipersaud, and Ehsan Chowdhry praised Governor Phil Murphy in inviting many people of cultural backgrounds, including South Asians, to be a part of his transition team. They emphasized the importance of creating personal relationships with people throughout our career paths and having a mentor guide us through the obstacles of working life. Ms. Jaipersaud encouraged South Asian women, in particular, to pitch forward and go out of the way to introduce themselves to complete strangers at networking events. Unfortunately, the women in our community are often branded as shy or quiet, and Ms. Jaipersaud is keen on having the next generation break this stereotype. Hearing the story of how Mr. Parikh’s children had a lemonade stand to raise money for the current family separation crisis gave me hope. No matter how young or how old you are, anyone can make a difference.

For the final panel, we were introduced to Sabeen Masih and Sonia Das, who work at competing lobbying firms of Advocacy Management Group(AMG) and Capital Impact Group(CIG). It was interesting to see how the firms that they work at have opposing views on a certain bill, but they shared the same opinion about it. Many of their clients consist of, but are not limited to, different businesses such as Girls Scouts of America and AAA. We wrapped up our last speakership series with an awesome group photo, and proceeded to work on the capstone project.

When I started college, I had a particular mindset as to what kind of a job I will have after I graduate. However, as NJLP and my internship slowly draw to a close, it dawned on me that whatever career path I choose to start with will not necessarily be the same as what I end with. A recurring theme throughout the speakership series is that it is perfectly acceptable to be dynamic. Maybe I will be a foreign service officer one day. Or a policy advisor. Or a legislative analyst. Or perhaps all three, the possibilities are endless. I have learned that trying out new opportunities completely unrelated to your major or what you are studying can be a blessing in disguise. Seeing people who look like me work on issues that affect our lives everyday has led me to go out of my comfort zone.  From civil liberties, to women’s rights, to government affairs, the speakers who took the time to guide us work incredibly hard to move their lives forward. Through their candor and authenticity, they have become role models for South Asian youth like me. Someday, I hope to inspire others as they have inspired me.

Week 4 – Governor Phil Murphy and Adventures at Drumthwacket

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.

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.

Week 2 - The Power of Politics and Campaigning

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.

Week 1 - Beginning our NJLP Legacy

By: Eshika Kaul

“Don’t be surprised if you don’t do anything. It’s common to not have work to do on the first day,” my all-knowing brother ironically called after me when I exited the car. As I walked up to the door, the swirl of anticipation, excitement, and nervousness mixing in my head caused me to think of possible scenarios of what was to occur during that day. Would I indeed not do anything?  This could not have been further from the truth.

When I walked in, I was immediately disarmed by the warm smiles and relaxed nature of the environment and was quickly introduced to Assemblyman Robert Karabinchak’s Chief of Staff, Shariq Ahmad. Although at first, I was nervous around him, as he seemingly knew everything from the federal issues to the numbers of the State Senate Bills, he immediately took me under his wing. I was able to prove my wise brother wrong by doing so many new and important jobs like drafting letters for mayors, finding bills, and doing research on marijuana distributors. By the end of the day, as I exited the building, I felt incredibly confident and empowered, I never felt so tired yet accomplished! My worry that I would not be able to make an actual impact politically was completely eradicated.

However, on Saturday morning — the day I would meet the other New Jersey Leadership Program Fellows, I did not feel this same sentiment. I was a bit skeptical whether my fellow peers would share the same passion I felt for changing the world through the government. Perhaps my passions were unrealistic and unfounded. I was pleasantly surprised at the immediate enthusiasm and awareness displayed by my peers, not to mention the rich understanding and knowledge that the NJLP Executive Board was able to impart upon us.

As we discussed everything from our plans for the summer to whether webelieve Central Jersey is real (it is!), we clearly bonded over our passion for changing society and helping people through government. Through Amman Seehra’s presentation of leveraging diversity, we were able to take the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument test to compare and contrast our thinking preferences. We learned that although always clumped and stereotyped as one South Asian collective, we are incredibly diverse in thought and each individually brings something different to the table.

Throughout the day, I was in awe of my South Asian peers, seeing them in a completely new light. Although Brandon McKoy, the Director of Government and Public Affairs at New Jersey Policy Perspective gave an enlightening presentation on New Jersey government, I learned more from specific and interesting questions asked by the fellows than I did from any statistics and facts. They pushed for not only the reasons and extent of New Jersey’s terrible financial state but asked for possible solutions. During lunch, as we practiced our “elevator speeches,” we were able to learn from each other’s mistakes while listening to some of the most interesting and unique aspects of each other.

The peak of the day, the culmination of all the work we had done and would do in the next 6 weeks was discussing the Capstone Project, our own NJLP legacy. When discussing ideas for this large endeavor, I was surprised to know that many of the fellows shared the same feelings that I did regarding South Asian interest in government. Our ideas were incredibly ambitious (we even wanted to go to places of worship like temples to get more South Asians registered to vote), and while our plan is not set in stone, I’m left with the hope that we can leave a positive impact in our South Asian community.

The confidence and appreciation I gained from my first few days as an NJLP fellow has been invaluable. These first steps are just the beginning of our journey into developing ourselves into the leaders of tomorrow.