I should have written this while I was still sneezing among the dogwood, tulips and cherry blossoms, but DC has a way of taking up all available space, time and mind and I have a way of dancing to the music…
I was in the area for a multitude of reasons: community building, political advocacy, book promotion, policy wonkishness (I am, quite possibly one of the few individuals who actually listened to the Clinton impeachment hearings in real time), much of which coincided with the amazing South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) 2009 Summit.
During the course of the last three days I met with a variety of senior staffers from the new administration including those from the Department of Homeland Security, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, the white House offices of Public Engagement, Intergovernmental Affairs, and Management & Budget. Having lived in DC in the past, and worked in the American national and international non-profit sector as well as the Federal government, what was most illuminating to me was the transformation of the way in which the business of governance is being conducted. To a person, the officials with whom I met, described a process where listening was giving precedence over talking, where partnership with community leaders was valued above the dictating of regulations, and where the underlying precept is that policy ought to be informed by the expertise of the people who are working in the field rather than implemented in an environment devoid of consultation. Even more staggering was the revelation that the new administration was committed to “preemptive strikes” whereby the problems that crop up in the field can be brought to lawmakers and solutions negotiated before they became poisonous enough to require lawsuits.
And all this transmitted to us by a sea of faces that in color and gender and sexual orientation reflects the awesome diversity of the nation itself. It is true, I suppose, that a country gets the leadership it deserves, and that such leadership is deserved only by a populace willing to do the work of bringing it to being.
Describing the best part of their jobs, the various White House personnel gave us a snapshot of a president as accessible as he is inspiring, but the words of Christina Tchen, Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, were particularly evocative:
“Everything you saw in him on the campaign trail is true. His is the amazing marriage of a brilliant mind and the power of the office. He is always the most intelligent and the most thoughtful person in the room. He listens, and when he disagrees, it is with the utmost respect of the person with whom he is disagreeing.”
I will have to write more about the conference itself in another post, but for now I will have to simply say that my delight – in discovering, in person, that the change I worked to make possible in my corner of the country, is coming to fruition – was tempered by the fact that the State Department lead by Hillary Clinton, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chaired by Senator Kerry and the Sub-Committee which deals with Sri Lanka, as chaired by Senator Casey, is yet to make a statement that is cognizant of the reality on the ground in Sri Lanka. It seems particularly jarring to me that a president who is known for his desire to know all the facts before he speaks is letting these bodies do the exact opposite. To have people who have never visited the conflict zone in Sri Lanka, or spent any reasonable length of time traveling within the country, put out press releases that run counter to the facts, unpleasant though they may be to take, is a deplorable repetition of the arrogance of the administration they replaced. I would have thought that in light of a new push into Afghanistan, the Obama administration would be more circumspect than that, and that the NYT or the the Washington Post would have had the guts to say what the Washington Times did, just this morning.
Lord knows that I did my best to get the offices of both Casey and Nancy Pelosi to agree to facilitate a multi-ethnic discussion within the Sri Lankan diaspora here. So far, campaign finance contributions appear to have ruled harder than civic engagement, commitment to America’s progress and place in the world and ideological support. Then again, the night is still young. There is such a thing as a learning curve. Perhaps this, too, will pass. I’ll keep y’all posted.