NEWPORT, R.I. —
Being an Asian immigrant in Alabama one decade removed from the end of the civil rights movement was not always easy for Dr. Anji Bodana, yet he was intent on providing a better life for his family. His daughter, Sravanthi, a Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Newport employee who lives in Tiverton, Rhode Island, is determined to honor her late father’s legacy, and make sure those discriminatory barriers were not faced in vain.
The experiences of her father are just part of the reason, though, that led Sravanthi — who goes by “Sree,” for short — to apply and ultimately be selected for membership on the Naval Sea System Command’s (NAVSEA) Inclusion and Engagement Council.
“My father made available a lot of opportunities for my siblings and I,” said Bodana, who is Special Emphasis Program Manager (SEPM) for American Indian and Alaskan natives, and head of the Software Engineering Branch of the Platform and Payload Integration Department at NUWC Newport. “I want to give something back to improve upon that and help people in similar situations.”
The 25-member panel is charged with advising and assisting NAVSEA in recruiting, retraining and recognizing achievement, and professionally developing a diverse, high-performing workforce that enables and promotes excellence and inclusion. This embodies the NAVSEA Campaign Plan to “Expand the Advantage,” by focusing on the “force behind the Fleet,” the people.
“This council will help eliminate barriers in building and maintaining a workforce that accepts people from all walks of life so we can focus on our mission,” NAVSEA Executive Director Jim Smerchansky said on Oct. 18 when the council was formally announced. “‘Expanding the Advantage’ is our common bond — it's why we're here and what we need to rally around. By removing social pains and the concept of insiders and outsiders, we can put our full focus on our jobs.”
Having already earned a degree in veterinary medicine in India, Dr. Bodana left the country of his birth in 1978 to immigrate to the United States with the intent of becoming a veterinarian. After attempting to get a fellowship at a number of schools, eventually he was accepted at Tuskegee University — then the Tuskegee Institute — a historically black college in Tuskegee, Alabama.
After college, the Bodanas moved around Alabama before settling in Auburn. Sree did not go into detail about the discrimination her father faced in those early years in America, other than noting it was prevalent. Despite this, Dr. Bodana fell in love with this country and saw his goal of creating better opportunities for his children realized before his death in January 2018. Sree’s sister is a doctor in New Orleans, and her brother is a software engineer in Alabama.
“I love to travel and I’ve been to a lot of countries, but a few years ago he asked me, ‘what’s your favorite country,’” Bodana said. “I didn’t really realize the context in which he was asking the question, so I said Germany.
“He said, ‘well, my answer would always be America.’ Had I realized the context, my answer would have been the same as his. Despite all those barriers and the discrimination that he faced, he came to love America. This was his country.”
Sree also experienced a few instances of discrimination growing up, though not to the extent of her father. Still, even some is too much, she notes. When she began at NUWC Newport 17 years ago, she was one of only a few women of color engineers or scientists. She said it was around that time she felt some instances of discrimination, particularly in light of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
“A few people perceived I was Muslim, but I’m not — not like that should matter,” Bodana said. “Having said that, I’m not just advocating for one group of people. My focus is on improving the work environment for all groups of people, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, educational background or any other factor.”
Bodana recognizes the inherent challenges that come with trying to create institutional change. It will take more than just one minority group advocating for another; everyone — particularly senior leadership, majority groups and mentors — will need to be involved. Bodana cited how important her mentors, Joe Sheltry, head, Sensor and Sonar Systems Department; Trevor Kelly-Bissonnette, customer advocate; and Norma Lopez, head, Combat Systems Trainers Branch, among others, were in helping her succeed at NUWC Newport.
“Without them, I don’t know if I could have gotten to the point of even applying for the branch head position and eventual inspiration to apply for the council,” Bodana said. “Believe it or not, while women can advocate for each other, we do need male champions like mentors, as well.”
Bodana noted that in the council’s meetings with NAVSEA leadership, Smerchansky has stressed the important role mentorship plays in inclusion and engagement — particularly in helping people to grow.
“The dominant groups also need to be part of the conversation, and I see us on the council as the conduits,” Bodana added. “I believe this can work.”
Part of that will require introspection from employees to seek out their biases — both conscious and unconscious.
“I want people to examine themselves to see what their biases are, because that eventually spills into your work environment,” Bodana said. “When a person doesn’t feel like he or she belongs or feels rejected, the same parts of the brain that get activated when you’re in physical pain get activated when you feel rejected.
“When you have that, you’re not performing to your fullest potential because that’s on your mind. Belonging is really up there in terms of our basic needs after food, shelter and water.”
There are a number of ways Bodana and the council intend to achieve their goals, including, but not limited to, hosting guest speakers, holding awareness campaigns and focus groups, broadening recruitment, soliciting feedback and providing NAVSEA leadership with tools to be implemented enterprise-wide.
This all falls under NAVSEA’s goals of creating a culture of “One NAVSEA,” where a diverse workforce will have positive emotional commitments to the mission in a culture that encourages collaboration, flexibility and fairness.
Bodana already has seen this in a microcosm in her dealings with the council, which gives her hope that it could be applied on a greater scale throughout NAVSEA.
“I learned a lot. It’s an amazing group of people, and if only the whole world was made up of people like the people that were in that room, the world would be a much better place. Unfortunately, that is not the case,” Bodana said. “What I learned is the members of the council are all empowered and the people who were in that room are from all different backgrounds. You have Caucasians, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, people of different sexual orientations, disabilities and we have a person who is hearing impaired.
“There are very different perspectives, and what struck me most was each individual’s perspective. You would never think to see their perspectives until you hear it from them.”
On Dec. 13, Bodana and her fellow council members had the opportunity to impress some of these ideas upon senior leadership when the group met with Smerchansky and NAVSEA Commander Vice Adm. Thomas Moore.
“We were impressed by the amount of work the council has done in its first three months together. The team briefed us on their ideas for where the NAVSEA Enterprise ought to focus our efforts for the rest of the fiscal year,” Smerchansky said. “They centered upon three areas: Removing barriers in hiring and retention; equipping our people with the tools needed to build and sustain an inclusive workforce; and utilizing the Enterprise's Employee Resource Groups to serve as ambassadors for inclusion and engagement.”
NUWC Division Newport, part of the Naval Sea System Command, is one of two divisions of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. NUWC Division Newport’s mission is to provide research, development, test and evaluation, engineering and fleet support for submarines, autonomous underwater systems, undersea offensive and defensive weapons systems, and countermeasures. NUWC’s other division is located in Keyport, Washington.