A toddler shot in a drug-fueled crossfire, failing schools, an oil spill that left a unique footprint on our shores–those working on the “ground floor” to better their community can often feel as though they are fighting an uphill battle, especially as the city, county and state cut their funding.
In an effort to help bolster local efforts, several local community activists journeyed to Washington, where they had a chance to be heard, even among the clamor and hostility over the debt ceiling and national budget.
Lumon May, Bentina Chisolm Terry and Juanita Scott were among those invited to the White House for a Community Leaders Briefing on July 15. Sponsored by the White House Office of Public Engagement, the briefings allow for community leaders to receive status reports from the Obama administration on areas of concern particular to their communities and also for the President to build partnerships between the White House and grassroots efforts to improve communities on a state and local level. They have been held with leaders from various states and will continue on Fridays through August 2011. July 15 was set aside for Florida.
May, owner of May’s Construction, was a 2008 Democratic candidate for Florida House District 3. During his campaign, he developed strong relationships with White House staff. May introduced First Lady Michelle Obama when she spoke in Pensacola in support of her husband’s campaign.
Both Terry and Scott have been fundraisers for the Democratic Party and supporters of the Obama administration. Scott is former Escambia Democratic chairwoman and was a Team Obama campaign organizer. She is a professional development coordinator at Pensacola State College and serves on the Community Maritime Park Associates Board of Trustees.
Terry is vice president for external affairs and corporate services for Gulf Power Company. She too served until recently on the CMPA board. She also serves on the University of West Florida Board of Trustees, as well as the boards of the Florida Chamber of Commerce Foundation Board, Leadership Florida, Florida’s Great Northwest, Pensacola Symphony Orchestra and Autism of Pensacola.
OPEN DOOR TO WHITE HOUSE
The Office of Public Engagement was created by the Obama administration to coordinate opportunities for direct dialogue between the White House and the American public, ensuring that everyone can participate and inform the work of the President. The briefings opened the door to the White House to community leaders across the state of Florida.
The Florida delegation was briefed in the Eisenhower Building on the economy by Dr. Rebecca Blank, acting deputy secretary and under secretary of commerce for economic affairs. They were also given a NASA update from Lori B. Garver, deputy NASA administrator, who reassured the attendees that the President is committed to the future of space exploration.
Delegates were given time for smaller meetings with White House staff. May discussed micro-loans for the local community with leaders from the Small Business Administration. Terry attended a meeting on Energy and the Environment.
During an informal White House tour, the Florida delegation had plenty of opportunity to compare notes and exchange phone numbers. Though Florida is one of the most culturally vast and diverse states in the union, most community leaders are faced with similar dilemmas on a local basis.
Both local attendees and White House officials felt the day was instrumental in beginning dialogue and building connections where we can access support for local issues. According to Jon Carson, deputy assistant to the President and director of the Office of Public Engagement, “Not only does the work you do matter, but it is the only thing that works.”
PRESIDENT STOPS BY
Valerie Jarrett, longtime Obama friend and senior assistant, was on the agenda. Before her scheduled speech, interns began to pass a flurry of notes, and there was a perceptible influx of Secret Service types. It seemed obvious that the President would be paying a visit.
Jarrett arrived and said, “I had a whole speech prepared about the President’s commitment to public outreach, but since he is here, I will let him tell you himself.” President Barack Obama entered the room to rousing applause and addressed the group moments after leaving his press conference on raising the debt ceiling.
The President recalled his early days in public service, remembering feelings of isolation. “The White House seemed very distant to me,” he said. “The mission of the briefing is for non-profits, houses of worship and other community leaders to have a chance to interact with our people, give us suggestions, and find out what resources are available to your communities.”
“I know the work you do is sometimes thankless,” he said, but he hoped the day would give those in attendance a “tool kit” that they might take back to their communities. “And know that your President is with you, every step of the way.”
Terry commented on the opportunity to hear the President’s thoughts in such a small and intimate setting. “It is moving to be in the presence of a President, especially the first African American one. It confirmed the love I have for this country and reminds me of the reverence we should all have for the office.”
Lumon May concurred. “It was a great opportunity to sit down with White House staff, people like Jon Carson, and discuss issues. I want to look at ways to connect our local community to the state and to the nation.”
The White House Office of Public Engagement
Two other initiatives of this office are “Let’s Move”, the First Lady’s child fitness campaign, and “Joining Forces”, which is aimed at bringing communities and officials together to support our military service men and women and their families.
For more information, visit whitehouse.gov/engage.