- A conversation with Neil Makhija, the newly appointed executive director of The Indian American Impact Fund, IMPACT.
Neil Makhija, the newly appointed executive director of IMPACT (The Indian American Impact Fund), wants the Indian American community to “wholly engage” in the political process and have a representation and a voice. To ensure that, over the next three months, the political organization will focus on supporting Indian American candidates through fundraising, outreach and grassroots mobilization.
Based in Philadelphia, Makhija is a public interest lawyer, a law professor and was a candidate for Pennsylvania state legislature in 2016. He says he wants to use all those experiences in his new role to carry out IMPACT’s agenda.
Makhija’s appointment to head the group comes at a time when the Indian American community is rising on the American political landscape, both as candidates and elected officials, as well as a powerful vote bank.
Makhija’s appointment also brings a generational shift in Indian American political engagement. As a second generation Indian American, he describes people like him as “a bridge” between the Indian American and the long-established communities. “We have the experience, we grew up in immigrant families, but we are also very much a part of the American public and civic life, and want to see the two come together.”
A lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, Makhija has years of experience in civil rights and election law, consumer protection and employment law, and public interest litigation. He has represented the City of Philadelphia against manufacturers of opioid painkillers, as well as parents and children in the first class action against JUUL Labs, Inc. for the unlawful marketing of e-cigarettes to children.
He earned his J.D. at Harvard Law School on the Horace Lentz Scholarship. While at Harvard, he founded the HLS Homelessness Coalition and was a senior policy editor on the “Harvard Law & Policy Review.” He received his B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College, where he studied neuroscience and served as co-president of his class and commencement speaker.
In an interview with American Kahani, Makhija discussed the growing political clout of the Indian American community and the ways in which IMAPCT aims to engage with it.
Excerpts from the interview:
Your appointment as the executive director of IMPACT signifies a generational shift in Indian American advocacy. How will you use your expertise as a lawyer, and a second generation Indian American to enhance IMPACT’s work?
I see value in my experience of working in public service. And although it’s new, it is something that is increasingly common to a lot of second generation Indian Americans. We really want to see our community as a whole engage in the political process and have representation and a voice. We are a bit of a bridge between the communities of our parents’ generation and those that are longer established. We have the experience, we grew up in immigrant families, but we are also very much a part of the American public and civic life, and want to see the two come together.
What are the prospects of Indian American candidates in the Nov. 3 elections?
We have several candidates who are already making history. On the federal level, Sri Kulkarni is on the red to blue list, he’s very competitive, he could win that seat. (Kulkarni is a candidate for the United States House of Representatives in Texas’s 22nd congressional district). Sara Gideon is in one of the most competitive U.S. Senate seats from Maine, and Hiral Tipirneni is running for the U.S. House seat from Arizona’s 6th Congressional District.
At the same time, the story is very interesting at the state level. In fact, in Pennsylvania, Nikhil Saval, is going to be the first Indian American legislator ever in the history of the state. He just won the primary in Philadelphia. He’s going to be representing all of the historic sites of Philadelphia — including Independence Hall — places that are significant in American history. There’s also Nina Ahmad, a Bangladeshi-American, who’s running for the auditor general of Pennsylvania. If elected in November, she will be the first woman of color to serve as a state-wide executive.
What’s interesting is that some of these candidates do not come from districts that are overwhelmingly Indian American. I think the first Indian Americans who got elected to office typically came from those districts that are more Indian American. Ro Khanna has many Indian Americans in his district; so does Raja Krishnamoorthi. And that’s also true about some of these races in Texas, where there is a large Indian American population. But in places like Philadelphia, and statewide in Pennsylvania, this is definitely breaking new grounds; seeing candidates represent districts that have a diverse group of constituents.
What do you think of Sen. Kamala Harris’ potential selection as the vice presidential pick?
I think the potential selection of Kamala Harris as vice president is going to be a really incredible opportunity for us to engage the public in terms of telling her story — being the daughter of an Indian immigrant and a Jamaican immigrant. We can tell our story as she tells hers. I am very proud of her and how far she has gotten and I think that is going to be really special if she gets selected.
What are the ways in which IMPACT will help advance the Indian American candidates and engage the community?
We have many different projects to engage the community and help the candidates. But our main aim is to recruit, train and then endorse candidates. And for the candidates who have already gotten rolling, we make an assessment to find out where we can make the biggest difference; how can we bring together the community to contribute financially, and to support and endorse them. We want to bring together anyone who is Indian American, who wants to have a voice in public life, and empower them and support them.
One of the examples of this is a summit we hosted. We had 500 Indian Americans who are in politics — including Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif,) as well as Reps. Ro Khanna, Ami Bera and Pramila Jayapal. The summit is one of the most clear manifestations of our goal to bring people together to support each other, as we collectively seek representation. Along with that I’m writing op-eds, and I’m doing a lot of communications work that will support the people who are already in the public sphere.
Another important part is telling the Indian American story. If you think of other communities — Black, Latino, Jewish, LGBT — there’s a clear narrative of what their history is like. Indian Americans need to develop that and also educate the public on what that is.
So that’s a critical part of the project and we are working with folks at the South Asian Digital Archive to develop that history and make it well known and recognized and understood, so people just don’t think we are born doctors, engineers or lawyers. We can be proud of where we are in this country today, and where we are going. However, there’s also a lot of work to do and a lot of struggle, similar to other under-represented communities.
We don’t do direct voter outreach but what we focus on are people who want to be part of the process. That could be candidates, people who are policy experts, appointees, and those who are leaders in their fields, like business or medicine, who want to engage in policy-making. We want to help those people — to recognize where we are underrepresented. We want to support people so that they can break through barriers like favoritism or implicit bias, and be the first.
There’s also a number of people who we want to identify and support long term as they become national leaders. When our community and our peers see people in those positions, that will inspire them to engage in ways that we did not think was possible.
There has been an increasing divide within the Indian American vote bank. How does IMPACT plan to tackle this divide between the first generation Indian Americans, the new immigrants and the second and third generation Indian Americans?
If you look at any of the data, we have broadly voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and before that we voted for Obama and Biden. So I won’t say that it’s like a 50-50 divide. As someone with an expertise in American politics with experience working with Indian American candidates, I believe that just because you are an Indian, you don’t have to speak for India. It’s not something we require of our candidates, because they typically are people who are focused on what is happening in America, in their district.
What are the factors that set the Indian American community apart?
We as Indian Americans have an unusual experience. We are scattered around the country in addition to having certain pockets like in San Jose, California, or in Edison, New Jersey, and Queens, New York. Then there’s people like me. I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania with 98 percent white residents. I think it really gives us a diverse set of experiences that help us when we get-together and share amazing ideas that will help move the country forward. So when we have a forum like IMPACT and we invite candidates from all these different areas of the country, what we have in common is that we are Indian American, but we are also sharing a diverse set of experiences — American experiences. I think that is going to be very powerful moving forward, because when they are in office, they still can work together and think together with a global perspective, because many of us still have ties to family abroad. Bringing people together with diverse American experiences, will help us move ahead and make progress in D.C., because very few people can get beyond those divides.
Bhargavi immigrated to the U.S. in 1997 and has worked with Indian American media since then in various capacities. She has a degree in English literature and French. Through an opportunity from Alliance Française de New York, Bhargavi taught French at Baruch college for over a year. After taking a break and two kids later, she went back to work in the Desi media. An adventure sport enthusiast, in her free time, she likes to cook, bake or go for hikes, biking and long walks.