West Wing 101

I have to be honest. I almost deleted the email. It was late on a Friday evening and I was checking my in-box one last time when I saw an email from the White House addressed to Champions of Change. I get a lot of these emails. Sometimes they are updates on pending Champion events, sometimes it is an email about a conference call, sometimes it is about a community outreach opportunity. But this one was different. This one was an invitation. To the White House. To meet the President. This was too good to be true. So I read it again. And again. And I promptly replied...yes.

Now, I had been honored a year ago as a Champion of Change (Parents on Education) and have written about that experience in past posts and for Parenting magazine as part of Mom Congress. At that time 14 of us met with Secretary Russlyn Ali (Department of Education, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights) at the Eisenhower building to speak about what was happening in our communities in regard to family engagement in education. And as much of an honor as that was, well, this was something completely different.

Of course all this email said was "be available on Thursday, April 26." No time. No agenda. I was scheduled to go to DC on Friday for the 3rd annual Parenting magazine Mom Congress conference, so I did what anyone else would do, I immediately changed my flight so I would arrive at 8 am Thursday morning. Didn't have a hotel, didn't have a plan. Just knew I had to get to the White House, even if I had to take my luggage with me. After all,  this was the one year anniversary of the Champions of Change program. To date 400 individuals have been recognized by the White House, and I, along with twelve other past champions ( Hee Yoo JoonSemhar Araia; Kathy Caldwell, Michael Bowen, Andrew Yang, Patience Lehrman, Cleve Jones, Janelle Jansen, Ted Lamar, James Bailey, Kathy Sanchez) were going to meet the President. At the White House. In the West Wing.


Outside the Eisenhower building on the White House Grounds. 

Of course, there was an agenda (originally we were scheduled to meet at 9:15 am, but then that was changed to later in the afternoon) and if I needed to I could drop my luggage off at an office (why not the Lincoln bedroom?) and we were "debriefed" on what we should say and how long the event would last. But none of that really prepares you. For getting up at 4am to catch a flight. For having to wear what you are going to wear because you won't get an opportunity to change into your "meeting the President attire." Not eating because you are so nervous you fear you could be sick. Really. Getting messages from everyone saying they saw you on the morning news, getting calls from the news, doing interviews before (and after) the meeting. For just knowing this is your one moment to be absolutely brilliant.

No pressure, right?

So we gathered on a crisp, clear day in an office in the Eisenhower building. We nervously chatted about watching the President on Jimmy Fallon and wondered if he would "slow jam the meeting." We shared with Jon Carson, Valerie Jarrett, and David Plouffe what we would be sharing with the President. We posed for group photos. We silenced our cell phones, left them and our cameras behind, and walked over to the West Wing.

I've been on a tour of the White House before-the East Wing. When you go on the tour a partition is pointed out to you and it is mentioned that on the other side is where the First Family lives. I was on that side of the partition. In the Map Room. We entered the room, found our seats, and waited for the President.

Meeting President Obama, photo courtesy of the White House/Pete Souza
This is my takeaway: each of us spoke passionately about our areas of engagement and interest. We spoke about mentoring, about providing opportunities for those in our community, whether they were Veterans, immigrants, college graduates, home owners, farmers, or children. We spoke about the importance of sustainability. Of making sure that everyone had someone in their corner championing their cause and concern. And the President listened. He listened as we related stories of how being a champion had made a difference to us, to our organizations, to our families.

Then it was my turn. And the first question the President asked about was the origin of my name. So I shared the story about being born Woodstock weekend (fortunately not at Woodstock which was disappointing to my parents) and how my father, Richard, chose Myrdin (welsh for Merlin) and my mother, Beth, chose Jhana (7 paths to Buddhist enlightenment). There's more to that story. But I'll save that for another blog. Then I thanked him for the honor of being considered a champion and said that the irony of being an advocate for family engagement in education often meant being away from my family, and then I read the letters my children wrote to him:

My daughter Finn (6) and her letter to President Obama.
My son Jonah (10) thanked the President for his hard work and thanked him for recognizing his mom. My son Seth (13) wrote the following (and I have to quote it because..well, did I mention my oldest son is 13?) 

"Dear Mr. Obama, So, I heard you think my mom is awesome. Well, I think she's pretty awesome too. Her awesomeness, combined with your awesomeness, is almost equal to my awesomeness! Ha ha, just kidding. Best of luck in the future (don't let my generation down!), and tell my mom to stay in line!"

After that awesomeness line the President and guests laughed long and loudly. And while my 13 year old was, well, being 13, it was actually the perfect moment of levity. Because, for the most part, the work that all of us do, especially the work of the President, is fairly serious business. And we were certainly focused on discussing the serious side of what we do. 

Which generates this question: Who are you a champion of change for? What is your mission? Your vision? Your purpose? And know this: your efforts make a difference. Your voice is being listened to. Your time, talent, energy and effort is being noticed. While at times it may feel as if you are the only one doing all the work, know you are not. That there are others in your community, in your country, working along with you. Building a better America, building a better future. And we do it because our children believe we are awesome. And after I finished speaking, President Obama leaned across the table, pointed at me and said "you are awesome."


And while some of us were fortunate to have that moment to speak to the President, to share our story, please know we spoke about...you. About how you fill backpacks with food, how you advocate for healthier lunches, about how you volunteer for field trips. About how you recognize the importance of giving back to your, to our, community. 

And the President listened. 

With President Obama and fellow Champions of Change, photo courtesy of the White House/Pete Souza
It was an incredible experience. I am honored to have been considered worthy of this opportunity. I am thankful to my family who have supported me during this journey, to the friends who celebrate with me, and to my community for their encouragement. I know that there is still work to do, and that it will take all of us contributing our part for a transformation to take place. But we can do it. Together.

So, as champions, we shook hands and said our goodbyes. Some of us made videos for the White House which will be featured at the Champions of Change site at a later date. Jon Carson wrote a blog about our visit and many of us were local celebrities for a short period of time. 

And then, for me, I was asked that evening that important "what happens next?" question. My answer:

Yes, after you meet the President, you meet Bill Cosby on a train from Baltimore to DC. Completely random and surreal. Totally excellent and unexpected. And yes...we talked about family engagement in education. What else? 

Help one another; there's no time like the present and no present like the time.  
~James Durst


  1. Loved hearing all about your experience! Thanks for sharing. (Oh, and tell your son, his letter was absolutely awesome!) :)