My name is Ayesha Islam and I am a Master in Public Policy candidate here at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). I grew up in New York City — Queens, specifically! — and my parents are originally from Bangladesh. Prior to graduate school, I worked for local government in New York and a think tank based in Washington DC, where I focused on a range of social and urban policies related to structural racism, economic prosperity, immigration, gender inequity, and more. I studied political science, Arabic and Middle Eastern studies, and creative writing at Bryn Mawr College.
This summer, I had the incredible honor of spending eight weeks as a Summer Associate with the Black Economic Alliance (BEA), a nonpartisan collective of Black business leaders and allies focused on driving economic progress for the Black community through research, policy advocacy, engagement with government and business leaders, and supporting aligned political candidates. BEA is made up of three core entities: the membership alliance, a political action committee, and a foundation. I was excited to join BEA because the intersection of economic and racial justice is deeply important to me. I worked most closely with the BEA Foundation, where I joined the team’s efforts to craft programs that invest in proven methods to drive Black economic mobility, and advance research and data analysis to support BEA’s economic policy agenda of work, wages, and wealth for Black Americans.
While there, I provided research and analysis support for the Foundation’s inaugural original research report, Understanding Black Americans’ Views on Work, Wages & Wealth. The forthcoming report, completed in collaboration with Deloitte & Touche LLP, explores Black Americans’ perspectives on building generational wealth (particularly as it relates to voting rights, workforce, entrepreneurship, and affordable housing) and seeks to build cross-sector leaders’ understanding of these unique perspectives to drive policies and programming that is more effective for Black Americans. I also helped shape a joint BEA Foundation/Urban Institute deep-dive policy paper on the labor market, led research on time-sensitive topics such as the debt ceiling crisis and our Supreme Court’s shameful repeal of race-based affirmative action in education admissions, and assisted with in-person convenings with our nation’s top leaders.
One of the experiences I found most moving was supporting a reception honoring BEA’s five-year anniversary. The event brought together roughly 60 influential leaders from various sectors, including business, healthcare, government, and media. As the attendees were some of BEA's earliest and most generous supporters, you could so clearly feel the utter love and affection in the room everyone had for each other through their warm hugs, joyous laughs, and excited reunions.
The official program of the event featured a touching tribute to the early founders, a recap of BEA's remarkable progress over the last five years (from their programmatic and policy wins to their substantial influence in federal appointments and national, down-ballot campaigns), and a moderated conversation between Maryland Governor Wes Moore and BEA CEO Samantha Tweedy. All remarks were thoughtful and masterfully delivered — but it was witnessing the overall collective power, ambition, and unapologetic dedication of these accomplished individuals to support Black communities that touched my heart.
I felt truly inspired, both during the event itself but also in the days and weeks afterward. Here was this group of some of the wealthiest, most powerful Black folks in the country, and they were leveraging their power, money, and connections for the good of their larger community. They were bold and audacious, in the best of ways, and their only goal was to foster Black economic prosperity — all while celebrating the meaningful impact BEA has made in its relatively short history.
I left the reception pondering how this energy and collective action could manifest in my own communities. What would a Muslim Economic Alliance or Bangladeshi Economic Alliance look like? I hope to see groups and organizations of this nature budding, slowly but surely, in the future. I am confident they will have an excellent model to seek inspiration from through BEA.
Learning from BEA’s organizational structure and vision has complicated my perceptions of change. I typically think of social movements, justice, and impact as something that comes solely from the bottom-up — but here at BEA I witnessed what a morally sound top-down and bottom-up approach can look like. Perhaps we need both to enact the level of change we’d like to see in the world. The power of the people at the grassroots level is critical to ensure that those most vulnerable are at the heart of the conversation, while leveraging support and resources from those who hold money and influence can accelerate the movement forward. I will continue reflecting upon the potential strength (as well as potential pitfalls, challenges, or considerations) of combining these approaches to drive change more effectively.
I couldn’t be more grateful for this opportunity, thanks to the generous support of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School. Among the many enriching experiences I’ve had with CPL, one that stands out as a favorite was my selection into the "Public Leadership Reflection Cohort." This semester-long program is specifically designed for HKS students like me to intentionally reflect and explore how to use Harvard to build the skills, capacities, and knowledge that will help us in our public leadership journeys. Special shoutout to Ons Benabdelkarim and Ken Himmelman — the wonderful facilitators leading our cohort!
by Ayesha Islam, Master in Public Policy Candidate
CPL Summer is a collection of essays submitted by HKS students with connections to CPL highlighting their internship experience during the 2023 summer break. The views and opinions expressed in Student Voices are the solely those of the author and are not endorsed by the Center for Public Leadership.