Working for a president can be the opportunity of a lifetime. And for 10 women who worked in the Obama White House, it clearly was. But even after finishing that pinnacle of a Washington résumé, they weren’t content to bask in their own success. They’re now trying to reach the next generation of young women.
Ten female former White House aides have co-authored the book Yes She Can—a riff on Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can” line—about their time at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and their advice for women following in their path. Yes She Can includes two authors connected to American University: AU alumna Vivian Graubard, Kogod/BS ’10, and Jenna Brayton, now an adjunct instructor with the School of Public Affairs.
“We wanted to inspire young women to pursue careers in public service, by hearing our stories and identifying with them,” says Graubard. “Hopefully, they’ll see that there is a place for them in our government to do good work.”
How It All Happened
The idea for the book began circulating in 2016, the final year of Obama’s presidency. They had many stories worth telling, and they didn’t want those experiences lost to history or muddled memory. Domestic policy adviser Molly Dillon put the book proposal together and gathered nine other authors; each woman contributed her own chapter. Yes She Can was released earlier this month, with book blurbs of support from comedian Amy Poehler and feminist icon Gloria Steinem. They’re already considering future publishing possibilities and digital expansion.
Most of the book authors were relatively young staffers, making their West Wing years that much more formative and profound.
“That’s one of the hooks of the book. All of us were teenagers when President Obama originally ran for office—just very early on in our careers,” says Brayton.
Graubard earned her bachelor’s degree in information technology and international business at the Kogod School of Business. It was through an AU listserv that she learned about an opportunity in the Office of Presidential Correspondence. She’d later land a position in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and she was a founding member of the United States Digital Service.
Brayton, who grew up in Obama’s hometown of Chicago, set her sights on this work many years ago.
“He was my state’s senator, and I just remember being very young and going to see him at rallies and campaign events,” Brayton says. “And I mentioned this in my chapter: When I graduated from grad school, there was nothing else out there that I wanted to do.”
Brayton eventually joined the White House’s Office of Digital Strategy, which was tasked with helping President Obama connect with people through online platforms. She helped establish the White House Student Film Festival, and in her book chapter, she wrote about organizing that event.
“I tried to explain that it’s OK to take on something you’ve never done before—build it and see how it goes,” she says. “Most of us hadn’t worked at the White House before. It was all brand new.”
Graubard hails from South Florida. Her matrilineal line included Cuban asylum seekers, and her father emigrated from Colombia. She carried her family’s immigrant experiences with her to Washington, and the issue became part of her White House portfolio.
“Often in immigration meetings, I was speaking from first-hand experience,” says Graubard.
She also noticed gender dynamics and learned why it’s important to speak up. “When I started working, I was surprised that policy is really determined by who is in the room. So it’s about getting to the table, having an opinion on financial student aid, or what immigration benefits should look like.”
It’s Our World, Too
That concept—the seat at the table—is a key part of this book. Women in government positions can make their voices heard, but also represent their policy interests and real-world concerns.
“These are decisions being made about our world, too. And whether you’re in college, or just out of college, these things impact you,” says Brayton. “We’re really trying to show people that even if you’re a young staffer in the White House, you really can make a big difference.”
It’s a propitious climate for this book, as 2018 has been dubbed another “Year of the Woman,” following the historic 1992. With a record number of women elected to Congress, the authors are augmenting this already-uplifting news with Yes She Can.
“People sort of neglected to tell another part of the story, which is that elected officials do not run government by themselves. Public servants are doing a lot of the work that impacts people every single day—in your local government, in City Hall, and in federal government agencies,” says Graubard. “This provides an alternative pathway.”
In fact, the book includes concrete suggestions in a section titled, “A Girl’s Guide to Getting Into Government.”
Brayton says her AU students frequently inquire about navigating a Washington career. While guiding future female changemakers, she’s contemplated her former self. “I would have loved something like this book when I was younger, and it would have really helped me. So, we’re hoping the book will do that for somebody else,” she says.
The White House and Beyond
The book co-authors also convey the values needed for a job of this magnitude. They say Obama and his senior staff set the tone for the entire White House: This work matters, and everyone should be dedicated to improving people’s outcomes.
“What other readers told me they’ve gleaned from my chapter is the importance of centering our work on the needs of the most vulnerable populations, and on the needs of the people we aim to serve,” says Graubard.
Now, they’re attempting to harness that passion in their post-White House work. In her decision to join SPA, Brayton thought of Obama’s time as a constitutional law professor. “I’m teaching because Barack Obama was a teacher,” she says. “I knew that if this was something he thought was important, then it was probably very important.”
Brayton has taught “Politics and Policy in the Digital Era,” “Applied Political Writing,” and—naturally—a class called “The Presidency.” Graubard is now with the New America Foundation, as director of strategy and founder of its public interest technology team. She is working with Cecilia Muñoz, former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, and they’re continuing United States Digital Service-type work for nonprofits and advocacy groups.
Yes She Can was a reunion of sorts for the former White House aides, and they’ve even heard from other Obama-era staffers about the project. “People have said, ‘We’re really excited that you wrote this book. We’re really excited to read it. How can we help you?’” Graubard says. “It’s a way of keeping us connected beyond our years in the administration.”
And, perhaps, keeping their minds on change—and a little bit of hope.