Washington, D.C: A City Divided

Earlier this summer Young Fabians’ Campaigns Officer, Alvin Carpio, embarked on a 5-week Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship to New York, Boston, Washington D.C., and Chicago to find out how leaders are pushing for social change to help the most marginalised and excluded. Here are some of his experiences when he was in Washington D.C.

There I stood on top of a granite plaque with four simple words engraved on it: “I have a dream”. It was where Martin Luther King once stood to tell the world about his hopes for a nation. That night, the surroundings were dark enough for my imagination to picture the million people who marched to Abraham Lincoln’s Memorial in Washington D.C. on 1963 in their fight for civil rights. Simply standing there on that quiet summer’s evening was a powerful and humbling experience that I will never forget, remembering the history-making moments took place there. That night marked the end of my journey in the U.S. capital.

I was there on a Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship where I was looking at how leaders are pushing for social change to help the most marginalised and excluded. I went to be inspired, to be challenged, and to think deeply, from afar, about how leaders in Great Britain can tackle the social ills affecting people in our country. A rather grand set of ambitions for a five-week trip, yes, but the Fellowship did not disappoint.

D.C.’s tale is a tale of two cities: a place where idealistic twenty-somethings arrive with dreams of changing the world and rising up the greasy pole, while poor communities, located on the outer circle, are left segregated without many opportunities. That’s the story D.C.’s own told me.

Being in the home of Capitol Hill, I was surrounded by people in politics. On first impressions, American politics seemed at its best optimistic, a model for the world to envy, but at its worst vitriolic without much space for compromise where personal values, religion, and race clash. There were things that shocked me about American politics such as the actual size of the White House (it’s not as big as you think) and, more significantly, Barack Obama’s reputation. His approval ratings were surprisingly lower than George W. Bush and it became clear that the halo effect he has enjoyed in the UK did not extend to his own people. Even those who spent endless hours campaigning for him in 2008 and 2012 had lost their belief in him, or at least the ability of one person to transform a country as large and diverse as the U.S. Their feelings came through when I asked them about the topic of the summer: Hillary Clinton’s inevitable second campaign to be President. “I wouldn’t campaign for Hillary like I did for Obama,” said a former volunteer campaigner. “It’s not that I don’t support Hillary, it’s more that I did so much to help get Obama elected but I’ve just been disappointed.” These words were not what I expected, and while there were those who still blamed others for the President’s inability to fulfill the expectations he himself set, the majority seemed rather weary and downbeat.

This summer he was dogged by calls to reform immigration policy to stop letting children entering the U.S. from Central America, and by the events in the Middle East, and was criticised for being away on holiday while all of this was happening. Congress stopped most reforms from budging either way, and Obama was often left at an impasse.

American politics and politicians, it seemed, were not the ideal I once thought they were. As is often the case, heroes are created by myth and perception, and Obama, a person I and many of my peers looked up to, seen closer to reality, proved to be human after all.

At one point I bumped into U.S. Senator for Florida and future Republican Presidential hopeful Marco Rubio. We had a brief chat and we took a photo together which I shared on Facebook and Twitter. I was not prepared for the disgust my Democrat colleagues expressed – one asked: “Did you wash your hands after?” I later emailed the Republicans and the Tea Party to see if they were free to meet to discuss my Fellowship, you know, in the name of bi-partisan partnerships, but they must have seen my Twitter account recounting my support for the Labour Party as they didn’t bother to reply, or maybe they were just too busy – who knows? For me, though, these two examples demonstrated the tribal nature of American politics.

I remember hanging out with members of the Young Democrats at a social event – you know, your typical stick a few political people in a dark bar with drinks and let people mingle. Many of them were staffers for members of Congress and the Senate, and through their eye-bags, etched onto their faces by The Hill, you could tell that when they talked about the power of politics to change the world, they really believed it. The woman who invited me was one of those people. She shared stories of the impact her mother had when she was involved in local politics, and that she wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps. After the social, I stepped into her fancy Nissan car – that was after she threw her high heel shoes and newspapers and Democrat Party leaflets onto the back seat – and we drove to a meeting for D.C. Democrats where members were voting on local administrative issues. Yes, sorry to say but it rather dull. It was not the sort of exciting experience The West Wing and House Of Cards gear you up for. But that, for me, was what was somewhat admirable: in many ways, the usual grind of politics is dry and dreary, but totally necessary. Politics is not about those Hollywood moments, it’s about the daily grind of bringing people together, debating, balancing interests, coming to a compromise, voting, and moving forward. It reminded me of so many Labour meetings I’ve been to (except it had more flags and eagles and a grandeur characteristic of American interior design) pointing to a wider truth about people and politics and the mechanics of democracy.

Then there was Smitty, a young-ish guy who had a stint in law and now was running to become D.C.’s first ever elected Attorney General. The launch of his campaign had all the markings of the stuff you see in political movies and TV shows, you know, the family and supporters, the speeches, the staged moments, the multiple microphones set on the podium by local and national news stations, the clean-cut candidate who used all the words your typical American speech-writer would use. I remember a couple of staffers saying: “we need to get him a new suit,” “yes, his trousers need tailoring” – image matters in American politics. When I met him, he seemed pleased to see me and made the impression that he wanted to know more – he was a good politician. In his speech he talked about his record to show his experience and capability, and his desire to address the problematic youth justice system which failed to rehabilitate young people who continued to reoffend. This was more like the American politics I knew of.

But outside of the institutions of politics, what was happening in D.C.? What was the connection between the words of politicians and what was happening on the ground? I spent time with a project called N Street Village that helps out homeless women. After meeting a member of staff, I remember chilling with two women in the yard enclosed by a gate and three walls and bedded with greenery and speckled with flowers, almost idyllic. Their names were Chantelle and Latisha. Chantelle was buoyed by a singing performance she gave earlier to help raise money. She was a large, black woman maybe in her forties, with a big smile of false teeth. She was a wonderfully warm character. She told me she was there because she had become homeless after her mother died when she became depressed and turned to drugs, which explained her stuttering and her constant tapping. She was open about her story, and how she was so happy to have found N Street Village who put a roof over her head and were providing services to help her sober up. Despite her troubles, she was upbeat and kind and I enjoyed her company. When I left, I wondered what the likes of Smitty could really do for these women: what can a politician do to help people who live the toughest of lives? What could political campaigners do for the many homeless people I saw dotted lying under trees seeking shade and coolness from the often unbearable summer sun? The gaps in the U.S.’s welfare net are relatively wide, meaning that often charities like N Street Village have to step in to fill those gaps, so what could politics do to help the most marginalised and excluded?

Luckily I had the opportunity to shadow an advisor to the Secretary for Education, Arne Duncan. His name’s Josh. The experience proved to be a reminder of the power of politics to change people’s lives. Josh previously interned at the White House with a good friend of mine who I met when I did my master’s degree at the LSE. I met a lot of people on my Fellowship, but Josh stood out. He did Teach for America and got involved with the Obama campaign. When I questioned him about the power of politics, and, to play devil’s advocate, questioned whether or not all the administrators in the building were really having an impact to the most marginalised kids, he said, “look Alvin, from this office we’re able to propose policies that will affect every kid in the country.” It was a straightforward enough sentence. Josh introduced by to one of the staffers in the White House who told me he once led on a public health programme which needed a face to promote it. He wanted LeBron James, the Ronaldo of basketball, so he asked Obama to call him, and bam, they had a popular sportsman fronting their national campaign to help get kids living health lifestyles. Politicians can have a huge impact on people’s lives, and it shows the power of position: once elected, with the influences granted to them by democracy, they can enact great changes.

But in my search for answers, on a journey which took many side-roads pushed by the winds of adventure and spontaneity, a somewhat obvious truth came through: no one person can change the world. Martin Luther King gave the speech, but millions organised and marched with him. President Obama was ushered into the world’s most powerful job, but has not been able to usher in a new age of domestic or international peace and prosperity his campaign and election victory promised, but the thousands of staff in government offices remain with him committed to the cause. Leaders matter, but it is the people who do whatever unnoticed good they do, not captured by the history books or column inches in newspapers, people like the community organisers I met, the staffers of N Street Village, and the devoted campaigners – it is they who collectively are able to transform people’s lives. In the city which hosts the law-making institutions of world’s most powerful country, politics is one way of making a difference, but it takes society-wide efforts and movements to really change the world.

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