The key ingredient for a community’s political power is its foundation. If you look at Jewish Americans, African Americans, and Latino Americans one aspect of their political involvement that cuts across these groups – they invest in their young. For our community, we can celebrate the achievements of electing Governors and a Member of Congress, but where is the pipeline of future political and policy leaders coming from? Fortunately one man had the foresight to invest in our community’s future well before the community came of political age.
In 1995, Gopal Raju, founder of India Abroad started an internship program called the Washington Leadership Program (WLP) that placed over 170 students in Congressional internships over 15 years. During that time our community was too busy trying to donate to candidates to get their picture taken, but Raju was playing the long game. Unfortunately, he was alone in this and it wasn’t until his passing that we realized how vital this program is to the community’s political success. When Mr. Raju died in 2008, the original WLP passed with him.
In 2009, the Alumni of Mr. Raju’s program re-started the WLP seeking to honor his legacy and continue this pipeline for the community. The program helped create a connection of public service to future leaders. It also created an environment where young people in our community felt it was okay to go into policy/politics. Gopal knew that investing in students would not pay immediate dividends, but we can easily see now where and what the Alumni of WLP are doing now.
Alumni like Rachana Shah, who began interning in New York city council is now a key staffer for Congresswoman Grace Meng (D-NY) representing one of the largest South Asian districts in the U.S. There’s Sam Arora, a WLP 2002 intern with Senator Clinton, fast forward, Arora is now a State Representative in Maryland. There’s also Jimmy Soni , an intern with WLP in 2003 is now the Managing Editor of the Huffington Post or Ronnie Chatterjee of WLP 1998, who was on President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors. We can continue to go down the list to Alumni of WLP who are Rhodes Scholars, doctors, entrepreneurs, and campaign staffers. The Alumni of WLP are fast becoming thought leaders in their arenas, but also advocates for the desi community in Washington and around the country. Mr. Raju may not have lived to see his investment fully bloom, but he knew it would and the good news is, they aren’t done blooming yet.
Each year, the WLP selects ten Desi American students out of 150 applicants for the opportunity to intern in congressional offices and federal agencies on Capitol Hill. In addition to the internship, participants attend special meetings and events to fully expose them to the South Asian American political Diaspora. The program is as rigorous as it is selective, with three to four meetings a week with political leaders here in DC from the White House to advocacy groups, and think tanks.
The WLP is also one of the centers of the desi political community. It is one of the few avenues that allow community leaders from both sides of the aisle to come together to support this pipeline of young people. The Scholars of WLP train hard for their internships because they know they represent the entire community when they step foot in the Congressional office. It is the relationships that these students build that build avenues of access for the community that allows them to have a seat at the table.
With two Governors, a member of Congress, and many more policy advisors for both parties, our community is coming of age politically, but we need to ensure that this pipeline and network continues for years to come and WLP is working hard to ensure that happens. As much as our community has become more politically active since Gopal started WLP, one thing that hasn’t changed is few in our community recognize the value of investing in its future. As an alumnus of this fully volunteer run foundation, I would like to see this leadership pipeline move beyond just a summer initiative, but one that is year-round. In addition this should not just be in DC, but back in the New York City Council, the California State Assembly, and the Houston City Council. Our community still hasn’t reached its political potential, but the WLP provides a framework and a foundation to reach it, all we have to do is pay it forward.
You can find more information about WLP and how to support our work at https://payitforwardwlp.wix.com/thewlp