Satyam Khanna is a board member and alumnus of the Washington Leadership Program, a program that provides internships on Capitol Hill for college students of South Asian descent from throughout the U.S.
From 2007 to 2009, Khanna worked for the Center for American Progress (CAP), an influential progressive think tank headed by John Podesta, former Chief of Staff for President Bill Clinton and former transition team chairman for then-incoming President Barack Obama.
As a blogger for and later assistant editor of CAP’s blogs (thinkprogress.org and progressreport.org), Khanna wrote on politics for a base of two million to five million readers per month. He was interviewed on the BBC, Al Jazeera, NPR, and numerous radio stations. He also edited The Progress Report, the agency’s daily policy newsletter, read by over 80,000 people a day.
The 24-year-old native of Edmond, Oklahoma, worked as a research assistant for the successful 2006 U.S. Senate campaign of Claire McCaskill (D-MO). He is a graduate of Washington University in St.
Louis, with degrees in Political Science and Biology, and is now studying law at Columbia University in New York City.
How did you become interested in politics?
I think that in politics, there really is no limit to the positive impact you can have on your community. You can advocate for expanded health care coverage, or for civil rights and civil liberties, or for whatever economic theory you espouse—or for all of those things. It’s a unique field in that it offers the chance to make life better for your community in a myriad of ways.
I hadn’t considered getting involved in politics until my days at Washington University, where I took part in campus protests against the Patriot Act and the Iraq war—my first taste of political activism. I realized that the people best positioned to undo the misdeeds of politicians were, well, politicians, but also activists, journalists, and lawyers fighting to protecting basic freedoms and liberties.
You completed your degree in biology. When did you decide on politics over medical school?
I grew up with a love for science. I bought my own telescope, would stay up late watching the Discovery Channel and TLC, and went to college specifically to become a doctor. College was a transformative experience for me, both intellectually and socially. I thought that the injustices being committed by our government—the Iraq war, the handling of Katrina, economic inequality—were too much to ignore, and it became my goal to do my part to fix them.
My parents also played a major role in my decision by constantly encouraging me to follow my passion, however unconventional that may be. Although they are both physicians and probably secretly wanted me to do the same, they have been unconditional in their support.
What type of work did you do for Claire McCaskill for her successful campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2006?
After I graduated from college in 2006, I joined McCaskill’s campaign as a research assistant. Essentially, I was a war room researcher. I, along with three others, monitored everything the incumbent candidate, Jim Talent, said and did. Our research was used in ads and in helping Claire McCaskill prepare for debates.
What kind of work did you do at ThinkProgress?
ThinkProgress (http://thinkprogress.org) is one of the country’s go-to political blogs for progressives. As a blogger for (and later, editor of) ThinkProgress, I wrote about anything and everything that happened in politics on a given day. Our goal was not only to be the first to break the news of the hour, but, more importantly, to provide the best factual research and context.
The most rewarding part of the job was seeing the amount of impact that a team of six 20-somethings could have on the public political debate. The work the blog produced was cited by virtually every major news outlet and continues to be regularly cited today. In some cases, we drove the media and blog discourse on a particular issue for days. Some of my blog posts were even featured on MSNBC by Ed Schultz, Keith Olbermann, and Rachel Maddow.
How did you gather your information?
Well, first, you have to love the news and love spending all day reading about politics! I think every blogger has their own unique way of fishing in the vast sea of news for interesting information for their own blogs. But I love seeing how more and more news on the cable networks is coming from the political blogs. When I started at ThinkProgress in 2007, the mainstream media used to ridicule bloggers as being political junkies who eat Cheetos and type away in their underwear. Now, all those journalists are hunched over their laptops mining information from blogs, or they are busy writing on their own blogs.
Let’s talk about your work with the Washington Leadership Program.
I became interested in coming to Washington, DC after college after being part of the WLP summer intern class of 2005, where I interned in the office of Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY). It was not only the internship itself that was beneficial, but also meeting fellow South Asians who were interested in politics and public policy. Growing up in small-town Oklahoma, I hadn’t met that portion of the diaspora before.
WLP went into hiatus for a few years, but in 2007, a few of us alumni got together, held a series of fundraisers across the east coast, and revived the program. In its new incarnation, WLP placed five interns during its inaugural year of 2009. And we have a new class of eight talented interns this summer.We’re hoping that every year we can continue to raise more money and eventually be able to get back to the level of 15 per year or maybe even 20.
How is WLP funded?
We are a 501(c)(3) non-profit, and we are funded primarily through donations. We receive donations from businesses who sponsor interns and from generous individuals who believe in our mission of shaping the next generation of South Asian-American leaders.
Are WLP interns typically studying political science in college?
Our interns represent a range of academic interests. WLP alumni have gone into all types of careers: business, medicine, arts, academia. Some have used their WLP background to pursue careers in public health on top of their medical degrees. One of our alumni, Hari Kondabolu, is now a stand-up comedian!
Many of his routines are commentary on political and social issues, no doubt informed by his experience during WLP. Of course the WLP is great foray into a career in law or politics. But our interns who are interested in other fields understand that the political process impacts all careers.
What does a WLP internship entail?
WLP gives South Asian college students an opportunity to get involved in politics through an intensive two-month internship program in the summer in Washington, D.C, where we place interns in offices in Capitol Hill. Our goals are to foster political awareness in the South Asian community, and to produce the next generation of leaders. We take pride in the fact that we are one of the few DC internships that provide a stipend to our interns, so anyone of any socioeconomic background can have access.
A WLP intern not only works in government but also is introduced to the vast network of South Asians working in D.C. through our speaker series and through many networking opportunities. Many of the contacts I met during my WLP summer have now become my friends and colleagues, and I know my story isn’t unique.
Where are your 2010 interns being placed?
This summer we are placing all of our interns within the offices of different Congressmen and Congresswomen.
Tell me a bit about the WLP’s development program.
We have a speaker series through which major players in politics and public policy speak to our interns. For example, our interns have heard from Bush and Obama White House officials, met Kal Penn, discussed politics with Kumar Barve (the leader of the Maryland House of Delegates), and discussed U.S.-India relations with top think-tank academics.
We also provide week-long orientation and closing sessions, during which the interns explore DC and network with professionals around town. Our training also includes a leadership seminar, so the interns can apply the skills they learned in Washington once they get back to their own communities and colleges.
You are working on potentially sending your interns to India at some point, correct?
In 2005, when I was a WLP intern, we were able to send five of us to India to learn about the Indian political process as a complement to learning about the American political process. During the 12-day trip, we met top government officials, bureaucrats, activists, journalists, and academics. We are now in preliminary discussions toward sending all of our participants to India or another South Asian country again.
Do you know what you’d like to do after law school?
I want to pursue a career in public service; I have always been fascinated by the idea of finding solutions to society’s greatest problems through public policy. Some day, I hope to run for office myself or work in an advisory role in the federal government. Regardless of which path I go down, I hope that I can be in a position where I am using my legal and policy knowledge to create progressive change.
As I was looking through the WLP website in preparation for speaking with you, I was struck by seeing all those young South Asians involved in politics.
More and more young South Asians are getting involved, especially at the federal level. In D.C. alone there are dozens, maybe even hundreds, of South Asians involved in politics.
Now, you see a few folks creeping out of DC and getting involved in local politics. I think that is the next frontier for South Asians involved in American politics.
That order seems counter-intuitive. Somehow I would think that that the logical flow would be that we would start getting involved in local politics first, and then that would filter into more of us getting involved in state and then national politics.
I think it started out with South Asians being prevalent in political and legal circles in D.C. and New York, but you see quite a few people now getting more politically involved in their hometowns: Jay Goyal, Raj Goyle, Manan Trivedi, to name a few. I think there are also endless opportunities for young people outside of running for elected office, such as getting involved behind the scenes on campaigns or participating in public service projects in their own communities.
What motivates you to do this work?
Much of what allowed my parents to come to the U.S. decades ago and prosper was due to the work of progressive politicians and activists—fairer immigration laws, civil rights, expanded access to health care. I see it as my responsibility to continue that work.
What gives me pleasure is the thought that I am doing something, however small, to push my community in a more progressive direction. There are a lot of ways you can chase that goal, but for me, my chosen method is through political activism.
To learn more about the Washington Leadership Program, check outwww.theWLP.com Applications are typically accepted in January for spots in the summer program.
Ranjit Souri lives in Chicago.