A former intern for Elizabeth Warren, a two-time intern for Tom Suozzi, business liaison for Suraj Patel, finance intern for Ayanna Pressley—the list goes on and on for Boston University senior Manjot Kaur Chhabra. When it comes to politics and activism, Manjot is passionate, driven, and most certainly accomplished; it’s no wonder she’s a political science major in the College of Arts and Sciences. On top of all of these positions and responsibilities is her status as the president of Boston University’s HeForShe branch.
Q: Did you always know you wanted to be in politics? If not, what drove you to enter this field?
A: No, not at all. At my old school, I was a bio major and mostly did biology, but I did women’s studies a little bit, so I came to BU as a political science major because I needed a major. I wasn’t planning on being too intense or crazy about it, but then I somehow got a job at a campaign and started interning at a city council campaign. We lost, but it was a fun environment and good experience, and that kind of snowballed. I started with that internship and applied to Elizabeth Warren’s, and I got that. I kind of kept going, and everything kept happening, so it was kind of by chance. Today’s political climate also definitely pushed me to get involved.
Q: When it comes to politics, who are your biggest role models? Who do you look up to and draw inspiration from?
A: I think right now, I really admire Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I worked on a campaign across the river, and it was kind of on the same veins of what she was doing. I remember we would all look at what she was up to and see how hard she was working, especially against the person she was running against. It was super powerful, and we were super inspired every single day. I remember the night she won, we lost, and we saw her win, and we were all so happy. In the midst of all these tears, we were like, ‘She did it because she worked so hard.’
And I think as for young people, Emma Gonzalez, all the people from the Stoneman Douglass shooting, that’s all really inspiring. It’s unfortunate that young people have to step up and do a grown person’s job, but it’s also incredible to see. I also see this with my little sister, who’s way more politically engaged than I am. She’s like 18 years old and knows so much about politics, so I’ve mostly been inspired by people my age and younger because I think it’s our turn to step up to the plate and say, ‘Shit needs to change.’
Q: Can you tell me about your ideological journey as a feminist? How do you feel like being at BU and having these experiences have shaped your feminism?
A: I actually became a feminist in eighth grade. I watched this movie called 10 Things I Hate About You, and the main character’s a feminist, like Feminist™, and that kind of inspired me. As I grew up, especially out of high school when I started taking women’s studies classes, I noticed more and more where that film went wrong and how we would look back at it and fix these issues. It was a typical white feminist—not intersectional, there were no people of color in the movie or genderqueer people. I think acknowledging those things has been a big thing, as well as reading a lot of lesbian writing and feminist theory. Also, the internet! The internet’s changed a lot since I was in eighth grade, and I feel like I’ve learned a ton from Twitter.
Q: So how did you get involved with HeForShe?
A: I came in a semester after it formed, and they had already started the group about a semester earlier, so I was kind of in the first year of kids. It was super small; there were probably two or three regular members a week, and last spring, all of E-Board went to study abroad, so I became VP. It was really fun, and everyone was doing so well. Fran, our founder, really trusted us with the group, so she studied abroad last semester and left it with us, so we took over and went with it, and it grew a ton this year.
Q: What challenges did you face running a new club? How did you get HeForShe to grow?
A: I think the biggest issue clubs have with not being able to grow or retain members is sectioning the E-Board off and having it as a clique…the main thing is connecting to everyone. I make sure I remember everyone’s names and pay attention when we do icebreakers. I catch everyone’s names and what they’re up to, so the next time I see them, I can be like ‘Hey, how are you?’ At the end of the day, I want everyone to feel included and heard, and that’s just who I am as a person; I’m always the person that wants to listen to that one person who doesn’t get to be heard. I think that helped us to grow, just being open and inclusive.
Q: HeForShe has had amazing figures like Nadya Okamoto (founder of the non-profit organization PERIOD. and author of Period Power: A Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement) come in for events and meetings, so I’m wondering: how do you reach out to these people and get them to come in for these events?
Basically, with Women in Politics, I had connections and work in politics. I worked for Elizabeth Warren and know some of her people, and I connect that way. With Nadya Okamoto, she actually came a couple of years ago, too. One of the first events HeForShe ever did was with her, and it’s amazing to see how far she’s come. A lot of it is also just cold-emailing people and hoping they respond. Also, people feel really flattered when you ask them to do a panel, so that helps a lot.
Q: If you had any tips for people starting a new club, what would they be?
A: I think my biggest thing is that you definitely need to be fulfilling a niche that doesn’t already exist. HeForShe filled the gap of including men in the conversation, and it’s very lowkey, so it’s less daunting and intimidating compared to other clubs. You also really need to be ambitious. It’s really hard in a really big campus to have your voice heard and make people join. It’s definitely a learning curve; I used to be terrible at public speaking. Two years ago, me doing this now would be eons away; I had awful anxiety and would have panic attacks just standing in front of a room. Doing this club has changed my environment entirely. Who I am as a person is just very different now because of how I’ve been interacting with these clubs. Overall, I care so much about HeForShe, so the club came before my anxiety. But a lot of people do have those issues, and no one talks about it.
Q: What do you want people to know about HeForShe?
A: The name is a big issue for a lot of people, and we, unfortunately, can’t change it because we are with the UN, but I would love to change it. Firstly, it assumes that all these he’s are cis-men, and it also assumes that non-binary people are completely gone from the equation, which is definitely not true. When people look at the name, they think, ‘she’s not including us,’ which sucks. I feel like we want to make it known that we try to make sure we are inclusive of everyone and that the name, while it is a big deal, doesn’t affect what we do in our group. We’re not exclusionary in any way, and I hope people know that, and I want us to have more conversations about non-binary, trans, and genderqueer people in general.
Join Manjot in her push for inclusivity, justice, and equality at Boston University’s HeForShe organization!