Wednesday 19 Dec 2018
Sonia Sodha is the Chief Media Writer at the Observer and took part in the English-Speaking Union Capitol Hill internship programme in the summer of 2001. We caught up with her to find out how it helped her and why she feels schools can encourage young people to engage with politics.
How did you come to be involved in the ESU?
I was studying politics at university and I had also taken a gap year where I had spent quite a bit of time working in Parliament. While at university I heard that the English-Speaking Union ran an exchange programme which sent 12 Brits across to Washington D.C. every year to do an internship on Capitol Hill. I was really interested to get experience working in US politics.
What do you remember about your exchange?
There were 13 of us in my year and it was a lot of fun. Commuting into Capitol Hill every day felt very glamorous and exciting and the social life was really good. I learnt a huge amount about American politics - I had been studying American politics that year as part of my degree so it was great to see it in action. It was during the early George Bush Jr. years and I was working for a Democrat. The TV show West Wing was in its first or second season so that was what everyone in Congress was talking about.
What was the most important thing that you learnt from your time in Capitol Hill?
One of the things that really shocked me was the inequality in the States. The congressman I worked for, Sherrod Brown, represented Ohio and he used to run regular bus trips of pensioners to Canada to get their medication, because it was so much cheaper there. And they didn't have insurance, so they had to pay for their drugs themselves.
Tell us a little bit about your career and what you have done since the exchange.
After my undergraduate degree in politics and economics, I did a graduate degree specialising in American politics which was informed by my experience of being in the States. I spent six years working in think tanks focused on social policy, before going into frontline politics working for Ed Miliband as a senior policy advisor when he first became leader of the Labour Party. Following this, I spent a couple of years working for charities focusing on policy and influencing work, and for the last three years I've been in journalism working at The Observer and The Guardian.
What is a day in The Guardian and Observer like?
Every Wednesday we have a meeting where we talk about the big political stories that week. Then I write the editorial column for The Observer, which is the anonymous column that sets out the view of the paper. Usually I’ll know by Friday lunchtime exactly what I'm writing on for the Sunday that week. So on a Friday it will be a case of calling up a few experts, doing lots of background reading and research, and then I usually write from home on the Saturday. My deadline is usually late lunchtime or early afternoon on the Saturday.
Do you think that it's important for young people to engage in current affairs, and do you think parents and schools should encourage this type of discussion?
I think schools are very important in educating young people about the way our democracy works, and in making sure that young people are really confident and comfortable talking about current affairs. If you look at the evidence, young people are incredibly engaged and interested in the issues even if they're not sometimes turning out to vote. I think they can feel quite alienated from the mainstream political system but there is a lot of interest and there’s huge capacity to engage. When schools get citizenship education right they can encourage young people and give them the skills they need to be able to engage in discussion.
It is also important for young people to learn how to debate about politics with respect. If you look at what's going on in social media since the Brexit referendum there is a marked shift in the tone of debate - it feels like there's more abuse on Twitter, for example. I feel it is increasingly really important that students learn how to debate and interact with each other in the online world as well.
The ESU is part of the Fair Education Alliance, a group of organisations working together to close the gap in social inequality in education. What do you think needs to be done to tackle this?
The UK still has a really big gap in educational attainment between children from more affluent and less affluent backgrounds. One of the problems of our education system is that it's quite socially segregated, and so you're far more likely to attend an outstanding school if you're from an affluent background than if you're from a poor background. So effectively if you're a more affluent parent, you can afford to pay the higher house prices you need to pay in order to live near a really good school. Tackling the admission system and introducing more fairness into it would be a really important step. In addition, anything we can do to get our best teachers to the most disadvantaged and deprived areas is also really important.
Find out more about the English-Speaking Union's range of programmes.