IGNITE is so excited to welcome our new Minneapolis Fellow, Monali Bhakta! We caught up with Monali Bhakta to learn more about her interest in empowering young women to become politically and civically engaged.
IGNITE: Welcome, Monali! Congratulations on becoming a first-year Fellow with IGNITE. Having served as a College Chapter leader and an #IGNITEtheVote ambassador, you're no stranger to the IGNITE community. What motivated you to apply for the Fellowship?
MB: As someone who has been civically engaged at a young age, I recognize how the political system puts insurmountable barriers against our most marginalized women, putting us in the unique position to challenge these barriers and create our own seat of representation at the table. As an Indian-American woman from a low-income, working-class background and a mixed-status immigrant household, I am interested in inspiring other young women who have felt discouraged by a system that does not work for them. I want us to rightfully take back our power because that is what we deserve. I want to reiterate to young women that we are just as capable of chasing our dreams in order to open the door of opportunity for others to follow in our footsteps.
IGNITE: As mentioned earlier, you've been part of the political realm for a while. Can you talk about your political leadership experience?
MB: In the summer of 2019, I had the incredible opportunity to serve as a Congressional Intern for U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar in her state office in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I was selected out of a competitive pool of 100 applicants and was the only woman of color in my internship cohort. I worked with a team of Constituent Advocates and Staff Assistants by communicating with federal agencies on cases ranging from healthcare, social security, and immigration to serve in the best interest of Minnesotans across our state.
During the 2020 General Election, I also worked as a full-time Field Organizer for the Dan Feehan for Congress campaign—one of the most competitive congressional races in the country. From June to November, when the COVID pandemic was at its peak, it was essential for me to do grassroots organizing through a creative, virtual platform to maintain social distancing.
IGNITE: It's clear that politics has shaped your life and career. Why do you think it's important for other young women to get politically involved as well?
MB: Civic and political engagement provides the necessary education for people to understand better current events related to public concern. As people become more informed about how government institutions and political systems operate, they get connected to particular causes that personally resonate with them. This allows people to be in community together, as they recognize that sociopolitical issues directly impact everyone. It compels people to finally get engaged by taking action through political organizing, legislative advocacy, or running for office, etc. They can bring their passionate, authentic selves to this work because that is how they grow close to it.
IGNITE: How will you mobilize the young women in your community to get politically active?
MB: I want to support young women who want to see institutional accountability around environmental justice, anti-racism, sexual assault awareness, inclusive excellence, etc. Therefore, I will conduct listening sessions to understand what hot-button topics they want to address, which would allow me to manage the individual chapters by paying direct attention to what activities they want to plan.
I would also create a productive space for young IGNITE women to share job opportunities in politics or any other academic field (fellowships, internships, scholarships, etc.), while also learning about initiatives that other college chapters are working on.
As I take on this tremendous responsibility to serve as the Minneapolis Fellow, I will continue the amazing momentum we have established in Minnesota, so future generations of young women can also get super excited about IGNITE.
IGNITE: Fellows exemplify leadership through their work. How do you define leadership, and how will it show up in your work as a Fellow?
MB: I think it's about being able to build close, personal relationships in a workspace. As a Fellow, I will uplift other IGNITE women with kindness by highlighting positive traits that make them feel phenomenal. This would encourage them to raise their voice on political issues and topics they care about through event planning and campaign organizing on their campuses, fostering cross-campus connections. Another strength I have is rejecting the status quo of traditional socio-political leadership, which is what compelled me to run for Co-President of the Gustavus Student Senate when I only had one year of student government experience.
My leadership style of rejecting the status quo ultimately brought change the following year at Gustavus. The Administration outlined a racial justice plan that promised to secure grant funding to expand the Center for Inclusive Excellence, hire two new multicultural counselors in the under-funded Counseling Center, and create DEI training for the President's Cabinet. By rejecting the status quo, we are able to build a more equitable world for everyone.
IGNITE: As shown by your extensive leadership experience, you're very involved in your local community. What is one thing you'd want to change in your community?
MB: I want to bring a compelling perspective that highlights the triumphs and struggles of my people by creating a platform for South Asians to feel empowered in leadership positions, shaping policies and laws that take our perspectives into consideration. Due to the ongoing discrimination that is often brushed under the rug, I also want to see the stigma against mental health addressed in the South Asian community. This is how we can truly feel liberated by leading prosperous lives, not feeling entrapped in a harmful idea that we are a model minority—a problematic concept created by white colonialism that undermines the traumatic hardships in our community.
IGNITE: At IGNITE, we're trying to broaden the definition of what it means to be a political leader. It's so much more than just being an elected leader. Political leaders can also be community organizers, policymakers, and campaign staffers. What leadership role do you identify with, and how do you want that to play out in your political career?
MB: The type of leadership role I identify with is a policymaker, mainly because I do statewide legislative advocacy for equitable/accessible higher education policy in Minnesota. I'm very adamant about embracing my identity in all political spaces because it is rarely seen in political decision-making spaces. I appreciate sharing my lived experiences with elected officials, so they can understand personally where I am coming from when advocating for hot-button topics that have affected my loved ones and me. I want to work on advancing immigrant rights in my political career because we all deserve to be treated with human dignity by our government. This is why I plan on furthering my education by attending law school in the near future to study immigration law. Whether I am helping underrepresented individuals navigate the citizenship process or sharing insight on how to craft federal immigration legislation, I aim to use the law as a force for justice in my political career. I am passionate about doing whatever I can to help reform our broken immigration system and make our country a place where everyone is welcome to thrive.
IGNITE: Monali, any closing comments to add?
MB: I am just so grateful to be part of this fantastic community of IGNITE women from all across the nation. It feels like an unbreakable sisterhood because we are all moving mountains together by making our political mark. It is about time that our voices were heard and elevated in a political system that was designed to push us out in the first place. It is inspiring to see IGNITE create this fellowship opportunity for young women who want to positively impact their communities. I can't wait to see what this year brings during a very unprecedented time, and I'm excited to organize my young women here in Minnesota.
More about Monali
Monali Bhakta is the IGNITE Minneapolis Fellow. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and English from Gustavus Adolphus College. During her senior year, Monali served as the Co-President of the Gustavus Student Senate, making diversity, equity, and inclusion an institutional priority. Outside college, Monali interned with high-ranking elected officials like U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, where she provided immigration casework assistance for 200+ Minnesotians. In the 2020 General Election, Monali was a Field Organizer for the Dan Feehan for Congress campaign and served as an ambassador for IGNITE the Vote. She was the President of Minnesota's IGNITE College Council, organizing events with powerhouse female candidates and elected officials and educating young women to become civically engaged. In addition to her work as an Advocacy Associate for the Minnesota Private College Council, Monali is involved in many organizations, including South Asians 4 Black Lives, the India Association of Minnesota, the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum, and Pay Our Interns. Monali looks forward to attending law school to study public interest law. For Minneapolis inquiries, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.