Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Big Block of Cheese Day for Domestic Violence Advocates

My hand was on the door of the East Wing of the White House. I took a breath in and my heart soared. Faintly, I heard the major cords of W.G. Snuffy Walden’s theme song for the TV series The West Wing playing in my head. After 19 years and 9 months living in Washington DC, I was stepping inside the White House for the first time.

I came to live in DC because I wanted to work in politics. To be specific, I wanted to be the first woman to lead a presidential campaign. No, I didn’t want to be President; I wanted to be a presidential campaign manager. Yet, somehow between setting that goal and now, my experience with the White House has been limited to a boyfriend in the 90s who worked in the Old Executive Office Building, a couple of  graduations on the White House lawn (the Ellipse), and 2 fun-filled afternoons at the White House Easter Egg roll.

While my trip inside the White House wasn’t to make policy, I was there as policy was being made. You see, this trip wasn’t your average holiday outing. I was at the White House at the invitation of the Obama/Biden Administration on the occasion of the signing of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) and the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA).

The tickets for the Holiday tour of the White House were shared by the Administration with the DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence and several other domestic violence and child abuse related organizations in recognition of the work of those organizations and the struggles of the people they have helped. A representative from Vice President Biden’s office explained “The goal is for Community Members to have a personal connection to the Administration and the White House and view it as “our House.”” This is what reminded me of the West Wing. In one episode (the Big Block of Cheese Day episode), President Bartlett’s Chief of Staff explains, “Andrew Jackson, in the main foyer of his White House had a big block of cheese. It is in the spirit of Andrew Jackson that I, from time to time, ask senior staff to have face-to-face meetings with those people representing organizations who have a difficult time getting our attention.”

And here I was, next to a portrait of JFK and a Gingerbread White House replica, meeting with Danielle Borrin. Bright eyed and smiling despite what had to be a grueling schedule, Ms Borrin, Associate Director, White House Office of Public Engagement & Special Assistant, Office of the Vice President spoke of the Vice President’s commitment to women. She reminded me that he has been an advocate “ever since he was a Senator, when he sponsored the Violence Against Women Act.”

It’s such a small thing – tickets to an already free event – but it’s a token that means so much more not just because of the thoughtfulness and care required to execute it, but because it comes from an administration which has invested more than any other in violence against women. They even named the first ever White House Advisor on Violence against Women, Lynn Rosenthal.

By providing tools and prevention efforts to identify and treat abuse and neglect, CAPTA-funded services to protect children across the country. FVPSA is the only federal funding source dedicated to domestic violence services and shelters funding nearly 1,700 shelters and service programs for victims of domestic violence and their children.  It also supports the National Domestic Violence Hotline, whose staff and volunteers answer more than 22,000 calls for help each month. I made one of those 22,000 calls in January 2009 and am grateful for the help and support they provided.

Ms Rosenthal was at the signing just after our tour wrapped up. After words she wrote on the White House blog: “This afternoon, I stood in the Oval Office and watched as President Obama signed the reauthorization … I was thinking of the many abuse survivors I have met over the years. Thanks to CAPTA and FVPSA, their future looks brighter.”[i]

For me, I guess I feel a little more of a personal connection to the White House and the administration. It wasn’t the beautiful decorations, or the artwork, or the antique furniture, or even the history of the place. It was that someone reached out – the DCCADV, The Administration, the Vice President’s office – they made it clear the voices of domestic violence survivors are welcome and encouraged.

Maybe I give myself too much credit, but I hope that meeting us helps people like Danielle Borrin show up early and leave late from what I am sure is quite a punishing job. I think that’s the point of Big Block of Cheese days. Here’s how the fictional President Bartlett explains it to his staffers: “You all start out so cynical, but it never fails. By the end of the day, there’s always one or two converts, right? And today was no exception. "What'll be the next thing that challenges us... that makes us work harder and go farther?” 

~Angela Lauria


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