Neera Tanden (right) is the President and CEO of Center for American Progress and Center for American Progress Action Fund. She has also previously held positions at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Obama and Clinton administrations. She holds a bachelor of science from UCLA and a law degree from Yale University.
What made you want to go into public service?
I had a long standing interest in public policy — my mother particularly was interested a lot in public policy. I grew up in somewhat unusual circumstances in that my parents got divorced when i was at a pretty young age. my father left for a time and my mother never worked before, so we wound up on welfare. We had food stamps and lived in subsidized housing. My mother was always very conscious of how public policy decisions actually affect things, like whether people have subsidies or have opportunities to get out of poverty.
Within a few years she was able to get a job, and then about five years later she was able to buy her own house. Also, we went to really good public schools, so I feel like my experience is an example of why public policy decisions really have an impact on people’s lives. At first I wanted to be a Civil Rights lawyer because it’s another way to think about opportunity. But then I thought I would go into working in public policy and see how that shapes people.
How has your South Asian identity influenced your career and your politics?
When I started in Washington, now nearly 20 years ago — such a shocking statement — there were very few South Asians when I worked in the White House. Maybe a handful in the administration, but there were just not very many people.
I feel like being South Asian, you feel a little bit like an outsider too. I grew up in a town that was 95% white and I felt like a little bit of an outsider there. Being in and around my house was different than being in and around most people’s houses. I think being South Asian, you understand the cultural distance that exists for immigrants. The distance [that keeps you from] feeling like you are totally part and parcel of what it is to be whatever people would say is an everyday American. That helped me have empathy for people who are outside the norm of what we think successful Americans are. It has given me a broader understanding of what it means to be a minority, both a racial and religious minority.
Who are your role models?
I was really lucky to work for Hillary Clinton for a long time, who is a phenomenal role model. I learned a lot about leadership from just watching her. There are also a lot of people in public life that I am a fan of. I love the commitment and the fight that Senator Warren brings to things.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
I worked on the healthcare bill, and I am really proud of it. I don’t imagine that I’ll work on too many other things that have as much of an impact on so many people. And obviously now we are fighting tooth and nail to keep the law alive. My hope is that we will not only have had successfully passed the law, but successfully kept it as well. Healthcare is the one public policy area in which I have had the biggest impact on and I don’t think there’ll be a bigger one.
What’s one policy area you would hope to have the biggest impact on?
What I am most focused on right now is preserving as many progressive accomplishments as there are. I spend a fair amount of time trying to defeat the Trump administration agenda across the board, and I am hoping to be successful on that in a way that actually preserves protections for the most vulnerable Americans and ensures gains like the ACA. I also want to ensure that we have a tax code that doesn’t skew to the richest people. We have all these things that progressives have worked for — not just for 8 years, but 50 years — that must be preserved.
If you were to teach a college course, what would it be and why?
I loved philosophy. I don’t know if I could teach a philosophy class, but I would love to co-teach a philosophy class. I think there is a lot of ethical and moral dilemmas to public policy and how to do the most good for the most people. I think a class that combines policy with philosophy would be super interesting.
Neera Tanden: President of the Center for American Progress was originally published in Stories of Service: the South Asian Experience on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.