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Interview with Swapna Reddy

Matthew Olckers and the Conversations with Practitioners Working Group

Portrait of Swapna Reddy

Swapna Reddy is the co-founder and co-executive director of Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP), a non-profit organisation that strives to improve the lives of asylum seekers in the United States. Our Mechanism Design for Social Good (MD4SG) working group, Conversation with Practitioners, had the pleasure of interviewing Swapna. In this blog post, we record the main insights from the interview for our audience of researchers.

Taking direction from the impacted community

When working to help a disadvantaged community, it can be tempting to jump to conclusions about the most important priorities and the best solution. Swapna explained that ASAP always takes direction from their members when setting priorities and making decisions. For example, ASAP members (who are all asylum seekers) initiated the successful CASA v. Mayorkas lawsuit to prevent a suite of restrictions on work permit applications. ASAP consulted with their members through every step. The members even voted for the strategy they would use to argue their case.

Next week is too late

Research operates on long timelines. Projects can take years to publish and even longer to impact policy. Swapna emphasized that most of the problems she works on must be solved in the span of weeks, not years. In many cases, the time window to influence policy is very short.

“The more useful the organisation thinks the question is, the less likely they want the answer in five years.”

“In the field, it’s more important that you provide services accessibly, you do so quickly, you are decisive, and you keep it moving. By the time it takes to get anything close to the level of perfection that is looked for in academia, the moment has often passed.”

“Sometimes you don’t have the answer yet, but now’s the time your issue is getting considered in the legislature. And it’s not going to happen again for 25 years. So you have to have an opinion, right now. And if you don’t, someone who knows less than you do will often assert an opinion instead.”

Swapna explained that her average week is a constant stream of emergencies. If a researcher wants to partner with an organisation like ASAP, they must be aware that time is precious.

Novelty is not as important on the ground as in academia

“In academia there’s often this goal to not just find the answer, but to find the answer using a novel model or tools. On the ground nobody cares about the novelty of the solution. What’s important is whether the solution works.”

Go full circle when you conduct surveys

“[We will not collect data] unless we are confident that there are multiple actions that we will take based on the data and the data will influence which action we take. We have to explain to people why we’re requesting the data. Then we get the data, decide what action to take, and close the loop with all the people who gave us the data to tell them how their data influenced our actions.”

“I think there’s like an ethical reason to do this, because people have a right to know why their data was collected, but there’s also a strategic reason to do it because people are so much more likely to continue to respond if they feel ownership and power in the process.”

The border wall in Tijuana stretching to the ocean, the metal slats painted in bright colors partially covering the rust
The United States/Mexico Border at Tijuana (Photo by Barbara Zandoval on Unsplash)

The right answer according to whom

“In these really complicated scenarios, I think there’s often not a globally correct answer. There are just systems that work better for some people than others, or that are judged to be of high quality from one vantage point but not another.”

“So it is important to be really clear about who is the right person to validate the legitimacy of the design. Who is the right person to assess whether the baseline assumptions are good enough? Often these assumptions can make or break whether the model is valuable in practice.”

“It helps to know the population of people that the system is supposed to impact before the thing is designed, not after it’s designed for feedback. There are a ton of things that ASAP would get wrong if we weren’t ruling out potential mistakes early on by being able to communicate with so many people impacted by the system we are trying to improve.”

Applying for asylum should be as straightforward as submitting your taxes

In the United States, immigration law is extremely complex. Swapna compared immigration law to tax law, which is also complex. However, a variety of services make it much easier to submit your taxes. Swapna suggested that the immigration process needs similar tools.

For some more insight into Swapna’s journey at ASAP, see this essay in the New Yorker or this interview with the Ashoka Foundation.



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MD4SG is a multi-institutional, interdisciplinary initiative working to improve access to opportunity for under-served and disadvantaged communities.