An overview video of the Washington DC 2012 Interview Tour.
An overview video of the Washington DC 2012 Interview Tour.
“If you’re listening, you’re communicating.” As I look back on my experience in Washington D.C., Tara Sonenshine’s words continue to resonate with me. I entered the journey with a specific set of goals and expectations. This is how I will ask that question. These are the people who will inspire me. This is when I will discover my passion. Caught up in my anticipation of the outcome, I had been neglecting the process. But Tara Sonenshine’s words obliterated this tunnel vision and awoke me to the surrounding opportunities. Each person posses a unique set of stories, experiences, and discoveries waiting to be relayed. However, it was not until I let go of my longing for control and embraced my curiosity that I was able to fully appreciate these unique perspectives.
The importance of listening was not only relevant when preparing for the interviews, but also while we were in them. During the early interviews of the trip, I was so engrossed by my own anxieties and expectations that I was often unable to appreciate the profundity of what was being said. Overwhelmed with nerves and eager to nail my question, I allowed my own self-immersion to distract me from the true reason why I was there. It was not until I let go of my anticipation and allowed myself to be curious that I was able to see the humanity behind our country’s leadership.
Self-reflection is the final and perhaps most transformative area in which I applied the importance of listening. In the past, when given time to reflect, I had a tendency to pre-determine how I should feel. “This was a very inspiring experience, therefore I should be impacted in this specific way.” I allowed my analytical side of the brain to plan out my responses and dictate my emotions. But Tara Sonenshine’s words inspired a shift in my reflection process. I realize now that by burying my true responses beneath a mound of expectations, I lose a crucial part of my identity. I must listen to my emotions because they hold unique stories that reflect my true passions.
From the first day of the adventure I decided that I wanted to do as much as I possibly could for this trip. A big part of that was helping prepare the interviews. By far this was the most challenging part of the journey for me. Prepping for the interviews was much more complicated than I had anticipated. Not only did we have to come up with intelligent questions with the right wording, we also had to anticipate the answers and figure out how to get a certain type of response without always asking what we really wanted to know, in a direct way. Working with my fellow classmates, bouncing our ideas off each other, and offering opinions to help improve each other’s questions was an extremely enlightening experience. I learned not to be attached to the work I had done because, with the help of my classmates, it changed into something better than I had even dreamed of. Working closely with individuals I consider to be my intellectual superiors taught me that my opinions are not always the correct ones, and that by listening to other people I can learn more than I thought possible.
Admiral Stephen Rochon is warm, humble, and down to earth. He spoke to us as a friend and told us how lucky he felt to be meeting with us. I never would have thought that the former Chief Usher of the White House would return our feelings of gratitude so enthusiastically. As Chief Usher (and Director of the Executive Residence), Admiral Rochon oversaw our nation’s most famous house: from move-in day, to important events, to normal days with the presidential family.
Admiral Rochon was a wealth of knowledge and a masterful storyteller. I found him to be refreshing. He showed us the human side of men we often think of as untouchable; so powerful and high up so as to be inhuman.
I was on the edge of my seat as I listened to Admiral Rochon tell us which style of art the first ladies preferred and the personality of each president’s dog. Despite his past working closely with the most powerful men in the country, Admiral Rochon was completely himself. “I make my assistants uncomfortable because they call me ‘Admiral Rochon’ and I sign my emails ‘Stephen’.” His title didn’t mean everything to him; he cared about serving his president and country to the best of his ability. In a city where status is everything and power trumps all, I was inspired and uplifted by ‘Stephen’. He had so much pride in his work yet did not need a standing ovation or round of applause.
Admiral Rochon is a down to earth man who told a group of high school students he is always there for them. He respected us not only as young adults but also as agents of change. Admiral Rochon connected with us on a human level with warmth and respect. I hope that wherever my life takes me and whatever title I may possess, I am as humble and generous as Admiral Stephen Rochon.
He left us with these parting words: “Do as much as you can and always think that you can do some good and change the world. Enjoy life.” This is exactly what I will try to do.
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Tara Sonenshine, welcomed us warmly when she walked into the room. She seemed enthusiastic about our visit. Once we sat down, she asked us what our names were; this greatly impacted us. McKenzie Caborn mentioned later how this meant a lot to her, “I think the fact that she asked us all our names showed that she wasn’t only here to tell her stories, she wanted to hear ours as well.”
During our time with Under Secretary Sonenshine, we asked her what her guiding principles have been. She told us to, “Care deeply about the world at large,” and to, “Want to be a positive force in world.” She said, “You want voices of ordinary people to be a catalyst, a change agent.” She emphasized the importance of involvement in the community and gathering the voices of the general public.
When we asked about the role of the media in helping citizens to be well informed, Under Secretary Sonenshine had a positive attitude saying, “I think the information is empowering us.” But she cautioned that the public must use discernment to sort out which information was hyperbole and which was honest truth.
Next we wanted to know how society could understand and engage in conflict as a positive force. Under Secretary Sonenshine responded, “Conflict is a natural part of society…conflict is a part of natural conditions; we need to agree to disagree. ” She explained that conflict is necessary for development and that with the right tools we can revolutionize the function of conflict and constructive argument.
For our last question, Blythe Collier asked if there was any advice Under Secretary Soneshine could give us. She said, “The most important currency is ideas…write your thoughts down…they are fleeting, they come and go. Jot them down and share them with someone; that is how you get the momentum of ideas.”
When we began our interview with Under Secretary Tara Sonenshine we asked, as usual, if she had any opening remarks before we asked our questions. With this, she began to talk about her past. She described her path to working in the news industry, mentioning every fork in the road along the way. She talked about growing up in a Yiddish household and how important our roots are in creating our lives. She mentioned studying abroad in England and the importance of travel to gain a better picture of the world. She spoke of the moments in her life, how each one led to the next, and how connected the beginning of her story is to the middle.
Under Secretary Sonenshine’s intent was to show us the importance of taking risks. A person’s life is created out of their impulsive choice to seize opportunities as they come their way. She said, “When you see a really interesting fork in the road, take it.”
What interested me about this concept was how one cannot plan for the forks in the road, and when those choices come, one has very little time to make the decision. When Under Secretary Sonenshine was given an opportunity to join ABC news, it meant dropping her entire life and changing everything. It was a risk but she did it anyway.
Towards the end of the interview Under Secretary Sonenshine said, “You will drive change if you are willing to change.” Being flexible with the course life decides was a prominent theme in her responses. Flexibility combined with passion, is what brought her to her current position as Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. She engaged in each moment of her life, learning from experiences and taking risks, and now she’s in a position in which she can truly affect the world.
Under Secretary Tara Sonenshine’s story was inspiring. She taught me to be open to change, to respect the current of my life, and to seize opportunities no matter how sudden and frightening they may seem to be. I shall never forget the lessons she showed us simply by being open and sharing her story with us.
Throughout our interviews with various leaders, I have noticed repeating patterns in how they relate to us. You have spirited and cheerful leaders like Layli Miller-Muro and Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez who went out of their way to make us feel welcome. Then you have solemn and wise leaders like Congressman Dennis Kucinich who deliver inspiring words of advice to prepare us for the future. It seems to me that Robert Zoellick is a mixture of the greatest things about everyone we have interviewed.
When Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, walked into the room, he insisted on shaking everybody’s hand before he sat down. When we presented our questions he made everyone say their name, grade, and career goal before he answered. But when he answered them, boy did he answer them. He answered our questions with an analysis and complexity unlike anyone I have ever seen. I knew we were in for an incredible experience when he responded yes, to Kavi’s perennial question about whether self-interest is the best promoter of change. His answer wasn’t fiery. It was calm and calculated, and etched with worldly wisdom and experience. One of the most striking things about Mr. Zoellick was that he had a solid sense of what he believed in, and his ethics were developed from his own personal experiences and knowledge. His ethics were entirely his own.
Robert Zoellick made for an extremely striking interview and the World Bank will definitely be losing an extremely capable individual.
This morning we interviewed Robert Zoellick, the president of the World Bank. We came with prepared questions, but Mr. Zoellick had questions for us. Before each of us would ask a question, he would ask us what we were interested in and what grade we were in. Mr. Zoellick’s questions went beyond simple pleasantries because after each person told his story, Mr. Zoellick had something to say about each person’s interests. This not only displayed his wide array of knowledge about humanity, but also his interest in people. He had encouraging words for everyone.
At the end of the interview, we began a process we had done in several other interviews. We feed back to Robert Zoellick what had struck us from the interview. He added to the conversation by asking us what we had learned from our trip in general. I liked how he had something to say about everyone’s take away. His interest in us as people was clear from his thoughts and the fact that he stayed to talk to us for an extra hour.
Mr. Zoellick’s admonishment that we share about our entire experience in D.C. proved to be one of the best moments of the trip. Every single person shared what he felt he had learned and what he wished to do after high school. Even though my classmates only spoke for 3 to 5 minutes, I felt that my knowledge about everyone and what makes them tick expanded. I also saw Mr. Zoellick’s inclination towards leadership. He was able to facilitate a conversation about our dreams. This was a valuable conversation because, besides being interesting, it was inspiring and motivating to hear my peers’ dreams and voice my own hopes for my life. Our interview with Robert Zoellick was a conversation about what this trip means and how it can affect our lives.
When he first entered the room, Mr. Zoellick took the time to walk all the way around the table and shake hands with every member of our group. He ended up staying an extra hour with us to ensure that he got all the way around the table asking us what grade we were in, what we wanted to do, and what we had taken away most from our time in D.C. Mr. Zoellick remembered our names and what we wanted to do with our lives and continuously found ways to reconnect our aspirations to what he was talking about.
During many of our interviews, we have asked a question about whether or not self-interest is the strongest motivator for ethical behavior. Each time we asked it, we heard an emphatic no. Robert Zoellick was the first person we interviewed that answered it in the affirmative. He said that he thinks that self-interest is the strongest motivator, but that self-interest has acquired a negative connotation. He said that nowadays people tend to interpret self-interest as selfish interest but that they are two different things. Mr. Zoellick said, “Good ethical behavior will lead to economic development.”
Our interview with Mr. Zoellick was powerful and interesting and made me completely reevaluate what I want to do with my life.
When Eva Muraya, Hafsat Abiola-Costello, and Kah Walla entered, the room fell silent. In the silence, the resounding sound of awe and respect echoed throughout the walls of the Vital Voices headquarters. They walked with their heads held high, exuding the perfect combination of confidence and humility. They sat down, and flashed us three gleaming smiles. Each smile, representing a story waiting to be told, a lesson waiting to be learned, and a drive waiting to be shared. I scooted forward in my seat, captivated by their magnetic charisma. Grounded in their roots and driven by their history, these were three women who knew exactly what they stood for.
They spoke honestly and openly, relaying stories about their pasts and visions for their futures. Eva Muraya spoke about her country of Kenya, and the path that led her to her position as co-founder and CEO of Color Creations Group. Hafsat Abiola-Costello shared a heart-wrenching story about the assassination of her parents, and the way she used this tragedy to fuel her actions as a human rights campaigner in Nigeria. Kah Walla passionately described her future aspiration of becoming president of Cameroon, encouraging all women to “embrace power and transform it.” Each woman embodied a different quality of leadership, and together, the combination was powerful.
Throughout our time in Washington D.C. we have interviewed a variety of leaders. Despite their diverse backgrounds, I found that they were surprisingly optimistic about the future. This was a refreshing contrast to my previous views on the world. I am very grateful to have been raised to view the world with criticality, but sometimes this has blinded me from the obvious light. Listening to some of our nation’s leaders talk about the world with hope and positivity made me realize how many blessings I was ignoring.
This first dawned on me during our interview with Layli Miller-Muro. We asked her if she believed people were motivated by self-interest, if that was how change had to occur. She responded simply and quickly. No hesitation. “No…People do not become martyrs out of self-interest.”
These words rang in my head the rest of the day. I never realized how cynical I had grown. At some point I decided that the human race was a selfish species; that nothing was ever truly done for any higher cause. I even wrote an essay in eighth grade, convinced my thesis was the correct one, arguing that there was no denying the human race was a selfish species. But Layli Miller-Muro caused me to think. How many good souls were being ignored by my generalization? How many heroes were being dismissed through my cynical assumption?
When we spoke to Susannah Shakow, this realization was only reinforced. We asked her about the film Miss Representation and if she believed in its indication that progress for women had slowed due to the media. Again, we encountered a swift, “No.” Ms. Shakow continued to explain, “I’m an optimistic person.” She then turned to the girls at the table and asked us directly if any of us had personally experienced a feeling of inequality in our lives. We shook our heads, no we hadn’t. I wonder, through all of the intellectual conversations on this topic, how could we not have asked ourselves this simple question? I couldn’t help but smile, thinking that the hope Layli Miller-Muro had instilled in my heart only a day before, was now being reinforced by Susannah Shakow’s simple remarks. A few days later we asked Alyse Nelson a similar question, and we received a response similar to her colleagues, “I’m an optimistic person.”
Republican Congressman David Dreier seconded this when he explained during our interview, “It might seem like I look at the world through rose-colored lenses…I am an optimist.” My smile grew wider with each repetition. We were discovering optimism on both sides of the aisle: republican and democrat alike.
This theme of optimism continued through to our interview with Congressman Loretta Sanchez. She provided another example of positivity and hope. We asked her about the American Dream, pointing out that there were many who believed it was disappearing. Her response was another immediate, yet genuine exclamation. She said that the American Dream had not disappeared. She urged us to look around us. It was everywhere. “You are living the American Dream,” she pronounced.
By Thursday, when we interviewed Congressmen Barney Frank, optimism was at the front of my thoughts. It was no longer a subconscious pondering. It was a conscious conversation within. We asked Congressmen Frank about progress in America. In his response he said, “I cannot think of very many things in America that were better ten years ago.” Congressmen Frank also explained the importance of action. Another theme we have heard time and time again this past week. He said that if we were passionate about anything in this world, we had a moral obligation to act on it.
I do not deny that there are issues in this world that need to be solved, and I do not pretend to say there aren’t things about the state of America that get my blood boiling, but I do say this: Washington D.C. is our nations heart. The heart pumps blood throughout the body; if the heart’s healthy, so is the body. There are many who say our government is corrupt. Perhaps it is. But from what I’ve seen and the people I’ve met, our country’s heart beats with positivity. The leaders I have met don’t simply talk about making a difference; they try to do it, every moment of their lives. This is why they have so much hope; they’ve worked for change and have overcome obstacles to get there. They’ve watched with their own eyes as hard work created reality.
If leaders of America can be optimistic about its future, then why can’t we, the citizens, do the same?
On Friday, under a perfect blue sky we wait for the votes to be over. The members begin to come down the steps. I spot our own, Sam Farr and go to greet him. This is one of my favorite moments of the D.C. journey. This is when the students “work the steps.” It is really quite simple. When there are votes in the House of Representatives, we stand at the bottom of the Capitol building steps on the “House” side, and wait until the votes are over. Then the members walk right past us and return to their offices. The students with a bit of prompting can walk up to any of them and introduce themselves. Most members will usually take a few minutes to chat with us. They seem genuinely interested in young people and respond well to those who approach respectfully.
It is because of these congressional votes that our interview schedule has been disrupted, and yesterday we missed one of our favorite interviews with the iconic civil rights hero, Congressman John Lewis.
As I stand with Sam, I notice Congressman Lewis come down the steps. Our students surround him and Sam and I join in. Congressman Lewis with his soft Georgia accent, says, “I am so sorry I missed all of you this year.” Sam seizes the moment. Clearly he and John Lewis know and care for each other. Sam gently begins to incite a few stories from John.
We have no better friend in Washington D.C. than Sam Farr. We have interviewed him in every term since he was first elected. He has, on several occasions, approached other members of the House saying, “You must speak to this group of students.” A ‘no’ becomes a ‘yes’ because his colleagues like him, and will say yes to him. Our job is to redeem Sam’s trust and be one of Sam’s ‘good ideas.’
Standing there on the steps under the blue sky with the Capitol behind us, with John and Sam telling stories, is one of those moments when nothing else is needed. It is just perfect. These are good men, kind men, men who care about people, who care about those who are in need. They want to level the playing field, create opportunity for those who have not been blessed in the way we have been. At the same time, they make time for us and treat us as if we matter.
John Lewis once told us how non-violence is not a tactic. He said, “you don’t turn it on and off”. It is a commitment to a way of life. For Sam and John, friendship is not a tactic either. It is a commitment that they have made to a way of being in the world. Congressman Lewis has spoken with my groups on five or six occasions. We are not in his district, but he knows that we care about what he stands for. Apparently that is enough. Sam does not have to help us nor does his wonderful assistant Tom Tucker, but they do. No matter how busy they are they find that extra bit of time. They care about the future, not as some abstract idea, but in the practical reality of these young men and women.
Sam and John are who I hope my students will become. I don’t mean a Member of Congress, although that would be nice. I mean someone who cares about others, who is kind, who serves their community, and who mentors the future.