Five Questions with Neil Makhija

Neil Makhija is an attorney and community activist in Pennsylvania's coal country. He was the 2016 Democratic Nominee for a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from Carbon County, a predominantly white, working class community where he outperformed the national Democratic ticket by 14 points. The son of immigrants and grandson of refugees of India's partition, Neil graduated from Harvard Law School in 2015 on a scholarship endowed by an 19th century Pennsylvania coal magnate. While at HLS, he founded a student group to address issues of homelessness while also working with the Y2Y student-run homeless shelter.  In Carbon County, he works as an attorney and with a nonprofit organizing churches to house homeless families.

Recently, the IOP had the opportunty to connect with Niel, who is an IOP alumni, and ask him a few questions about the importance of law education, the current political climate, and what he hopes the future of politics will look like. Check out his insightful answers below! 

When did it become clear to you that you wanted to pursue a career in politics and public service?

My sisters and I were raised in a sort of satellite family, meaning that we were the few born in the United States while all of our relatives lived in India. Our upbringing instilled in us an understanding of the privilege of being American. We saw my father's example, how he earned his reputation as an exemplary physician in a tiny town where several generations of families share the names of the streets, worlds away from the city of refugees where he and my mother were raised. My sisters and I have all pursued service-oriented careers, I think because we saw the value in having a meaningful impact on lives seemingly distant from our own. We learned that institutions can systematically neglect the needs of certain segments of the population, and we each found meaning in tying our identities to addressing those needs. 

As a millennial who ran for office in the 2016 election, what advice or encouragement would you give to other young adults who are hesitant towards, or even strongly opposed to, the idea of entering the world of politics and public service, especially given the current political climate?

To use the language of a Kennedy, we simply need good and decent people acting on their instincts: citizens who see wrong and try to right it; who see suffering and try to heal it; who see war and try to stop it. If you feel that sense of injustice, consider it your responsibility to act. Otherwise you cede power to entrenched interests who are comfortable perpetuating the status quo and all of its imperfections. If you're turned off by the smallness of politics, or you're afraid of inevitable criticism from the opposition or the spectators, I can promise you this: when you meet real people and they place their hopes in your hands as if no one else has ever listened, because no one actually has, all of that noise fades to the background.

As a recent Harvard Law School graduate, why do think studying law is so important?

The law creates a structure within which you advocate for legislation, and it's critical to understand that. I think of clear cases that inspired my state-level candidacy: Rodriguez v. San Antonio School District (1973), which was a single vote away from invalidating the current unequal, unfair system of school financing system in many states; or Robinson Township v. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (Pa. 2013), which invalidated much of the PA legislature's giveaway to the fracking industry and opened the door to expanding local environmental rights. I should also add, one of the best things I did at Harvard was cross-register for Preaching at the Divinity School. I find that legal training can get our minds stuck on criticism and analysis, whereas preachers lift, inspiring us to take action, to reach for our ideals.

When you survey current American politics, what is one thing you would like to see change?

I'm thinking about how we can bridge divides between urban and rural communities, both online and offline. Grassroots work exposes you to countless examples of our 'inescapable network of mutuality', and that is to say, so many instances where our problems are tied together in both rural and urban communities, yet where advocates rarely work together. One example is the opioid epidemic separated from broader calls for criminal justice reform. I want to to see us bring together advocates on both issues, so we can work in unison for policies that lift every community.

What do you think the future of politics will look like?

In an era of alternative facts and fake news, I still have faith in the democratic process, because I believe that truth is resilient. Political rhetoric has its limits, and reality is inescapable. The only question is how soon we get ourselves to act on what we know is right, true, and just. Whether it's addressing growing inequality or climate change, I'm hopeful that our generation will step up on the most difficult issues with compassion and ingenuity. I think we will surprise ourselves.

Follow Neil at http://neilmakhija.com or @neil_makhija.