Current Spring 2016 Institute of Politics (IOP) Fellow, Anurima Bhargava served as the Chief of the Educational Opportunities Section of the Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Justice in 2010, addressing issues of school segregation, sexual assault, and undocumented students. She has also worked on the White House Task Force to Prevent Campus Sexual Assault and the Supportive School Discipline Initiative. Prior to these experiences, Bhargava served as the Director of the Education Practice at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and worked in the New York City Department of Education. She graduated from Harvard College in 1996.
Harvard Political Review: Since this is the IOP 50th Anniversary, could you describe your role as an IOP Fellow and relate it back to your undergraduate experience at Harvard?
Anurima Bhargava: Sure. I think the role of Fellows here is an incredibly powerful one, in that we’ve all had some experience in politics and public service, and we’re here to share that experience with students… and secondly, to try and engage students in discussion about how they may want to think about pressing issues in politics and public service today. So, my study group focuses on race and sex on campus, which is clearly something that students are talking about around the country, including here within the Harvard community. It’s to give students a space to dialogue about the ways in which those kinds of issues are coming up for them, and what some of the policy questions are, but also the moral and value challenges that are raised through that process.
When I was here as a student, which was about 20 years ago, I spent a lot of time at the Institute of Politics. It was the place that sort of catalyzed my own interest in wanting to get into politics and public service… it inspired me to think about how I could actually be a part of the political world, as I moved into law school and into a number of different positions in nonprofits and government.
HPR: How do you feel your identity as a minority, as a South Asian female, has impacted the way that you approach the field of politics?
AB: So, when I was in college, when I thought about “how do I help people?” I would think about being a doctor… Then I came here, and I realized that there were a lot of ways to help people, including doing something in civil rights, like being a lawyer. I was the president of the South Asian Association when I was here in college, which meant that I engaged with lots of other leaders of other organizations and associations. I remember when I was a first-year student, there was a senior who was really involved in community service as a South Asian woman, and she was one of the only ones…. Now, I think we really see that there are South Asian women who are leading movements, whether in civil rights, in addressing violence in communities, in talking about what’s happening in schools or workplaces. And they’re not just movements about the South Asian community. In fact, I think what’s remarkable to me is the way in which South Asian women have really led multiracial and cross-boundary movements and legal cases that have significantly changed over the landscape….
HPR: You originally started off as an investment banking analyst, then you went into local government in India, and then here in the States. How did you end up making that transition?
AB: I, like lots of other students who graduate Harvard College, felt like I only had a couple of different options. I could become a banker or a consultant or go off to law school or medical school. I ended up getting a fellowship in India, and I wanted to go see where my family was from… from outside of the lens of a car window, and to be able to see what was happening outside of big cities. I went to the town where my father grew up, and I ended up working with women who had been elected to local government Benjahid, which means council of five… A lot of the women I would talk to, would say, “I don’t know what I would do getting elected to a position: I don’t know anything.” Then, you would ask them questions like, “well, what’s going on with the water?” Or “what’s going on when the rains come and the roads are so muddy that you can’t walk on them?” Then, they could tell you everything about those kinds of issues. It started with thinking about the ways in which we limit the people who feel like they can represent certain kinds of interests. It’s about both knowledge and agency.
When I was here at the IOP, there were a number of women leaders who told me it was important to understand how finance worked. I’m not sure it was a lesson I need to spend two years as an investment analyst to learn, but I had a tremendous experience in investment banking that made me comfortable in a lot of the ways in which the business world operates. I went there saying I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer, which is not always the greatest thing to walk into an Investment Bank and say, but I did. I wanted to look at the way in which education was going to be transformed through for-profit companies… I think being on the inside and being able to understand business, were all things that actually helped me when I became a civil rights lawyer in trying to bring about effective change for kids.
HPR: What do you think are the greatest skills or lessons you got from your experience as a White House Task Force Member?
AB: I worked on a White House Task Force trying to prevent sexual assault…. And a lot of what I learned was, frankly, how difficult trying to address something like campus sexual assault is, how the best laid plans can create perverse consequences. For example, we put out a lot of guidance under Title IX of the educational amendments of 1972, about the ways in which colleges and universities look at requirements and obligations they have under that law. In some ways, that guidance was needed and called for by many around the country, but I think part of what happened is that places ended up hiring more lawyers and not as many people who could work on prevention, counseling, and support for students. So, how do you actually think about the ways in which that engagement may cause resources and attention to go one way when you want it to go in a number of different ways? Also, just being able to feel some sort of responsibility or accountability for the pain of a lot of affected students was something that went along with the task force.
HPR: There is a huge range of things that you are involved in, in terms of equal access to education, but is there something that you think is the most important issue right now? And what should people, like regular students, be doing to help?
AB: I think that the place that we need to go back to is, what are the ways in which we are actually providing an education to our kids around the country? You know, people worked a lot on the question of school segregation, and people ask why it matters today. Well, I think that it matters because if we can’t have our students figure out, at an early age, how to be around others of different backgrounds in a variety of ways, whether it be class or language or the kind of neighborhood that they grew up in…. Just to think about how we actually start a process by which we create for students a sense of community, that might actually allow them to learn together and play together, so that later on they can work together and build together. I think about how different it would have been, for example, if Treyvon Martin and George Zimmerman both grew up in an area that was under a desegregation order that had been lifted. If they had gone to schools where they had been around students of different racial backgrounds. I don’t know how it would have impacted that day. Maybe it wouldn’t have at all. But, I hope that we can take a step back to look at the kinds of communities that we are creating in schools around the country, and how important that is for building a really different future for students.
I think, to say that we are going to take on some of these hard questions of who we are and how we actually learn to live together and respect one another, is a lot. I think that sounds like something that isn’t so concrete. But I think, trying to actually make that a priority in how you’re being educated here at Harvard would be really important. And more important than so much of what we learn in college is how we actually create kinds of communities that we want to be a part of later on…You’re going to be leaders, all of you, and you should learn to be leaders in a way that is respectful, inclusive, and without fear.
Image credit: Anurima Bhargava/IOP