I Miss My White House
An Obama Administration Alumna’s Appeal for a Return to Rigor
[Originally written in February 2017, a time when the future was very uncertain, but I still had hope. I felt it was time to let this story out. Hopefully it will give you hope that things can be good again. Opinions are my own.]
[Sometime in February 2017] I’ve wanted to write this for a while. I’ve had these words tumbling around in my brain since January, wondering if it would be prudent to write this while on the job market. I’m waiting to give the new administration a chance to change my mind.
I came to the Obama White House as an outsider. I’d never been on the campaign trail or part of the team that worked to make it all happen. I’d spent 2007–08 heads-down in business school in the UK and had missed most of the election cycle — returning to the US October 4, 2008 to a completely changed country, amidst a global economic crisis.
I did have an epic election night in 2008, joining the jubilant Orange County Democrats’ party (attended by Patricia Arquette no less). We toasted with ‘O’POMa’ shots as each state turned blue, snacked on Obama/Biden cupcakes (chocolate frosting for Biden and vanilla for Obama, lol), and were caught up in a wave of energy and hope.
We later stripped off our blue accoutrements and crashed the somber Orange County GOP election night event at our hotel, where I snagged one of their table centerpieces — a homemade stuffed elephant I call Rufus. (Shout out to Jane Krauss & Suman Sabastin, my partners in crime.) Rufus has had many adventures and later joined me at the ‘09 inauguration in January.
I joined the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in the final year of the Obama administration as a subject matter expert focused on tech inclusion, after spending the prior 16 years working to improve access to tech and engineering education for girls and underrepresented minorities. I had no prior experience in government or policy, not even in high school or college. Needless to say, I learned a lot. I wish I had been there sooner. I could have achieved so much more.
My White House was open. We welcomed Americans from all walks of life, every day. Walking the halls of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB…because, acronyms), I saw diversity in every form, every day. On a daily basis we might have convenings of dark-suited, defense experts discussing national security mingling in the halls with activists working to improve foster care, middle and high school students speaking on education reform, and even celebrities like Shaquille O’Neal advocating for healthcare access. I recall one day passing a sign for the ‘Summit on Opportunity for LGTBQ Rural Americans’. My White House looked like America and was buzzing with change makers, activists, Federal employees and average Americans trying to do the right thing for their communities. We were a melting pot.
My White House was looking for solutions. We called it “Scout and Scale”. We operated on the belief that across this great nation there are committed, creative Americans working to solve big problems. We just needed to find them and share their strategies and successes with others. In my work to implement Computer Science for All, more than 548 organizations big and small stepped up to the challenge to bring computer science to their communities. Initiatives like Champions of Change, South by South Lawn (SXSL), and the White House Frontiers Conference reached out to identify and engage community leaders and experts to work together to address the biggest challenges facing the world.
I learned quickly that there is no deficit of initiative, passion and creativity among the American people. We just need to give them the platforms to thrive.
My White House was smart and dedicated. I had the privilege of working with the smartest group of people ever assembled in one team. Every single person on my team was driving a critical national agenda in science and technology policy — from reducing to the organ wait list to biotech regulation to entrepreneurship to climate change to enabling commercial travel to Mars. We were working on BIG challenges.
Trust me there was little glamour in this — no lavishly adorned offices of mahogany desks and leather chairs. We were crammed in like sardines, right on top of each other. We were lean and mean, and we worked 10–14 hour days. There was never enough time to get everything done — but we loved it and no one was above carrying a box, making nametags or dealing with any of the mundane details of hosting a convening of partners to advance our cause.
My White House was rigorous. To the very best of our ability, in a fast-moving environment, we made sure that everything we said and did was based upon the very best evidence — that the President and his surrogates spoke with a unified voice, that our policy positions were spot on and that strategic decisions and messages had been thoroughly vetted from every angle. The voice of the White House was treated with the utmost respect and care. We understood the responsibility of our words and actions and the impact they might have on the world. Every time the President or senior officials spoke about tech inclusion or computer science education, I, the subject area expert, was asked to review and sign-off. We treated our position as the most prominent voice in the nation with great care.
I learned a tremendous amount in that short sprint in the White House. I often joke that I lived three years in nine months. The pace of work was breakneck, to say the least. Every night was a late night, and every weekend there was something to review, write or edit. We were literally running through the tape, working to achieve as much as possible in a short time. We counted down in days, not weeks or months.
I learned that the Federal government is full of good-intentioned, dedicated civil servants that work day in day out, from administration to administration, to make America better for all Americans. I learned that no issue is black and white or simple, and every issue is complex and multifaceted. I learned that systems are persistent and sticky and hard to change. I learned that policy can have far reaching and unexpected implications — both good and bad, and must be treated with the utmost care. I learned change in government is slow, but immensely impactful. I learned to be proud of the country we have built and the people that work in public service.
This nation is full of dedicated people working to improve their communities, the environment, and the American experience. Please invite us in. We are ready to help.
Postscript for 2020: Make sure to vote this November and do everything you can to ensure that others can also access that right. Talk to your neighbors, family, your sitter, vet, the cashier at the grocery store; volunteer to drive others to the polls or donate to fund rides via Lyft, Uber or taxi; volunteer as a poll worker (especially if you are young & healthy, as COVID-19 is making it unsafe for retirees to volunteer).
Voting is not only a right, it is an obligation. It is the bare minimum of civic engagement, and if you don’t vote, your voice is missing from the conversation. It is the opportunity to raise your voice and share your concerns as a cititzen. More here https://aactnow.org/why-vote/ and here https://www.voterparticipation.org.
Tell ’em Ruth (and Ruthe) sent you.