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A Conversation at the White House

Broderick Johnson wears many hats at the White House.  He is Assistant to the President.  He is Secretary of the Cabinet, responsible for coordinating all Cabinet affairs.  He is Chair of President Obama’s initiative to improve life outcomes for young men of color, the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force.  Just before Spring Break, Johnson added another hat: SEGL guest expert.

This semester, issues of race have been front and center for our students. Statements from Presidential candidates, our affirmative action Supreme Court case, and an early student-generated visit to a panel discussion on race have all infused our conversations with questions of inclusion and diversity.

Our Tuesday afternoon visit to the White House afforded students the opportunity to see and critique the policy initiatives the current administration thinks will best address those questions.  From the State Place guest entrance, we wove our way through the corridors of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to the South Court Auditorium.  The Auditorium has hosted everything from Presidential statements to performances by Broadway stars.

After a brief chat with the two White House interns who led us through the building (“How do you get a White House internship and what can you do as an intern?”), Johnson appeared through a side door and perched on the edge of the auditorium stage.

For the next 45 minutes, he answered penetrating questions about his experience and My Brother’s Keeper.  Couldn’t the private sector improve outcomes better than the government?  Why are girls of color not included in the initiative?  Johnson engaged with question after question, mixing in personal anecdotes about growing up as an African American boy in Baltimore.  As he spoke, the complexity of his challenge became clear: the many stakeholders, the limited policy levers, the high stakes were all brought into sharp relief.

After the session, the students were treated to a special exit: down a majestic flight of steps directly opposite the Oval Office, up West Executive Drive, past the fleet of media outposts on the White House lawn, and back into downtown DC.  Shutters flew as the students took in the early Spring warmth and began to reflect on an experience they will no doubt remember for many years.

Apr 3, 2016

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