A Day at the Executive Mansion

This post is the political and analytic post about the DC trip. For the general trip run-down, click here.

Friday was the big day, and in the morning I took a stroll down F St. to the White House gate, and started meeting all sorts of great fellow advocates. Once we all got together, we went through security and headed into the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, one of two office buildings that flank the White House on the premise. We filed in and took our seats in a small auditorium, and listened to the following and surprisingly long list of speakers.

  • Gayle Smith (Director of the NSC) and co-founder of the Enough Project,  talked about America’s transition from a unilateral actor to a multilateral actor in development and international affairs, and emphasized the importance of security, economics, and values in humanitarian aid. She talked a lot about long-term solutions and referenced some advancements in the aid sector.
  • Erin Mazursky (Youth Advisor, USAID), formerly of STAND fame, talked about the link between youth advocacy and conflicts, emphasizing the importance of the younger generation to be involved. Herself a product of that, it was great to hear her talk about her work for USAID in helping youth around the world, and she said that many in the development sector see advocacy as “the wind in our sails,” which is always uplifting to hear.
  • Andrew Sweet (from the Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation at USAID), who used to be at the Enough Project, talked a lot about OCMM’s work in producing alert lists of countries at risk of falling into conflict. He also made several references to conflict assessment and contributions to local reconciliation efforts to prevent conflicts in post-conflict zones. In response to some questions, he also referenced that the U.S. was going beyond MDGs in a lot of developing countries, with other goals such as legitimate political systems, justice, and security.
  • Brooke Anderson (Chief of Staff of National Security Council) took a lot of questions and tried very hard to understand where all of us advocates were coming from. In the course of answering questions, she referenced the importance of crisis mapping and that problems in the DRC needed to be addressed, but our group did not get any LRA questions in really.
  • Esther Brimmer (Assistant Secretary for International Organizations at the State Department) talked primarily about the UN, saying that the U.S. needed to not just support peacekeeping mandates but also to ensure they had viable plans. She referenced the UN’s role in Côte d’Ivoire and the Human Rights Council. She dodged a question about the LRA, probably because it wasn’t really in her job description. However, she did say that witness protection was a priority, which it definitely needs to be. When asked how to face opponents to UN funds, she reiterated the importance of sharing the burden of peacekeeping around the world.

Originally, myself and two others were supposed to meet with Jon Carson, the director of OPE, to express a little bit of urgency about the President’s LRA Strategy. That got cancelled at the last minute, and I ended up joining everyone for a self-guided tour through the East Wing! From there we split up for lunch before reconvening, and then the following people spoke:

  • Mark Doms (Chief Economist, Department of Commerce) gave a prolonged talk about the current recession, replete with pretty graphs and humorous interludes. Talking points included European debt problems, international uncertainties in the global market, and dependence on foreign fuel.

    Plouffe taking questions

  • David Plouffe (Senior Advisor to the President), also former campaign manager for the Big O, talked a lot about how to move forwards, shifting between calling himself a progressive but also mentioning the importance of balancing budgets. He took questions for a long time, and when asked what President Obama wanted his foreign policy legacy to be, he speculated that it would be ending the war in Iraq, giving AfPak the attention it needed, reestablishing the U.S. leadership role, and non-proliferation (a la START). In short, a “cleaner and safer planet.”
  • Alexia Kelley (Director, Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships) talked about her office’s work across the country and ways to partner with the government in communities. It’s also worth noting that during this segment I slipped out to use the restroom and upon my return I passed the First Dog, Bo. It was pretty legit.
  • Brad Cooper (Director, Joining Forces) talked about the launch of his program, which is a support system for military families and is definitely going to be getting bigger.
  • Anne Filipic (Deputy Director, OPE) emphasized the importance of taking our experiences home and spreading the word about the White House’s outreach programs. OPE is holding all sorts of round tables and focus groups across the country to get a better idea of what exactly people are wanting to see from the presidency, which is a pretty great effort. She also referenced ways to connect with the White House via technology.

    Carson taking questions

  • Jon Carson (Director, OPE) didn’t meet with me privately, but instead came to talk to everyone, which was pretty cool. Referencing the small size of OPE, he called on individuals to act as conduits for making sure people in the communities’ voices were heard. When asked about the LRA by one of our own, he said that building networks was an imperative, and called on involving diaspora groups (which I have always been on the fence about, given a majority of them’s contempt for Museveni). When we challenged him to get a strategy going, though, he seemed to take to heart that advocates like us really want to see the Executive Branch give a little and get some skin in the game. He later referenced that, when it came to cuts in the budget, community activism was the key to keeping money where it was needed the most.

As the White House event closed up, one of my fellow advocates – a child psychologist in Kentucky that works in Uganda rehabilitating former child soldiers through art – presented Jon Carson with letters and a drawing made my children addressed to President Obama. Carson assured her that he would pass them along, which is great news.

In the aftermath of the event, we congregated outside the White House and a few of us did interviews with Ricky from Discover the Journey, who was filming a short segment on Resolve’s work at the White House. I did my little part, and also hung out with some great people by the gate.

And that was my day at the White House. It was a pretty neat experience, and it was great to be surrounded by such a great group of advocates. Not all of the speakers were great, but the briefing overall was wonderful. Thanks go to Resolve for the invite and to Citizens for Global Solutions were setting up the briefing in the first place and for hosting a neat workshop the following day at their offices.

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