It’s just a matter of time before a first-generation Indian American makes it to Congress: Latha Mangipudi

Interview with New Hampshire State Representative.

By Deepak Chitnis

WASHINGTON, DC: Latha Mangipudi is a Democrat who represents New Hampshire’s Ward 8 in the state’s House of Representatives. She was elected in November, on a platform that highlights education reform, changes in healthcare policies to help senior citizens, and various community needs.

Latha Mangipudi (bottom right) with her family.
Latha Mangipudi (bottom right) with her family.

A long-time member of the Nashua community, Mangipudi has been active in the local Parent Teacher Organization (PTO), and even served on her district’s school board. She has lived in the US since 1986, and in Nashua specifically since 1989, with her husband Krishna, and two children, Sarayu and Vikas.

Mangipudi holds an M.Sc. degree from the All India Institute of Speech and Hearing, and completed her clinical certification at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Hospital. She is a member of the American Speech-Language Hearing Association, and is a certified Speech Language Pathologist. She has worked at numerous hospitals and medical centers in the Nashua area, and is currently at Interim Health Care.

In a phone interview with The American Bazaar, Mangipudi lends her years of public service and community involvement experience to discuss issues like immigration reform, the state of public education in the US, and her own political future.

Excerpts from the interview:

As an Indian immigrant, what is your view on immigration reform, and what the provisions should be for such a comprehensive and wide-ranging piece of legislation?

Speaking from New Hampshire, it’s difficult for me to comment on such a wide-ranging federal legislation. But what I believe we need are clearly defined policies, and enforcement of these policies, to solve some of the festering problems that have built up. We have over 11 million immigrants who are undocumented, and we need policies that encourage legal immigration.

There is a bill that passed through the New Hampshire House of Representatives, which states that children who come to the US and are undocumented, if they go through middle school and high school and graduate, they will not be allowed to attend college. So they’re here but not going to college, not being engaged in a productive way, and those are the situations that can lead young people down the wrong path.

There also needs to be better enforcement of immigration regulations for both employers and employees. Employers need to have better verification of who’s legal and who is not. And thirdly, the government needs to create a pathway for marginalized residents to gain citizenship. When I say that, I’m talking about things like the DREAMers Act. A lot of what I focus on is youth, and it’s important to give this young people opportunities.

I keep coming back to a certain point, something called the Silver Tsunami, which is that New Hampshire recently surpassed Florida in terms of the number of senior citizens that reside within the state. So by 2020, there will be more retirees than youth in New Hampshire – what will happen to the community? Where is the workforce?

So fixing the immigration system is a step-by-step process, but it needs to be addressed soon. I know it’s tough, but we have to integrate diversity and immigrants into the larger community to enrich the country as a whole.

Illegal immigration continues to be a problem for schools because of over-crowding, with class sizes growing faster than teachers can keep up with – how do you think the government (local, state, and federal) should be handling this issue?

In Nashua, which is one of the more diverse communities in the state [of New Hampshire], there are 52 different languages spoken by the children in its public schools, and their parents. I am a big believer in public education. Both my children attended public schools, and graduated from public schools. Mark Twain’s assertion that “Out of public schools grow the greatest nations” rings especially true for me. But the income gap is causing some segregation in our schools, socioeconomic factors are taking their tolls on diversity within these schools, and so on.

I’ll give you an example: when I was on the school board one year, there were five Title 1 elementary schools in Nashua. In one of these schools, the first grade class size changed substantially from what it was at the beginning of the year to October. That’s just barely a month. So we did some research and we found out that around the school, most homes were on monthly leases, and families that couldn’t keep up with payments were being forced to re-locate and take the children with them.

So these are issues that continue to be a problem for Nashua and other districts around the country, and other problems continue to crop up. So we have to look at not just over-crowding, but what’s causing it – what is the root problem, how can we more effectively teach and help these children, and so on. Only then, I think, will the government be able to come up with a more effective solution.

Going back to the income gap issue – schools are becoming more segregated as the income gap widens, sending white and Asian students to better schools while black and Latino children languish in lesser ones. What do you think should be done to remedy this?

Well I’ll tell you what’s already being done, and that’s charter schools. More charter schools are popping up – there are about 22 so far, but not all of them are open – and right now the state legislature is looking to integrate these charter schools into the wider public school district in a sustainable model. These charter schools, a lot of which focus on STEM-based curricula, will give students more inclined towards those fields a chance to explore those options in better schools. Hopefully, this will balance the segregation aspect out a little and also give students a better education in the process.

I also want to address the problem with Asian American students, and this includes Indian [American] ones as well. Asian Americans are very ambitious and very dedicated to schoolwork, and we place a lot of importance on education and doing in well in school so that our kids can go to the best colleges and get the best jobs. Other ethnic communities – and I’m not saying all communities of every other race, but some – don’t have even a fraction of that ambition.

But for Asian students, there is incredible pressure from their families and the community, and these expectations can have adverse effects. These things can lead to mental breakdowns, depression, even suicide – these can be caustic for communities. And I think it’s important to institute programs for high school freshmen, or even earlier, to help them navigate these expectations. It’s important for them to know that it’s not the end of the world if they don’t get into Harvard or MIT or an Ivy League school; life is not over, there is plenty of other things they can do.

Do you think No Child Left Behind is still an effective law, or are the standards espoused by it either no longer valid or in need of an update?

That legislation was in full swing when I was on the school board, and I always liked the intentions behind it, but the implementation needs work. I think No Child Left Behind is too reliant on test scores, which aren’t always the best indicator of whether students are really learning the material and whether or not the teachers are doing their jobs well. I don’t think it’s fair to hold just the teachers accountable for students’ success – it has to be a collaborative effort with administrators, the school district as a whole, and especially the parents. It has to be a team effort.

I like the Common Core system because it’s more of a guideline, and it relies on benchmarks that students must meet rather than just a test score number. We need be more concerned with what skills should these kids be learning to succeed in life, rather than just looking at how they score on certain tests. Having come from India, I know what that test-based system is; it’s all book-learning and cramming, and if you don’t understand something, the teacher really can’t help you. That’s an extreme, and we need to find a good middle ground.

What are your views on the Obama administration’s standards for school lunches, as well as the House bill that would allow schools to have an opt-out option?

We need to have personal choices and freedoms, but I think it’s important to instill healthy habits in children while they’re young. These kinds of things cannot just be taught at home or just at school – it has to be unilateral. So I’m glad that school districts are taking measures to have healthier choices. In Nashua, we’ve replaced all these soda machines with ones that have healthy snacks; it’s a big difference, but it’s a positive difference. I think the healthy food options need to be coupled with physical activity to help children adopt an overall healthy lifestyle.

Gun violence in schools across the US has sadly become more prevalent in recent years, and now organizations like the NRA want to install security guards and give teachers guns to protect themselves and students – what are your thoughts on such proposals? Would they really solve the problem?

No, I’m totally opposed to that. I support legal and responsible gun ownership; I would never say that nobody should own guns. But do we really need guns with magazine that carry 30 rounds, 100 rounds, or even more for just recreational purposes? Do we really need semi-automatic weapons? When the Second Amendment was created, they were talking about muskets. We don’t need these military-grade guns in our homes.

I don’t want to give teachers the responsibility of carrying a gun to defend children; we should not be asking them to take that law enforcement responsibility. I think it’s more important to focus on mental health evaluations and catching at-risk kids before things like this happen, so we can work with them and help them. That would be the best way to solve this issue, not by giving more guns to more people.

First generation Indian American politicians like Upendra Chivukula and Swati Dandekar lost their recent elections for US Congress. Is reaching Congress impossible for a first generation Indian American politician?

I don’t think anything is impossible. People are always amazed that me, an Indian American woman, could be elected to political office in a state like New Hampshire, and I think the key is that if you can serve your community, and if you have that recognition of how beneficial service in the larger community really is, the process will take care of itself. I’m not the only example – look at Bobby Jindal, the Governor of Louisiana, and look at Upendra Chivukula in New Jersey.

We may have Indian heritage, but we’re American. My children are just as American as anybody else. This is a country of immigrants, so I don’t think of that as an obstacle. The way I see it, this is my home, and I want to serve my adoptive country. That has to be the mindset, and once that happens, opportunities will open up. I think it’s just a matter of time before a first-generation Indian American makes it to Congress.

Do you have aspirations to seek higher public office, either within the state of New Hampshire or at the national level?

Right now, I’m not looking at this as a career. The way I see it, my involvement in politics is a service. I have made this my home, and my kids were born here, so this is their home. We need to be a part of the community, and I want to set an example to kids to be at the policy-making table. It’s important to be involved, to be engaged in these conversations, and that’s where my focus really is.

One Comment

  1. Looking forward to seeing you there.The decider.

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