By Kuae Kelch Mattox
It’s not often that I’m blown away by an invite, but when 150 leaders from my non-profit organization were invited to the White House for a private event last week, I had to pinch myself a few times just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.
In honor of National African-American History Month, Mocha Moms teamed up with The White House to host a Moms Summit. The White House assembled a powerhouse panel of Senior Obama administration officials, a rainbow coalition of inspiring women and a few good men, to brief us on a wide range of policies and initiatives on everything from health and education to domestic policy and the environment. The next day, 350 of our mothers and families returned for an East Wing tour with a dose of African American flavor and the sweet sounds of the North Carolina A&T University choir. Needless to say, it marked a historic milestone for our organization.
Most stay at home moms I know aren’t accustomed to rock star status. Ok, maybe they are at home. But that’s exactly how we felt sitting there in front of a beaming Tina Tchen, First Lady Michelle Obama’s chief of staff, who lit up the room by telling us “We talked about you at the senior staff meeting and everyone is so excited that you are here.” Did she really say that? You mean us?
When President Obama issued his proclamation in honor of National African American History Month, he gave special tribute to the nameless African-American women who are the backbone of many communities, saying African-American women are preparing the next generation for the world they will inherit. Sitting there wearing our signature pink and brown, an official copy of his proclamation in every manicured hand, we all knew he had been talking about women like us.
Now, I’m sure this election season some would argue this was Obama PR at its best. But I’d argue this wasn’t as much about politics as it was about pride, for to be an African-American mother and to be told by the highest government entity in the land that you are valued for who you are and what you do speaks volumes. To go back home and into our communities to share that value will be profound.
“You don’t get a white house briefing by being wonderful. You get a white house briefing because you have influence and people listen to you,” said Donna Maria Coles-Johnson, Mocha Moms Work At Home Network Director, small business blogger and CEO of the Indie Business Network. “This was a confirmation of that power and that influence.”
Moms moved mountains, rearranged busy schedules, asked husbands to watch the kids, pumped breast milk for the freezer and flew in from across the country just for a chance to visit The White House with the family that looked like theirs. Never mind that First Lady Michelle Obama, the quintessential Mom in Chief, was unable to attend. Our moms just welcomed the chance to breathe her air.
On the panel was Jocelyn Frye, the First Lady’s policy and special projects director, who talked about milestones in Mrs. Obama’s two year old Let’s Move campaign. Dr. Nadine Gracia, deputy assistant secretary for minority health in the Department of Health and Human Services, discussed a broad range of programs and policies aimed at reducing health disparities. Mothers came armed with questions about the importance of recess, the challenges of Autism and innovative ways to promote Let’s Move through partnerships, but it was clear the economy was a top issue.
Coles-Johnson wanted to know how the administration would assist small business owners who are the sole providers for their families.
“There’s a whole new class of entrepreneur and they are falling through the cracks. People don’t talk about sole proprietors. But what they are doing is keeping themselves off the breadline and they’re not getting credit for it,” she said.
Our path to the White House was rooted in a partnership we established with the EPA last year. EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson, a firm believer in reaching out to a new generation of stakeholders, welcomed us into the fold. Dru Ealons, director of the EPA Office of Public Engagement, planted the Moms Summit seed.
Other Moms Summit panelists included Tyra Mariani, deputy chief of staff from the Department of Education, who talked about the Race to the Top, and Stephanie Owens, EPA deputy administrator, who urged moms to be proactive about researching chemicals in products. Cecelia Munoz, director of Obama’s Domestic Policy Council, talked about the battle to keep colleges affordable and get students ready.
“This is a very deep commitment and our president is fighting. For all of his gifts and his practical skills and people in the administration, we can’t do this by ourselves,” Munoz said. “We really need you to help be a voice for these values to move forward.”
The Moms Summit wasn’t all about policy. It also gave us a glimpse into the personal lives of a group of women who inspire. Tchen talked about her upbringing and shared funny stories. I played Oprah during an off the record “Mom Chat” with Administrator Jackson. Special guest, actress Karyn Parsons, from the popular 90′s sitcom Fresh Prince of Bel Air told moms about her non-profit, Sweet Blackberry, which shares little known stories of African Americans with children. But probably the most moving moment was when Shushana Vignier, a former Essex County, NJ chapter president who has returned to teaching in Newark, gave an impassioned plea after encountering a fifth grader who can’t read. Not a dry eye in the room.
Michael Strautmanis, deputy assistant to the President, popped by to remind moms why they were there.
“We are going to need you as supporters and guides, as innovators in the community, not to start something, but to reflect what is,” he said.
Now it’s time for our mothers to take what “is” and make it all that it can be.
Follow Kuae Kelch Mattox on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kuaemattox