Capitol Thoughts Archive
Having The President’s Ear—
By Janaye Ingram
Many times when people talk about someone’s ability to communicate, they are referring to that person’s ability to effectively verbalize their thoughts. But the most important thing about communication is listening. The elders in my family including my parents and grandparents would always say to me, “God gave you two ears and one mouth – use them accordingly.” Essentially, they were telling me that the most important thing about communicating with someone is the ability to listen to what the person is saying and then be able to respond accordingly. Listening is more than hearing. You can hear a sound but not listen to it. Hearing is an inactive process. If God gave you the ability to hear, you can hear all sorts of sounds without even trying. Listening is an active process. When you listen, not only do you hear, but you focus on the sounds, you internalize and think about what the sounds are, what they mean and how you should respond. Again, listening is the most important part of communication.
This past week, National Action Network was invited to participate in the White House’s first ever African American Policy in Action Conference. The conference was a convergence of black leaders from the faith based community, the civil rights community, government, small businesses, nonprofits, and education representing cities and states across the country. The attendants were some of the biggest names in the country – CT Vivian, Michael Eric Dyson, Susan Taylor, Martin Luther King III, Congresswoman Donna Edwards and so many others. For
my part, I wasn’t sure what the day would be like. I have been to many White House events in the past for different topics and pertaining to different groups, but this was the first full day conference and while I was excited to see what would come of the day, I was also a little wary – would this be an opportunity to talk or to listen. The conference agenda gave me insight on what to expect. It outlined that we would have opening remarks from Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor and Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement, and presiding over the day’s events would be Michael Strautmanis, Deputy Assistant to the President and Counselor for Strategic Engagement to the Senior Advisor. There would be two panels including many of the Secretaries or Under Secretaries from the different departments
followed by lunch with Eric Holder. After lunch, we would go into break-out sessions focused on five key topics – Education and Economic Development; Job Creation and Training; Anti- Poverty Strategies; Prevention and Health Disparities (Let’s Move); Fatherhood, Prevention, and Re-entry; Housing and Urban Affairs.
The first part of the day was very informational – meaning we listened more than we talked. We heard about the different initiatives taking place in each Department. We learned new things – like when Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson, talked about the fact that heart disease can be linked to soot in the air. Secretary of the US Department of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, mentioned that despite common belief, only 8% of the people receiving SNAP benefits are on welfare, while 92% are working families who need help. Deputy Secretary of the Department of Labor, Seth Harris, shared that 4.3 million African Americans received employment services from the Department of Labor between 2009 and 2010. After each panel spoke, the conference attendees were given the opportunity to ask questions. The emphasis for the first part of the day was for us to use our ears and process what we heard.
Then, just before lunch, it happened. The camera crews filed into the room, Reggie Love showed up with a binder and cup of what appeared to be coffee, and the chatter began. Heather Foster, Associate Director for the White House Office of Public Engagement came to the stage to announce The President and within seconds there was a standing ovation. Despite the criticism of some, it was evident that the President had the full support of everyone in the room.
But when all of the applause settled and the chatter ceased, and in the brief moments between camera flashes and clicks, he came with an important message. He wanted this conference to be about an exchange of information – not just the administration doling out information, but an opportunity for them to really hear about what we, as leaders, see on a daily basis as we’re working in our communities. For those fifteen minutes, the President had our ear – he had our full attention. His vision for the day was for us to share our input and ideas and to maintain “the spirit of persistence, determination and unity” that is characteristic of our people.
Upon entering the second part of the day, after a lunch meeting with Eric Holder where he reviewed the accomplishments of the Department of Justice, the focus shifted and we as leaders were in control of the meeting. We entered the breakout sessions with a task – to tell the administration officials what policies and changes we need on the ground to create a real impact in the African American community. At the end of the day, we came back together in our large group and presented all of our suggestions to Valerie Jarrett and Michael Strautmanis who will serve as our messengers back to the President. I’ve been in several meetings with Valerie and Michael and I feel that this conference was a result of those earlier meetings. While I don’t think it’s likely that all of the suggestions from the conference will be implemented, I think that the most important thing is that the President is listening. It’s an indirect line, but nonetheless, I feel comfortable saying that we have the President’s ear.