Meeting with President Obama

By Ian Johnson, CFRA supporter

Ian Johnson, CFRA supporter, with President Obama

Recently my community involvement around sustainability principles snowballed into an involvement and experience far greater than I could have imagined. While in Washington, DC recently, I re-connected with one of my oldest friends. Her profession and connections ultimately led me to host a roundtable discussion in my community loosely centered on challenges faced by young Americans and our solutions to those challenges.

Through my now longtime – and often professional – connection to the St. Croix Institute for Sustainable Community Development at the University of Wisconsin River Falls, I facilitated a roundtable discussion at the broad request of President Obama, who gave the directive to his Administration to attend 100 such discussions around the country.

Along with 15 very bright students, the meeting was attended by the USDA Rural Development Director for Wisconsin Stan Gruszynski and the USDA Administrator for Housing and Community Facilities Program Tammy Trevino. Our topics were broad, but ultimately were tied back to discussions about sustainability.

When the roundtable was finished, I compiled the discussion results, typed a feedback memo to the White House Office of Public Engagement, and submitted it by the requested deadline, figuring my involvement was mostly over.

I was surprised and delighted, however, when two weeks ago I received an email requesting my presence at the White House to follow up on what I heard and observed as a facilitator.

One week later, back in DC, I found myself at the Secret Service guard house at the northwest entrance to the White House. After a final check on my personal background, I passed through airport-like security and made my way up the winding sidewalk through the lawn and into the West Wing.

In the Roosevelt Room, the meeting was led by senior White House Staff. There were 10 other roundtable facilitators present and we dove in to discussion about our various issues. The conversations in the room were diverse in context, ranging from such topics as sustainability (my own platform) to immigration issues, bullying in schools to LGBT issues, educational opportunities for minorities to poverty. The participants were from all areas of the country and were from various associations including universities, non-profits and NGO’s, even high schools.

Partway through the meeting, President Obama joined us, proceeding around the table to introduce himself to everyone personally. Moments later, the President of the United States was standing in front of me, shaking my hand and thanking me for coming.

He then sat down at the meeting table and thanked everyone for their own hard work in the various areas they represent; said that our work as leaders in our topics of concern and our communities was exceptionally important to a well functioning country. He then asked if we had anything pointed we would like to say – a chance that most of us jumped at.

I re-iterated my work as a Research Fellow at the Institute, told him a bit about my intrinsic passion for the natural world, and thanked him for his work on the environmental front. I told him it was a tough row to hoe, to which he agreed and stated that it is especially tough when some people don’t want to believe in science. I remarked that we need to choose as a nation whether or not we are going to believe the science and that, if we choose not to, then I’m afraid that America’s best days may be behind us. I also told him that, as a former Marine, I have a good understanding of how important our national security is and that self-sufficiency in terms of energy, food, water, transportation, housing, etc. are paramount to our own national security. In what is the most awe-inspiring and surreal moment of my life, President Obama, seated a mere three feet from me directly across the table, looked me in the eye, agreed with my sentiments about security, and thanked me for my service.

In the room, the presence of the President, his top aide Valerie Jarrett, Deputy Chief of Staff Nancy-Ann Deparle, even former movie star turned White House aide Kalpen Modi gave it an awe-inspiring sense of power and importance. To think of the things that have been discussed in that room over the years with numerous Presidents; the people that have sat in the same seat I was in was a surreal and powerful experience that made my heart race and my head swirl.

It was very evident from the attention to our concerns that this meeting was not just for show, but a sincere attempt to bring Young Americans issues directly to the White House and tap into the intellectual capacity of our generation to find real solutions to our concerns.

Having this opportunity and the audience I did is testament to the President’s commitment to the people of the nation and his concern for all our issues. Perhaps now more than ever, progress in Washington is a slow process, but having been there to discuss the issues raised in the roundtable discussion I facilitated shows first hand his commitment to fostering our generation’s leadership.

While I have returned to Wisconsin, the involvement is not over. The Office of Public Engagement has been in regular contact since the roundtable discussions began, and there is a continued conversation with all the Young Americans who hosted these discussions in their community. We have been promised more ‘homework’ in order to continue to engage our communities, address our issues, and keep Washington aware of what is going on around the country.

Ian Johnson lives in Hudson, WI with his family and works as a Research Fellow at the St. Croix Institute for Sustainable Community Development at UW River Falls.  He holds a M.S. in Sustainable Community Development from UW River Falls.