As a South Asian American from Scottsdale, Arizona—a town less than 200 miles from the US-Mexico border—Natasha Menon developed an early familiarity with issues of migration and the law. Inspired by her parents, who are both physicians, Natasha knew she wanted to pursue a career involving service to others. One summer day while she was in high school, Natasha found herself sitting in her sweltering hot car, unable to pull herself away from a news story about an influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America at the border that she was listening to on the radio. In this moment, she realized she wanted to dedicate her life to the pursuit of public policy and law.
Recognizing her interest in public service, Natasha sought outlets for direct civic engagement as part of her undergraduate experience. Alongside her decision to pursue the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics program in the College of Arts and Sciences, Natasha applied to become a Civic Scholar as well.
The Civic Scholars program seemed like a great way to facilitate engagement in the greater West Philadelphia community throughout my time at Penn. And this has proven to be true. I’m having honest discussions about my role as a Penn student, my privilege, my ability, and my agency to make change in the community.
In addition to the volunteering, Natasha attended seminars through the Civic Scholars program, becoming oriented on different topics related to civic engagement. Civic Scholars paved the way for Natasha to get hands-on experience volunteering at Moder Patshala, an educational services center for new immigrants from Bangladesh. This experience confirmed Natasha’s interest in public interest law. It also opened an opportunity to assist in academic research for a book by Penn Professor Domenic Vitiello about immigrant communities in Philadelphia, including a section about the Bangladeshi community. She was able to conduct oral interviews with different community organizers and ask them specific questions about what they saw as the trends with the Bangladeshi community over time.
It’s been interesting to get hands-on experience helping tutor the students but also to look at it from a more academic approach through research on the Bangladeshi community. Hearing the stories and the struggles that the families face humanized the issues that one might otherwise study from a purely academic context. From the academic perspective, it is very easy to forget that there are humans behind the data and statistics. And yet, the academic approach is important to be able to analyze the underlying theories and migration patterns that create the barriers in the first place.
In general, this experience reflected her interest in the intersection of immigration and education and learning about the importance of community organizations in educating immigrant families. It also reified the importance of combining academic study with hands-on community engagement, a holistic approach that Natasha refers to as servant leadership.
A big part of servant leadership is trying to pursue both the personal and abstract experience at the same time and is at the core of really listening. Taking the time to listen first and hearing what the needs actually are versus trying to act on what you think the needs are. That is a big part of what I’ve learned.
Although she currently plans to pursue a career in public interest law, Natasha knows that she also may one day run for public office. In an attempt to gain exposure to a wider range of policy issues, and not limit the scope of her experience too narrowly, Natasha worked at the Public Interest Law Center in Center City last summer. She worked on public housing issues and was fascinated by a long term project relating to legislation that would allow for eviction expungement for tenants in Philadelphia.
In Philadelphia and across the nation, if an individual goes to court over an eviction notice, that proceeding stays on their record, regardless of the outcome of the case. Often times a landlord won’t rent to individuals with an eviction proceeding on their record. This can perpetuate the cycle of homelessness or housing instability which leads to a host of other problems related to poverty and lack of education.
Through her internship with the Public Interest Law Center, Natasha helped craft a piece of legislation modeled on other states with eviction expungement rules in place. The Eviction Expungement bill is currently under review by the PA House Urban Affairs Committee. “This experience doing work where I was able to create something tangible that will hopefully go on to help tenants who might be experiencing housing instability was incredibly fulfilling.” The eviction expungement project inspired Natasha’s thesis project. Philadelphia has the 4th highest eviction rate in the country and the mayor has created a working group on evictions to address the problem. Natasha will look at the efficacy of what these programs have accomplished and how to improve them, as a stopgap, while the expungement bill continues to go through the legislative process.
Through public policy, Natasha also found a way to connect with other like-minded South Asian Americans from across the country, via the Washington Leadership Program (WLP). Through the support network of WLP, Natasha found out about an internship at the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, where she is working this summer.
I wanted to have an experience with immigration and take a deeper dive into the issues at the border from the Federal government perspective. I thought DHS was a really great fit because I am very interested in civil rights law and the internship presented an opportunity to tackle both of these interests at the same time. A lot of the work that I’m doing is helping to process complaints against ICE or Customs and Border Protection officers who might have violated the rights of detainees or people who have tried to cross the border.
With many of the immigration processing centers in her home state of Arizona, it feels as though Natasha has come full circle, from that moment when she sat parked in her parents’ driveway, listening to a radio segment about immigration, to the work she is doing this summer in DC, which will undoubtedly give her new and important insight into one of the most highly-charged political issues of our time.