This past Wednesday evening in Gasson 100, a group of students had the opportunity to listen to three former White House staffers from the Obama Administration featured in a panel discussion. These three presenters were part of a group of eighteen individuals who collaborated on a book that shared their life stories and how they ended up in the White House. Collectively, they were a part of the most diverse staff in White House history. This is evident in their book, West Wingers, as well: 11/18 stories are from women and 13/18 are from people of color. The men and women who contributed to this book and the administration as a whole came from a variety of backgrounds and included people living with disabilities, Muslim Americans, members of the LGBTQ community, and so many more. Despite all their differences, they were bound together by their support for Barack Obama, their passion for change, and their desire to leave their mark on a nation in turmoil.
This book came into existence during a particularly depressing time for its contributors. The idea was pitched at a New Years Eve party in 2016, as the administration was clearing out their desks and getting ready for all of their hard work to be potentially reversed by the Donald Trump administration. One of the White House staffers— Stephanie Valencia— had invited her best friend/college roommate (both BC alum, go Eags!) who happened to work as a book agent. A book idea was pitched, and the rest is history.
The panel discussion began with one quote from each of the three staffers’ individual chapters. Those in the audience got to hear from former Deputy National Security Advisor Rumana Ahmed, former Special Assistant to the President and Principal Deputy Director of Public Engagement Stephanie Valencia, and Gautam Raghavan, a liaison to both the LGBTQ and Asian American/Pacific Islander communities. Each of these three individuals expounded on their excerpts and spoke a little about their experiences and the tensions and emotions that caused them to write about what they did.
Next, each panel member shared their favorite Barack and Michelle moment. The common theme throughout the sweet and funny recollections was the deep respect for the Obamas and the humility, dignity, and resilience they both displayed throughout President Obama's eight year term.
The panel members also shared their schedules and responsibilities on a daily basis in the White House. As one audience member asked what a “typical day is” all the panelists erupted in laughter. They informed everyone that no, there is no such thing. As a quotation from the book puts it so well, “For these individuals, public service isn’t just a day job; it gives purpose and meaning to their lives.”
Working as a member of the White House Staff is no 9-5 day job. It is grueling and exhausting and the most rewarding work of one’s life.
Finally, the evening ended with a Q&A. Everyone in the audience seemed to want to know how they too could leave their political mark on our nation. The panelists encouraged students to get out and get involved by finding campaigns and issues they are passionate about and reaching out to representatives.
The most resounding and pleading advice, though, was to get out and vote. Raghavan said, “All the polls show that young people won’t vote, get out there and prove them wrong.” Ahmed added on to that by saying, “if you hear someone saying that they are not going to go out and vote because they don’t think their vote matters, call them out. That is something a privileged person says. Remind them how many people would and literally are dying for the chance to be able to have a voice in their government.”
Gasson 100 was filled with electricity on Wednesday as the evening came to a close. Rumana Ahmed, Stephanie Valencia, and Gautam Raghavan reminded everyone present why people get involved in politics and how much good a group of people can do. As the room emptied one final charge echoed through the air: discover your passions, pursue what you love, find your thing, and GET INVOLVED.