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My Invitation to the White House

We the people.

 

When I was invited to the White House for an opportunity to meet with and hear from the President Biden’s team of senior advisors, I expected something quite different than what actually happened.


Me (Sarah Sladek) standing in front of photos of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris inside the White House.
Me (Sarah Sladek) standing in front of photos of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris inside the White House.

Here’s why.

 

In 2010 I authored a research paper examining the engagement of younger generations in the political processes and leadership of the United States. The research, which comprised of conducting interviews and surveying 18-40 year-olds, revealed young Americans were largely uninformed and unengaged in the political landscape.

 

They were also, in large part, uninvited to participate.

 

Why did this happen? Simply put, a surge of civic outreach was followed by an era of receding impact.

 

In the aftermath of World War II, people were relieved to enter a time of peace and busied themselves with rebuilding communities and companies. Patriotism flourished after years of military battle and several education and outreach programs were established to inform youth about government and civic duty. A population boom followed, and the children being born into this era would be taught the importance of becoming actively involved as voters and public officials.

 

As President Kennedy infamously stated in his inaugural address: ‘Ask not what your country could do for you, but what you could do for your country’. Baby Boomers took this charge to heart and would hold the majority in local, state, and federal governments for several decades.

 

But the generations that followed would be raised with very different influences.

 

In the 1980s, civics requirements in high schools were reduced to make room for more college prep courses and cable television arrived. With 24-hours of news and political hearings broadcasting on multiple stations, young people had an inescapable front row seat to the world’s constant conflict.

 

Generation X was the first to see the nation’s leaders lie and fail to deliver on their promises. Much like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, Xers peeked behind the curtain and didn’t like what they saw. Young people were more politically disengaged in the 1980s and 1990s that at any other time in the nation’s history.

 

Fast forward to 2010. America was on the brink of the largest turnover in human capital in history and even though the voting majority was getting younger, political representatives were getting older.

 

Several monumental shifts were simultaneously occurring:

  • The oldest Congress in history took office.

  • Baby Boomers and the Silent generations held nearly all public offices. This meant America’s democracy was at risk of becoming a demographic oligarchy, where the power to rule lies in the hands of a segment of the population. (In this case, the oldest segment.)

  • The largest generation in history, Millennials, would soon become the workforce majority after Boomers held that position for 34 years.

  • Millennials were unlike any generation that had come before them: raised using technology, more ethnically and racially diverse, less religious, less likely to have served in the military, and the most educated.

 

America was at a tipping point. The nation had come to the realization that a succession plan was needed to educate, inform, and engage Gen Xers and Millennials. Largely overlooked and ill-informed, citizens under the age of 45 had become increasingly disengaged and disinterested in government. Without their active participation as voters and public officials the country’s future would certainly be in jeopardy.

 

Young people had the potential to revitalize America’s federal, state, and city governments and at the time, revitalization was a welcome concept considering partisanship and political gridlock had become the norm, the nation had an accumulating trillion-dollar budget deficit, and the U.S. has been at war in Iraq for seven years.

 

Sound familiar?

 

Fast forward to today. Many of the same challenges continue to plague the country. I would argue this has happened in large part, because we have struggled to engage younger generations of public officials.

 

In 2010, the median age of Congress was 57. Today, Congress is even older with the average age being 64 and 54% of elected officials still falling in the Boomer and Silent generation age categories (ages 60 and older). 

 

The lack of cognitive diversity in Congress has proven to be detrimental. The fact is, when people of similar ages and backgrounds gather, an echo chamber is created. Innovation and progression become difficult if not impossible feats as ideas and actions are continuously repeated. People become increasingly rooted to their own ideas and opinions and struggle to empathize, collaborate, trust, or even see the humanity in others with differing opinions.

 

It is in these moments elected officials lose sight of their purpose to serve the people. ‘We the people’ turns toward ‘me and my opinions’. In these moments the government of the people, by the people, for the people that President Lincoln referred to in The Gettysburg Address disappears into a flurry of destruction.

 

Without an infusion of new people with new ideas, an organization will simply continue to get more of the same. This is true for Congress, and it’s true for board rooms and executive offices all over the world. As change in our society accelerates, the need for cognitive diversity has become increasingly important for organizations to remain nimble, relevant, inclusive, and representative of the entire community – not just one section of it.

 

So when I was invited to the White House along with 52 other business leaders, I was skeptical. (Super excited and honored to be there, of course -- but still skeptical.)

 

I expected this room to be reflective of Congress. I was expecting more of the same. And I was pleasantly surprised.

 

Of all I learned and observed that day, what struck me the most was the diversity of people in the room – both the people invited to meet with the President’s advisors, and the advisors themselves.

 

People of different ages, ethnicities, regions, and backgrounds are bringing varying perspectives to the work of our nation’s highest office, and they brought in an equally diverse group of business leaders to meet with and learn from.

 

This is really saying something. No – it’s saying everything because it’s saying there’s a commitment to change how we govern and who we think is qualified to govern. This commitment to inclusion and cognitive diversity is historic. Until now, entire segments of the population have felt powerless to make a difference, disregarded, and unimportant.

 

Until now, ‘we the people’ referred to a very specific group of people.

 

While there’s still much to do and a long road ahead of us, I believe this is a monumental step forward which is something to celebrate. 

 

As I walked the hallowed halls of the White House, I thought about all the people who had walked those halls before me -- and the future generations of elected officials who would walk those halls for decades to come. When I walked in, I was skeptical and worried about the state of the nation. As I walked out, I felt more confident change is possible, as long as we return to the roots of democracy to truly and finally become a government for the people, by the people.

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