#Change!

 

I smelled meatballs and chicken wings before I caught on that Sandy and Michelle were setting up for a party. I looked around the corner from my cubicle and noticed Billy setting up a makeshift bar.

“Can we get some music up in here?” Michelle hollered. Octavia streamed music from my computer. The fun began as Aretha Franklin belted out “What you want, baby I got. What you need. I already got it. All I’m asking is for a little respect.”

“Heeeeey! Party over here!” Sylvia yelled playfully, dancing away from her desk to the conference area where the party was set up. “R.E.S.P.E.C.T. I know that’s right!”

Madame Senator came in, dancing and snapping her fingers over her head.

“Ha! You all don’t know nothing bout Ree-Ree!” she laughed. “Ow! All I’m asking is for a little respect when you get here. Hey baby.”

Nia laughed. “Senator! I’ve never seen you dancing before,” Nia said. “Except on YouTube!” she let out another laugh.

“Senator, we love Ree-Ree!” Sylvia said, dancing to her own groove.

“You all don’t know nothing about Ree-Ree! You don’t even HAVE record players anymore….”

“We get her on Pandora’s Box!” Sylvia said.

“Pandora’s what?” Madame Senator asked.

It occurred to me that in Madame Senator’s time, “Pandora” was related to “Pandora’s Box” something secretive and sinister. She’s closer to my grandmother, G-Ma in age, and if I said something about a Pandora box to G-Ma, she would think I was talking about secrets. In my generation it’s about a choice of music, available anywhere, in the palm of your hands on a tiny, flat, square device, a smart phone. Our orientation about a lot of things is probably different from Madame Senator’s because we were steeped in entirely different circumstances in our formative years.

“Come here. Let me show you Senator. I can pull this up on your computer anytime you want,” Sylvia said, leading Madame Senator to her cubicle.

The next tune we heard was Aretha’s “Chain of Fools,” and Madame Senator smiled and swayed to the music.

“For ten long ye-eeeears! I’m just a link in your chain…” she sang. “My word! I’ve got all Aretha’s albums in my basement!” she said.

Albums are one of those small things that remind me of how much has changed in my little lifetime. Madame Senator had gone from Victrolas to record players to Eight Track Tape Players. In my lifetime, we’ve gone from Eight Track Tape Players to CD players and Walkmen to iPods and streaming music through computers, then cell phones, and we know more changes are coming. Aretha is one of those artists who brought mothers and daughters together and today she worked the same magic in our office – even if only for a moment.

“Rock steady baby…Let’s call this song exactly what it is….” I enjoyed the oldies as the party revved up.

  1. Change comes at us fast! Technology changes the way we perform basic tasks and has also changed out work habits. Life itself changes our circumstances and as we grow our understanding changes. Describe some of the biggest changes you experienced in the past five years?
  2. How did you feel about the changes – resistant, at peace with them?
  3. How can you better manage major changes in the future – big, quick changes/small gradual changes?
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#TheWizardAinttheWizard

 

They say James Brown was the hardest working man in showbiz. This one here is trying to go down as the hardest working person on The Hill.”

I knew Madame Senator’s legendary work ethic. In school I did Black History Month research papers on her. She was my main subject for Women’s History Month, too. I had seen news articles of her back in our home state at block parties and ribbon cuttings. She seemed to genuinely care about the people she represented. I do, too.

Octavia and I grabbed pastries and looked around for a table. Octavia’s Blackberry buzzed. She checked it and said Madame Senator got a request for an interview about Obama, and another request for an interview about HIV/AIDS in the Black community.

“We better get back to the office,” she said.

Back at the desk, we checked the Internet for the latest news on both interview topics to see if there were new angles needing to be discussed. Nia buzzed us and said a camera crew had arrived for an interview with Madame Senator. They were there to discuss pending contracts to a British Company that would provide parts to the corporation that operates the main trains in the U.S. That interview was on the schedule and Madame Senator was already prepared with all the background information she needed.

I followed Octavia into Madame Senator’s office to take notes during the interview. After the interview, we rushed back to the desk and Octavia continued telling me everything she thought I’d need to know.

Madame Senator has a “night pack,” which is a folder she takes home at the end of the day to take care of tasks she didn’t get to during the day. I could put media requests for the next day in her night pack, as well as drafts of press releases for upcoming events, speeches, and opening statements. I’ll need to get a log-on for the lap-top she was turning over to me and get a pass code for the BlackBerry the next day because Madame Senator was likely to call at night when she’s home working on something. I’ll need to register for orientation and ethics training for new staffers, and order business cards. Octavia gave me a list of phone numbers to contact the contracted Webmaster and the in-house Web support team, and phone numbers to call to reserve a congressional hearing room or another location on the Capitol grounds for a press conference.

At the end of the day, Sandra sashayed to each of our desks and handed out copies of Madame Senator’s updated weekly schedule showing all her meetings, legislative meetings, hearings, and planned media interviews. Every half hour of the day, every day of the week, clear through the weekend, is accounted for on the schedule. A staffer’s name is listed with each posting.

“Oh yeah, in addition to doing all the media, you’ll also handle certain issue areas,” Octavia told me. “Make sure you go over the schedule and see what you’re assigned to. If she has a meeting with a lobbyist or an organization and you’re assigned as the staffer, make sure you go to her the day before to find out what background material she wants.”

I marveled at all the pending activity. This woman does more in a day than most people do all week! I noticed that Octavia’s name was listed under a scheduled interview with a Black Entertainment Television reporter.

“What’s this interview with BET about?” I asked.

“They’re doing a documentary on the impact sub-prime lending has had on the African-American community,” she explained. “Madame Senator already issued statements on that and she’s held a couple of hearings on sub-prime lending. So, you can pull the press releases on those and ask her what else she wants. She’ll probably want you to pull the latest stats and a few editorials or columns on it to help her get her thoughts together.”

I overheard Michelle cut in on a meeting Garrett was having with a lobbyist and I couldn’t help but smile at her comment.

“Sir you need to do your homework,” Michelle told the middle-aged White man seated across from Garrett. The man fumbled through glossy folders filled with research and promotional materials for legislation he was seeking, but couldn’t answer all the questions Garrett posed. I vaguely heard something about this man’s client needing Madame Senator’s approval to pass a bill requiring all cell phones to carry an FM radio receiver.

Octavia said I also would meet with lobbyists and representatives from organizations on legislation. I will have to determine if it is legislation Madame Senator should support. If it is, I can sign her on as a co-sponsor and put a memo in her night pack explaining the details.

“Staff signs her onto bills? Does she have to approve first?” I asked, sitting in a chair next to Octavia at the computer.

“Use your own judgment. Look through the files to see where she has stood on the issue, then use your own judgment,” she said. “But you better be ready to explain all the ins and outs of why you signed her onto something. She’ll test you when you least expect it. She’s not about to be left open to some bullshit embarrassment because her staff didn’t cover all the basis.”

Staffers zipped back and forth between their desks and Madame Senator’s office. Lunch time had passed without a lunch break. The day had gone fast. It was going well, too. Then I heard Madame Senator fussing at Sandra.

“I’m not going!” I never said I would speak! I told you to tell them I would drop by! This was your error, not mine, and you damn sure better make that clear when you call her back!”

I looked up at Octavia, who was still directing me to information on the office server.

“You’ll hear a lot of that, unfortunately,” she said, shaking her head, her face tightening. “Sometimes she forgets what she tells you to do, and sometimes she thinks she told you something when she didn’t.”

 

    1. Describe a time when you had to accept that a person you considered super-human – a parent, a grandparent, a teacher, your celebrity role model, a lover, a sibling, a spouse – was as human, as vulnerable and flawed as anyone. (If you never put anyone on a pedestal explain why.)
  • Have you ever felt put on a pedestal and found yourself explaining that you’re only human?
  • What are the pros and cons of idolizing others?

#PerksoftheJob

 

I had never seen a whole staff silenced and invalidated, this way, until now. I was shocked by my childhood hero, but I still believed she was fighting a good fight and God had sent me to The Hill to help her.

“Let’s grab a cup of coffee. I’ll show you where the cafeterias are,” Octavia said when we left The Senator’s office.

The halls were bustling with large groups of people, some wearing tee-shirts with slogans. Congressmen and women rushed through the corridors as their staffers scribbled notes, or read to them from documents, while keeping pace.

“Oh. Here we go. We can get a free cup of jo right here,” Octavia said, pulling me into a hearing room where a reception was being held.

“That’s another perk,” she said. “Some days you won’t have to spend a dime. Dip into a couple of receptions and a luncheon and you’ll be fed.”

“Not enough perks for you to stay,” I said.

“Oh, don’t get me wrong. I respect Madame Senator. She’s a bad-ass, and I like that. She’s time enough for these sons-of-bitches. But nobody’s going to talk to me like some shit,” she said. “I don’t talk to my son the way she talks to staff.”

“Guess I better keep my distance,” I said.

“You find what works for you,” she said.

“But, isn’t it kind of exciting working where you can actually make something happen?” I said. “Especially now that we’re about to elect our first Black president. Here we are working for one of our own who helped pave the way.”

 

  1. There are always perks to be enjoyed. What are some of the extra joys and delights in your current job (including the job of working on your college degree or raising your family or caregiving for your parents?)
  2. Why do you enjoy these perks? (For instance, I love free food because it reminds me that God gives us abundance in many ways.)
  3. Describe some perks you would like to enjoy in the future.

#GamePlan

 

We covered a lot of bases in the meeting. Billy gave an update on pending legislation, and said Madame Senator will be in a major battle to finally pass her signature legislation, the Pollution Irritation Mitigation Pump (P.I.M.P.) bill. This legislation would get the people of our state the same kind of air pollution reduction pump residents in every other state have.

“Billy what’s the game plan?” Michelle asked. “We know when they come at us this time, they’re coming with something different. The last time they attached new mandatory sentencing for marijuana possession to her P.I.M.P. bill and killed it. Now that they’ve introduced new mandatory sentencing as a stand-alone bill, we know her opponents will find something else to kill her P.I.M.P. bill. So, what’s the game plan?”

“She sent letters to Sen. Harry Reid already, and to Congressman Steny Hoyer and Speaker Pelosi on the House side. We’re waiting to hear back from them,” Billy said. “We doubt they’ll be able to pass the new mandatory sentencing as a stand-alone bill, but we’re keeping close tabs.”

“Okay Garrett, could you work with Billy contacting the LDs in the committees where the new mandatory sentencing amendments might come up. Make sure they give us a heads up, so we can keep Madame Senator up to date on it.”

Garrettt agreed easily.

“Billy, make sure you keep in touch with the City Council Chairman and the mayor’s office. We may need them,” Michelle said.

I looked around the room and noticed that staffers seemed to have a lot in common. Everyone was young; most were younger than me, in their mid-twenties. I was feeling like an old-head, but young enough compared to our fearless leader, the seventy-one-year-old Senator. There were photos of Madame Senator placed around her office – a photo of her with the Camille Cosby, another with her and an aging Rosa Parks, and another with her, former Essence Editor Susan Taylor, and the venerable Dr. Dorothy Height, who founded the National Council of Negro Women to groom young women for leadership. I also noticed photos of her with her two sons with her at her first swearing in twenty-two years ago. I couldn’t imagine the pain of losing both her sons in the same year. One was killed in a drive-by shooting back home, the other killed in a car accident less than a month later. My baby brother died of cancer ten years ago when he was twelve. The shock and sadness had been deep and long lasting. For years I was disconnected from my emotions. In many ways, I still am. I considered The Senator’s loss might still make her edgy at times.

  1. Describe one of your current or upcoming goals?
  2. What obstacles, set-backs, disappointments can you anticipate?
  3. What is your game plan for pushing through any obstacles to a particular goal? (Be specific about resources, beliefs, friends who may help you through.)

#UnderAttack

 

The district director, Warner, ran through the list of upcoming community events, then staffers in the District Office gave updates on the events they were planning.

The meeting was in full swing when Madame Senator came in.

“Good morning,” she said, lowering her shoulder bag onto her desk. “Somebody hand me a copy of the agenda.” She sat behind her desk and leaned back in her chair, changing out of her walking shoes into low-heeled red pumps matching her red skirt suit. I noticed we were wearing the exact same small gold button earrings, and the same colors. She reached in her desk drawer and pulled out a bag of cashews and began munching as Michelle handed her the agenda.

“So, what’s the status of the town hall meeting for my clean air bill? Why don’t I see it on this agenda?” she said, holding the page with both hands.

Michelle and Billy looked at each other puzzled.

“Senator, I don’t think you talked to anybody about wanting to do a town hall meeting on the clean air bill…” Billy began.

“I most certainly did!” The Senator insisted. “Michelle, I left you a message on your phone saying I wanted you to discuss it with staff and have details for me when I got in this morning. What do you all do in these staff meetings? We don’t have time for you to be sitting around giving reports. We’ve got to move! Warner, by twelve o’clock, I want a list of the venues available for a town hall meeting on this bill. My constituents need to know this thing is not dead and that I am still working hard to get them the same basic right to clean air as every other American.”

“Yes ma’am,” Warner said. “When do you want to have the event? This month? This Summer?”

“My Word! You all haven’t discussed this at all? I should at least have some possible dates and a list of venues…” she fussed.

“Madame Senator, I told you I did not get your m….” Michelle started.

“Don’t you dare cut me off!” she snapped. “You listen to what I have to say. Don’t you dare cut me off!”

Heads bowed, smiles faded. Sandra tried to make eye contact with Michelle, who was clearly annoyed.

“Now Warner, you get me that list ASAP. Who else is on the phone? Is Danielle here?”

“Yes ma’am,” came a voice on the phone.

“Get me a list of new experts on pollution, some folks who can bring some new perspective and new weight to the issue. You know I hate to repeat anything we’ve already done.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“What else?” she said, looking at Michelle.

“We covered everything on the agenda. We were just about to wrap things up…” Michelle said.

“Sounds to me like all you all did was talk about what’s already been done! I can’t be the only thinker in here. That’s why we have staff. You all have got to learn to use your time more wisely. Think! Use your heads! What needs to be done!”

  1. Describe a time when you felt personally/professionally under attack.
  2. How did you handle it?
  3. What did you learn?
  4. How would you handle a similar siutation better in the future?

#WhoAreYou

 

Michelle introduced me and told everyone to tell something about themselves besides just their name. I couldn’t take my eyes off Billy, who was settled back into the couch with one foot crossed over his knee, pen in hand, yellow legal pad balanced on his knee. He was well-bred white, but rugged, some kind of city-cool. Brown, curly hair, yellow polo shirt, jeans and black loafers. He was wearing a suit jacket when I saw him before the meeting, but looked even more attractive without it.

“I’ve been with Madame Senator five years. I love helping the constituents who call in asking Madame Senator to show up at their event to attract the media will, or to write a letter for their event souvenir programs to lend legitimacy,” Sandra said. “I’m just here for the people,” she concluded. “That lady’s got no respect for me and if she comes at me one more…”

“Ok. I think R.C. gets it,” Michelle interrupted. When I met her a couple years ago through my little brother, I told her I was proud that she was rising through the ranks in the office of a woman I admired much. She had shrugged off the compliment, and now, watching how calm and confident she is, I’m even more proud of her. I noticed the trinkets on her desk as I walked past this morning – a ceramic plaque that reads: “When the prayers go up, the blessings come down,” a figurine of a church-dressed woman lifting her hands in praise, and a flowing plant.

“No. Let me tell this poor woman what she’s gotten herself into. She might as well know up front…” Sandra continued.

“We don’t want to chase her away. You know how hard it was to get somebody to take that job. Now, hush it up,” Michelle said, making others giggle.

“R.C. welcome. I’m Garrett. I worked as a construction site manager out in Arizona before I came here. My friend owned the company, needed a manager and told me to wing it. I did for a while, then hitch-hiked across country looking for a new adventure, wound up in the nation’s capital, needed a job, and ended up here,” a short, White guy with shiny black hair and an infectious smile said. His wrinkled button up blue shirt, faded, wrinkled black khakis, and scuffed brown shoes said he just didn’t give a damn. He rode to work on a bike this morning. Came in wearing tennis shoes, carrying a bag and a helmet. Hung his suit jacket on the coat rack.

“Garrett, you had done some impressive work with the ex-offender population and in the courts system back in Arizona. Don’t make it sound like you were some clown we just picked up,” Michelle said. “Tell her what your G.P.A. was all through college.”

Billy told how he worked as a bartender after college, decided to go to law school, and then landed a job working for a City Councilwoman in the District of Columbia. After his boss lost her re-election bid, he applied for the Legislative Director opening in Senator Jackson’s office, and he’s been here two years. He said he didn’t know anything about Jackson’s state, the tiny state of Vas Calucca, in the mid-west, when he started, but now he knows too much.

“Billy helped draft the legislation to build our new world-class shopping mall, the first mall ever funded by and benefiting private investors and taxpayers,” Michelle said. “Madame Senator hires only the best, R.C., and we’re happy you’ve joined the pack.”

“Glad to be here. Looks like exciting work,” I said. “I am a Vas C. native. I’ve admired Madame Senator since before she was elected to Congress. Of course I voted for her, too, to become the second African American woman in the Senate. Working with her will give me an opportunity to offer more support of her work…”

“Girl please. You’re not on an interview. You got the job,” Michelle interrupted. “Tell them about you!”

I laughed, glad she broke the ice.

“I like writing, love writing. Looking forward to helping Madame Senator get her message out. I worked for her before in her District office, as some of you know. But I here The Hill is a little different…”

“Understatement!” one of the guys yelled from the District Office.

I chuckled and continued. “I did some reporting and managed a small newspaper back home and one up here…”

“R.C. is also a playwright,” Michelle interrupted again. “She wrote that play Till We Meet Again, back home. We are happy to have her. Madam Senator’s quite impressed with her work, and I know her work ethic ‘cause I’ve seen her do her thing over the years.”

“A playwright? Oh, yippie. What we have here is a tragedy of Shakesperian proportions,” one of the guys said through the speakerphone. “Mid-west colony denied basic human rights, used as scientific testing site…”

“O.k. you’re about to get cut off,” Michelle said.

  1. Think fast! In one word describe yourself.
  2. In the next few days ask three to five of your friends to describe you in one word. Did one word come up more than once? Do you agree with your friends’ characterization of you?
  3. Would you like to change the first word that comes to mind when describing you? Why/why not?