By Mari Megias
March 29, 2018
Before Aarti Shahani MPP 2011 came to Harvard Kennedy School, she was a community organizer, standing on street corners with a bullhorn defending the rights of immigrants by shouting her message at the top of her lungs. Now, she speaks to an audience measuring in the tens of millions as a Silicon Valley correspondent for National Public Radio’s business desk.
Her two careers have more in common than first meets the eye. As an advocate for immigrants who faced deportation, she coaxed individuals to step forward and tell their stories. On the tech beat, she elicits truths from all manner of people, from C-suite executives to those whose careers have been ruined by Google search results.
“For both jobs, I have to get people who want to remain hidden for different reasons to trust me and to share their story with me,” says Shahani.
Her work with immigrant prisoners didn’t start as a job. It was personal. When Shahani was a teenager, her father was arrested. He was running the family business, an electronics store in Manhattan. Turns out he sold watches and calculators to the wrong people—to members of a drug cartel. He was pulled into a criminal case that should have ended after an eight-month jail sentence. But, because her father was a green card holder and not a U.S. citizen, he faced a second, surprise punishment: deportation to India, a country he hadn’t lived in since the 1950s.
Then the terrorist attacked of September 11 happened, and waves of immigrant New Yorkers landed into the same jails in which Shahani’s dad was held. Shahani found herself fighting her dad’s case—and many others’ as well.
“It made no sense that my father could be deported without any consideration at all,” says Shahani. “So many people were without due process after 9/11, and everything was exploded by a political agenda, which is what happens after a tragedy. So I became aware of something that most people aren’t aware of, and the gift and burden of awareness is that it doesn’t just go away.”
Shahani’s activism lasted a decade. Her indignation converted to activism, and she founded Families for Freedom, a Brooklyn-based organization that helps immigrant families facing deportation. But after many years, she burned out. “I’d been spending so much time in dark places—prisons and jails—and I think I lost perspective on what’s out in the world. I was losing too many people I cared about to deportation. A friend of mine who’s far wiser than I, said I should explore things outside of what I’m doing, to step away. And the Kennedy School was the first major step in this transition.”
She says the School seemed like a perfect place for someone who was smart, hungry, and needing to explore her options. “I wanted exposure to different types of careers. Do I want to be in government? In a nonprofit? I had no idea what I was supposed to be next, but I knew I wanted to be in a place with a high concentration of very smart people.”
She came to the Kennedy School at age 30, which, she says, “is old for the MPP program. I knew what I didn’t want to do, and I knew how to keep my eyes open. I didn’t go to Harvard thinking I’m going to come out as a mainstream business reporter for NPR. But I stumbled into the Shorenstein Center [on Media, Politics and Public Policy], and I ended up meeting a lot of journalists. They enjoyed researching, meeting new people, and telling a story, and they value their independence. That felt like me.”
She remains in close contact with Nicco Mele, director of the Shorenstein Center. “He’s been such a great confidante, someone I’ve spoken with on stories. I’m very interested in how the few companies that essentially own the internet have transformed speech, and I’ll call Nicco with these types of very big questions. He has a ton of perspective on both old and new media. I’m going to see him next week, in fact.”
She also relies on her classmates, more than one of whom has spoken to her on background or off the record, to help her understand major issues in cybersecurity and international relations. “The thing about the Kennedy School is you graduate with a very weird Rolodex,” she says.
Today, she works on stories ranging from the Russian bots that influence public opinion in the United States to how Facebook is privatizing the internet to digital spying and divorce in the smartphone era. “I think that part of what’s interesting about being a tech reporter now, particularly following the 2016 election, is that more and more people are realizing that there are a handful of companies in Silicon Valley that are controlling how we see the world and who can speak to us, whom we speak to, even what the truth looks like. Tech now is a political, economic, and labor story, and I work at getting different angles on this.”
She is grateful to be at a news organization that gives its reporters the gift of time. “I’m not always expected to churn out one or two stories a day. Sometimes I get several days, even a few weeks for bigger features. I don’t feel like I’m working. My job is to find people who are fascinating and find out what about what they’re telling me that I can eke into the record.” Luckily for the public, it’s a task at which she excels.