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'I've always been compelled by a career in public service'

By Arthur J Pais
April 30, 2009 15:44 IST
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Get Ahead presents an interview with six Indian-origin youngsters who won prestigious fellowships in the United States.

The Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans gives out 30 grants to deserving candidates each year on a nationally competitive basis; this year, the Indian-American community garnered six, which translates into a maximum funding of $36,000 per candidate.

Here, 26-year-old Previn Warren, a Harvard Law undergraduate, discusses how he came to win the prestigious grant and what he intends to do with the money.

A fighter for legal rights and protection for the poor, Previn Warren remembers sitting across a table from Shahawar Matin Siraj, a 22-year-old Pakistani accused of conspiring to blow up New York City's Herald Square subway station.
Siraj repeatedly told Warren that he (Warren) 'understood him.'

'In a way, that was true,' writes Warren. 'Like him, I was the bearded, young son of religious South Asian immigrants. Like him, I was confused and upset by distressing developments in global politics. Though his actions separated us by worlds, we could nonetheless speak as equals.'

'Seventeen months later, Mr Siraj was sentenced on four counts of bomb plotting and conspiracy, becoming the first alleged terrorist tried and convicted in New York City since September 11. I can only imagine how much more different our lives will look when he is released in twenty-odd years.'

Warren, 26, who plans a career in legal scholarship, is in his first year at the Harvard Law School. While an undergraduate at Harvard, he co-founded a student advocacy group and co-edited a book about youth civic engagement after 9/11. Since graduating, he has worked with indigent criminal defendants and also as a poverty policy adviser with the New York Mayor's Office. He plays bass guitar for the Brooklyn-based rock trio The States, and says popular music has often been on the side of changes and the fight for human right.

In his qualifying essay for the Fellowship, Warren wrote: 'Before practicing law, I have learned that one must practice literature, the art of empathy. My work over the past four years has taught me that justice is something other than the cool, rational weighing of society's scales. Justice proceeds through a prism of human rituals: the taunt and argument of defense, the prefabricated fury of prosecution, and the weary fatalism of corrections officers.'

'Anchoring this theatre is the pain of individuals in crisis. Law school will provide me with the analytical tools that I need to help individuals navigate this vicious but oddly humane system. I intend to undertake this project not only as a practitioner, but also as a policymaker and as an academic.'

To this end, during his stint at the Mayor's Office he worked on policy that 'hints in the direction of a fairer, smarter justice system.'

'Through alternative court systems, rehabilitative sentencing, and client-oriented probation services, the judiciary can exercise tremendous leverage to further, rather than undermine, programmatic efforts to stabilise and empower low-income communities,' he argues.

'These measures, whether tied to addiction, employment, mental health, or housing, are still largely relegated to the status of local 'pilot' or 'demonstration' projects that augment rather than alter the system's dominant paradigm. As a policymaker in and out of law school, I hope to further the goal of bringing these innovations and alternative measures to the forefront of criminal justice.'

His father Venkat Warren, a practicing cardiologist and mother Viji, who does medical records management, immigrated to the United States in the 1970s. Though they hoped their son would follow them into the medical profession, they recognised early on that Warren's bent of mind was different.

"My parents have been supportive of me even as I've taken a series of unconventional moves with my career," Warren says. "When I graduated from Harvard College I decided to take a low-paying job with the public defenders in New York so that I could gain first-hand exposure working in the criminal justice system. At the same time I was spending almost every night rehearsing or performing with my rock band, The States."

"Needless to say this was a very different path than many Harvard graduates took but I think my parents handled at graciously. I think they figured I would probably wind up in law school. In any event they both know that I am always going to follow my passions and they've always encouraged me to do so, even when it has led me to some unusual places."

He lists founding the Harvard Progressive Advocacy Group as among his most satisfactory accomplishments till date. "HPAG advocated for progressive causes on behalf of disadvantaged communities in Boston, meeting regularly with affected groups in local churches and town halls," he says.

"Yet our methods for change were institutional: we advanced legislation at the state house, lobbied legislators, circulated petitions, and testified in front of committees. During my senior year in college, HPAG won its first major legislative victory, successfully defeating a Massachusetts bill that would have summarily eliminated regulations regarding the placement and retention of prisoners in 8x10 solitary confinement cells."

Warren has two possible roads to follow once he is done with law school, and reckons the Fellowship will help no matter which path he chooses. "I have always been compelled by a career in public service, and hope to run for office one day in the hopefully not-too-distant future," he says. "I can also see myself pursuing a career in legal academia. I've always been fascinated by what makes our justice system tick -- how and why anyone should feel compelled or obligated to be bound to the letter or even the spirit of the law. Those are fundamental questions that philosophers and novelists have tackled since time immemorial."

Neither of these careers is the familiar lucrative large-form job, he admits. "The Soros Fellowship has given me the financial flexibility to really start tackling these career paths without being encumbered by mountains of debt," he says. "The other way in which the Fellowship is helpful is in connecting me to an incredible network of Soros alumni, in addition to this year's Fellows, of course."

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Arthur J Pais