Day at the White House

On June 22, I had the privilege of spending the afternoon at the White House at the invitation of the President. A typical work day.  I was invited as one of 150 community leaders across the country for a briefing and reception in honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage.

The invitation came as a surprise — and a long-held dream come true.  To shake the President’s hand and say… what?  Once the possibility became real, I didn’t know where I would begin.  So Sharat and I asked our friends, colleagues, and supporters to tell us what they would say to the President if they had 30 seconds.  We printed these messages out, tucked them in our bag, and drove into DC, hoping that inspiration would strike.

The day began with a briefing in the Cash Room of the Treasury Department (no cash in sight, by the way).  We took our seats in a small ornate room among a crowd dressed in business suits, dresses, and saris.  Kiran Ahuja (pictured above), executive director of the White House Initiative on Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), welcomed us with a flower from Hawaii in her hair. She explained that the initiative ensures that the community is connected to 23 federal agencies. It serves as the front door for community leaders to deepen partnership and communication.

A series of White House officials took the podium after that, each offering a general update on issue areas — the education, the economy and job growth, and immigration. We sought them out to ask questions especially weighing on us.

Chris Lu, who coordinates Obama’s cabinet, confirmed that plans to promote compassion and community on 9/11/11 were well underway, starting with turning the anniversary into a National Da y of Service.

Frank Chong from the U.S. Dept of Education discussed the White House’s initiative to prevent bullying in schools, especially for Sikh and South Asian children.

Felicia Escobar, Senior Policy Adviser for Immigration on the Domestic Policy Council at the White House, told us that the White House is working on administrative relief for undocumented families while continuing to aim for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR).

She was honest about the situation: in the first two years, the administration worked hard on CIR behind closed doors, but couldn’t get the support they needed.  They focused the public debate on the DREAM ACT, and came close, but failed.  So these next two years, they are tackling fraudulent immigration lawyers, immigrant integration issues, and shifting the focus of enforcement from large-scale immigration raids to unlawful employers and criminals.  Finally, she announced that the administration had just changed the Secure Communities program, noting its impact on domestic violence victims and DREAM Act kids.

Listening to Felicia, I felt that bewildering bittersweet taste I’ve become accustomed to in the last two years: we’re close to the change we fought for in 2008, but not close enough.

Meeting the President

After the briefing, the Secret Service ushered us through a series of lines and check points until suddenly, we were whisked into the White House’s East Wing.  We stepped into a red carpeted corridor, brightly lit, with gigantic portraits hanging on the walls, and rows of pictures of presidential families — Nixon, Carter, Clinton, Bush — and then the Obamas.  The difference was striking.  And I was lifted out of my criticism to remember that nothing can corrupt this one outrageous accomplishment: against all odds, we have a family of color in the White House.

The sound of music kept us moving — past doors that opened into ornate lounges and gardens and even a plush little movie theater, up a staircase into a wide open Entrance Hall, where a red-uniformed military band played.  They had opened up the State Floor to us: the Blue Room, Red Room, and Green Room, book-ended by the East Room and State Dining Room where staff presented wine and champagne and Asian-themed snacks and desserts.

We spent more than an hour wandering through the rooms, catching political celebrities — Mike Honda, Gary Locke, and Judy Chu. And appropriately for an AAPI gathering, both Harold and Kumar were there: John Cho and Kal Penn (who works at the White House now). 

Soon the crowd gathered in the Entrance Hall for the President to speak.  Barack Obama came jo gging down the red-carpeted stairs to an audience cheering and shouting hello in every language.  “Aloha!  Namaste!” he responded in turn with a wide smile. “I got them all covered.” He welcomed us, thanked us for the important work we do, and said that the reception was a gift to us.

To be honest, it was hard to focus on his words. He was just a few feet away, a television cut-out made real. And the juxtaposition was disorienting: he was poised and relaxed, like a man welcoming us into his home, while his guests had gone wild with euphoria, iPhones and cameras thrust high into the air, cheering at every sentence.  He spent some time shaking hands with people afterward, and I found myself within reach.

I knew what I would say:

Mr. President, I gave my life to your presidential campaign.  I’m one in an entire generation who you inspired with the dream of remaking our country.  Two and a half years later, a vast despair has fallen over us.  We knew that the world wouldn’t change overnight — and you warned us it wouldn’t.  But you’ve broken campaign promises and made decisions that are truly difficult for us to understand. And maybe that’s why the despair runs so deep.  The challenges you face cannot be solved by a president acting alone. You need us to lead you.  You need us to re-ignite the movement to end these wars, repair our economy, restore dignity for immigrants, and close Guantanamo.  There’s a groundswell of people out there like me who are ready.  The question is: will you follow us?

But I did not have 30 seconds.  I had 2 seconds.

All I could do was shake the President’s hand and say, “Thank you.”  And he was gone.

I held in my hand a packet with hundreds of messages like mine for the White House.  And I handed them to Kiran Ahuja and her staff to read.

As we were firmly ushered out of the White House, I turned to look at all the other grassroots leaders invited to the event — Asian American lawyers, doctors, organizers, and teachers.

And I thought of the story of the school teacher who held up two pictures for her class: one of President Lyndon Johnson and another of Martin Luther King, Jr.  “Which one is Barack Obama?” The kids cried, “MLK!  MLK!”  But the teacher shook her head.  “Barack Obama is more like Lyndon Johnson.  He is constrained by his office.  He needs a King to lead him.”

The President needs Kings.  He needs grassroots leaders rising up as part of a groundswell, not only calling for change but creating it themselves.

As we poured onto the White House lawn and passed through the gate back into the stree ts, I felt strongly — more than I ever had before — that the real power lies on this side of the fence.


A heartfelt thank you to my personal heroes — Amardeep Singh at The Sikh Coalition for initiating our invitation, Deepa Iyer at SAALT for help along the way, and Sikh lawyer and advocate Nitasha Sawhney for her friendship and sisterhood. We thank all three for supporting us for nearly a decade– and working every day to galvanize a movement that creates real and lasting change. Click here for more photos.