What It's Like To Be Young, Hungry & A Staffer In The Obama White House

The past two years have seen the publication of countless first-hand accounts of the Obama White House. In From the Corner of the Oval, Beck Dorey-Stein captured the hectic pace of being a White House stenographer. In The World As It Is, Ben Rhodes, Obama’s speechwriter and close collaborate, crystallized the Obama era. Pete Souza's photo collection brought the president to life in 699 pages.
But only Yes She Can: 10 Stories of Hope & Change From Young Female Staffers of the Obama White House, an essay anthology out on March 5, is aimed at using these insider experiences to foster and encourage the political ambitions of a new generation of young women. The 10 intrepid women featured in Yes She Can spent their 20s their experiences fighting for immigration reform, flying on Air Force One, and finding themselves amid the characters of the Obama White House. The intimate essays also provide an accurate preview of what a life in public service is really like, making the book an essential resource for young women with dreams of changing the word.
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For a sneak peek, check out the end of compiler Molly Dillon's essay about organizing a star-studded event and Annie screening for children in foster care while working as a Policy Assistant for Urban Affairs, Justice and Opportunity. Expect security snafus with Jamie Foxx, an ad-libbed speech by Joe Biden, and moments that will make you tear up.
The following is an excerpt from the book Yes She Can, out March 5, published with permission of Penguin Random House.
This unexpected schedule change gave me some extra time to get work done. I headed back to my desk and answered a bunch of emails (I still had my regular job to do). And then with my ace team of interns, all of us with our personalized tick-tock in hand, we started setting up the auditorium. We arranged nearly two hundred name tags, each printed under the White House logo on fancy card stock, in alphabetical order on a welcome table. I didn’t need to make name tags for everyone, but I knew that our guests, many of whom had traveled from far away, might like a small keepsake. (It was an extra hour or two of work over the weekend, but I wanted them to have something they could physically hold on to, to remember the day. Again...budget of $0.00.) We put the fact sheets on the same table. Policy fact sheets provide background info on a topic and short descriptions of policy changes, and are often sent to the media or used at press conferences or events like ours. We had been working for about six months on this fact sheet, which was nearly four pages long and included a number of new policy announcements.
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Nothing in the White House happens with just one person, but I was the one ultimately responsible for pushing the agencies to make their announcements ready and then compiling and screening everything before it went to senior officials and before it went to print.
I was especially proud of our announcement from the Departments of Education and Agriculture: a letter about free school meals. To the outside world, a letter might not sound like a big deal, but this one was so important, and was an issue requested by the foster care community. Back in 2010, President Obama had signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Part of that law said that anyone in foster care was eligible for free school lunch and wouldn’t need to apply for the program. But in practice, schools sometimes didn’t know which kids were in foster care, and then the eligible students went hungry because they didn’t have money for lunch and they weren’t marked for a free meal. The organizations responsible weren’t communicating. The two departments, together with help from the White House, sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to every school in the country, outlining what the law does and the best ways to make sure no young per- son in foster care went hungry at school. I had read extensively about this issue and met with experts, and ultimately worked with the departments to write and send out that letter. It was going to make a big difference.
Altogether, we were announcing twelve new items, including actions around financial protection and literacy, improving maternal health care, increasing access to jobs, improving education, eradicating homelessness, and redoubling efforts to make sure the Indian Child Welfare Act was followed.
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With the handouts and name tags in place, I looked over the guest list one more time. There were nearly two hundred individuals attending, including some pretty high-profile people, like Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, who had himself lived in an orphanage as a young child. He was happy to participate, tell his story, and share the good work his department was doing. Then there was Director Will Gluck and actors Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz, Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale, and eleven-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis — all the stars of the film had agreed to attend. We even got Jamie, Cameron, and Quvenzhané to film a PSA on adoption and foster care. I wrote the script, they filmed it during their press tour, and we would show it at our event and post it online. Hearing them speak the words I wrote for the video was a wild feeling.
But I was most excited about meeting the young people. I really wanted the event to mean something to them.
Before I knew it, the auditorium started to fill. My meticulous spreadsheets transformed into actual people who would be affected by the policies announced that night. I could feel my heart swell. I took a moment to look around. Many of our guests were high school students, right around the age I was when President Obama announced he was running for office.
And now, almost eight years after that Springfield speech, here I was, working for the White House, in this auditorium, at an event that I planned from scratch, where there were definitely more people than seats, as guests and staff had begun to line the side and back walls. Someone brought in more folding chairs from elsewhere in the building. We were at max capacity.
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I had been preparing for this day for months, trying to imagine everything that could go wrong and making contingency plans to prevent disaster. But even with the best-laid plans, something is always going to go wrong. Tonight was no exception.
You can imagine that obtaining security clearance for two hundred people to enter the White House can be a logistical nightmare. Everyone has to submit something called a WAVE form to be cleared ahead of time by the Secret Service. WAVEs contain personal information like your name and birthday and social security number, and are submitted for a specific date and time. And here’s the most important detail: guests have exactly one hour before and one hour after that specific time during which they can enter the building.
I arrived at the West Wing gate a few minutes before four o’clock to escort the Sony group in. I’d had the opportunity to meet a few famous people (Hollywood famous and DC famous) since working at the White House, but it’s always sort of a shock to the brain when you meet someone you’ve only ever seen on TV or in the movies. That was how I felt seeing Cameron Diaz — she was tall and stylish and, as it turns out, extremely nice. While I silently fought the urge to tell her how many times I watched Charlie’s Angels in middle school, a Sony executive very calmly and kindly informed me that Jamie Foxx’s flight was delayed. He wouldn’t land at Reagan National Airport for at least another forty-five minutes. I looked at my tick-tock and tried very hard not to panic. The event was planned down to the minute. I didn’t want to make our young guests wait, but we couldn’t start with- out Jamie. Plus, he had a seat front row, center. We explained to the Vice President’s staff that Jamie’s plane was delayed, and they were incredibly flexible and understanding.
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Finally, after what felt like an eternity but was probably closer to an hour, I got word that Jamie’s plane had landed and he was on his way. I exited the complex to greet him and escort his group directly to the event. Even celebrities have to show their ID to Secret Service — and that was when the agents at the gate informed me... he wasn’t cleared to enter the building. His WAVEs had expired! He had flown all the way to DC, and now he wasn’t allowed to enter the event. This was my fault; I should have remembered that he would need to be recleared.
Before I even had a chance to be furious with myself for not anticipating that this would happen, I sent out a mass email to other junior staffers to see if anyone was at their computer and could resubmit his information. My friend Taylor Lustig came to the rescue by rushing to her desk and sending Jamie’s WAVEs in for the current time. And after a very cold thirty-seven-degree (December in DC!) ten-minute wait outside at the gate, we were finally in. At this point, I had apologized profusely, and I will say that Jamie was very cool about it.
After months of painstaking work, I was upset, and it was a hard feeling to shake. Recognizing that we still had the entire night ahead of us, I basically had to quickly but sternly lecture myself: Do not let this snafu get in the way of the event or your ability to enjoy it. You fixed it. You can’t change the past, only how you carry yourself moving forward. Also, let’s make sure never to make this mistake again.
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I emailed the Vice President’s staff from my BlackBerry to tell them that we were all here and whenever he was ready, we would begin.
The Sony group and I waited in a small greenroom. After a few minutes, the door opened and in walked Vice President Biden with his daughter Ashley. I had had the privilege of watching him speak in person before and had seen him around the White House, but it was still totally surreal whenever he entered the room. Even the stars were starstruck. He walked right up to Cameron and gave her a big hug; same with Jamie. The Vice President’s photographer snapped a few photos of him with the cast, flanked by American flags, before we headed to our places.
The Vice President was kicking off the speaking program, so our Annie crew filed into the auditorium to take their reserved front-row seats. The second they stepped through the doors, the room exploded in applause. Many of the young people physically jumped up from their chairs, phones at the ready to snap a picture of a real-life movie star. The energy was palpable. The Vice President, meanwhile, had ventured farther backstage to a secure room used whenever he or the President spoke in this auditorium. A Secret Service agent appeared and stood outside the room’s door, staring straight ahead.
I smoothed out my lucky black J. Crew dress and rolled down the sleeves of my light pink Topshop blazer (an outfit I had planned weeks in advance) and asked Secret Service to let me through. I would be introducing the Vice President onstage. This was Roy’s idea. I would never have put myself in that role, but he told me I had done all the work and I’d earned it. I closed the binder I had put together for the event, tucked it under my arm, and took a deep breath before walking through the door to greet the Vice President.
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In that tiny cordoned-off area, it was just me, Vice President Biden, and his daughter Ashley. To be honest, I don’t remember exactly what I said to him — I kind of blacked out for a moment because I was so nervous. I think I said something along the lines of, “Thank you so much for being here and speaking to the group.” And he thanked me for including him; he was glad to be there. All three of us were excited to begin.
I walked out onto the stage and the room quieted down. The lights were brighter than I expected and I blinked, trying to focus on the paper in front of me. I made a mental note to thank my parents for suggesting I join my high school’s debate team. All those years of debate might not have made me the “coolest,” but at least I was no stranger to speaking in front of a crowd. Although this was a REALLY big crowd...which didn’t even include the thousands of people watching live on WhiteHouse.gov. I’d had the good sense to type up my short introduction, so I had a script to follow. I introduced myself and got to be the first person to officially welcome our audience to the White House. I thanked my boss, Roy; my colleagues; and the group from Sony. I paused for a beat; then I said, “Please welcome the Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden, and his daughter, Ashley Biden, Executive Director of the Delaware Center for Justice.”
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The Vice President and Ashley entered to grand applause, both with big, warm smiles on their faces. We shook hands, and I stepped off the stage (without tripping, falling, or anything else disastrous). I exhaled for maybe the first time all day.
Ashley spoke first, about the incredible work she’s doing at her organization in Delaware, the importance of smart foster care policy, and investing in our nation’s young people. The Vice President was standing at her side beaming. You could tell how proud he is of her. As she concluded, she introduced her dad.
So there’s a not-so-well-kept secret about the Vice President around the White House. You may schedule him for, let’s say, ten minutes of remarks. You may brief him that he has ten minutes for remarks. He may only have ten minutes’ worth of remarks written by his speechwriters. But it is almost guaranteed that if Vice President Biden is speaking at your event...he’s going to speak longer than planned. That’s just who he is. He’s passionate about his work, especially when it comes to kids. That evening, when he was scheduled for ten minutes, he stayed onstage for twenty, giving what I think (although I may be biased) was one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard him give.
Speaking solemnly of the tragic accident that took the lives of his wife and young daughter, he told the room: "I know from personal experience, as most people in here know, that life can change in an instant. All of it can change. And when life throws challenges your way and when things happen that are unfair, or even unspeakable, things that no kids should have to deal with alone, it’s hard to stay focused on achieving your goals and even having dreams sometimes. It’s hard to believe in yourself. It’s hard to believe in yourself when it feels nobody out there cares. But you look around this room. There’s a lot of adults in here [who] care a lot. And Ashley cares. The President cares."
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The weight of the moment was not lost on us. I scanned the faces of my coworkers in the room, and I knew we were all think- ing the same thing: This work mattered. It mattered that this group was here. It mattered that the Biden family was here. It mattered because the Vice President of the United States was tell- ing kids in foster care that they mattered, and that the President had their back.
He ended with a challenge to all the young people in the room: “I’m counting on you to help those kids who might not be as strong or resilient as you. Kids who, if you remember, are scared right now. Your example, you’ve got to point out to them, you’ve got to show them, that there is a rainbow for them.”
We were running far behind schedule, but no one cared because no one wanted him to wrap. And when he did, the entire room rose from their seats for an extended ovation.
I thought, The evening can’t possibly get better than the Vice President’s speech.
I was wrong.
The youngest speaker of the night was John, a sixteen-year- old high school student in foster care. For every grown-up speak- ing, I wanted one young person speaking too. My education policy colleague Rafael and I had reached out to Communities in Schools, an organization bringing kids to the event, to see if they had anyone who they thought would be up to the challenge. They immediately said, “John.” John was introducing Secretary Vilsack, but first he was going to introduce himself. He stepped up to the podium and took a shaky breath. When he began to speak, you could just tell—he was so nervous. Which was fair! Speaking in front of a large crowd at any age, let alone at sixteen, is nerve-racking.
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He began with his name and age and how long he had been in foster care. He was looking down at his notes, not making eye contact with the audience. His shoulders were hunched, his hands hidden in his pockets.
Powering through and hardly looking up, he spoke quietly into the microphone. Then he told the room that before becoming involved with Communities in Schools, he used to skip class and got bad grades. But he was changing that. Now his grades were better. He had perfect attendance. And one day, he was going to college.
Suddenly, we heard a burst of solo applause. Jamie Foxx had leapt out of his chair in the front row, directly in front of John and the podium, clapping loudly. John looked up for the first time, totally confused, and their eyes locked. For a moment, the only people standing in the room were John and Jamie. Then the entire room was applauding, rising from their chairs.
It was like watching a person thaw. John’s shoulders relaxed, he stood up taller, and a huge smile spread across his face, like a light was radiating from within him that had just been flipped on. John had spent a good portion of his life without supportive adults, and now here he was at the White House, sharing an intimate wish about his hopes and dreams with a room full of people.
At that moment, I knew that when I’m old and gray and telling my grandchildren about what it was like to work in the Obama White House, I’ll tell them about the look in John’s eyes when he realized one of the biggest movie stars in the world was standing and clapping for him. Not too long before, John had given up on himself. Now here he was, advocating for himself, telling himself and the world that he mattered. And the world told him back, “Yes. You do.”
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The rest of the night was a blur of speakers and panels, including all the major stars onstage together, moderated by Roy. I got to just stand back and enjoy it all (and make sure the program followed the right order).
When all the speakers had finished and the lights finally dimmed, the Sony Pictures logo appeared on-screen and music played through the speakers. I thought of the White House’s nickname: the People’s House. That night, I felt we’d lived up to that ideal.
As the movie played, as the kids laughed and cheered at a story with a main character who was just like them, I reflected on what we had pulled off that day. The demands on everyone at the White House are a lot. The stakes are high all the time. We were only temporary executors of that building, and the odds that any of us would be there at all, POTUS included, were so small. This formula gives you crazy perspective. That eight-year clock is ticking, and ticking loudly. I worked thirteen-, fourteen-, fifteen-hour days, and every night, I still walked out the front gates thinking I need to do more. (If only I didn’t have to sleep or eat!) For a few minutes, though, that voice disappeared and I absorbed the magic of the evening.
What we did at the White House affected people’s lives in ways we’ll never see or be able to quantify. But that night, as I watched a room full of joyful young people from my seat in the back, my colleagues—my teammates—sitting around me, I knew we had done something objectively, tangibly good. It was a nice feeling. I mentally filed it away, like a reserve stash of hope for the tough days inevitably to come. Nights like this are what help get you through.
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