D.C. Capitol

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

It Takes Time

Gradual change can be hard to recognize. 

There’s the bit about putting a frog into a pot of water and slowly turning up the heat before it notices, the innovation in technology that makes mobile phones and laptops smaller and smaller with time, and the growth of ombre hairstyles. Much like slowly changing seasons and quietly rising temperature averages, the process of internal change I’ve experienced as part of the Washington, D.C. Summer Study Program is one of steady growth and gradual skill-building, often going unnoticed. As I reflect back on the ten weeks I’ve spent in the heart of the nation’s capitol, I realize the chasm I’ve crossed to get to the level of understanding research, development as a student and “political scientist,” and personal growth that I’ve seen in myself.

As an intern, the change I’ve realized in the preliminary beginnings of my professional life has immensely amplified my research skills. Before engrossing myself in the fast-paced information stream in D.C., I touted my research skills, but soon realized that research is all about getting information that is sometimes difficult to obtain.  At what first could have been a menial task of compiling spreadsheets about costs for different federal programs and collecting news clips, I discovered the importance of the work I was doing in relation to the final reports we’d publish. By the end of 10 weeks, I found my efforts more meaningful and appreciated the tasks I’d been asked to take on. The trust my supervisors placed in me enhanced my understanding the relevance of my work, and my importance to the contributions the organization is making. The importance of writing as a part of professional development has been ingrained into my head, with report after report published with my assistance.

The slow changes and realizations I’ve had as a student go beyond the reinforced benefits of simply learning outside the classroom. As I have had to learn climate history on the fly,  been pushed to comprehend the elements of President Obama’s newly released Climate Action Plan, and navigated the hierarchy of a think tank, I’ve increasingly been taking learning into my own hands. From the seminars to other informational interviews I’ve taken the opportunity to be part of, I’ve gathered a perception of how much I don’t know. I’ve also been fortunate to learn from experts at work and elsewhere, getting a brief “Electric Utilities 101” lesson and listening to senior fellows refer to terms I’ve only read about in a political science textbook.

From the perspective of a political scientist (if I can count myself worthy of such a title), I’ve never considered myself any sort of an expert, and still wouldn’t. Nonetheless, practicing elements of political science first-hand by doing research and writing at a think tank that is influencing public policy, all the while living down the street from where Supreme Court cases have been decided and as a constituent trying to lobby my members of Congress, I’ve witnessed firsthand the theories I’d only previously read about, been stuck by the bureaucratic “red tape” that I didn’t understand, and seen phenomena like filibusters first understood from a distance. Having now observed gridlock in a committee hearing, then having navigated red tape to compile research information, I have taken through a lens all of the summer course readings and past class lectures that described these exact elements of political science. Reflecting on my previous understanding to my real-world one and filling in the gaps has enabled me to feel much more knowledgeable about the intersection of politics and the science of it all.

Of course, all of this great, practical education would be all for naught if it didn’t stick with me as I leave D.C. for a final year at CSB/SJU. The gradual developments I’ve experienced as part of our living community have seen all of us become accustomed to listening well to different viewpoints, establishing dialogue on well-founded information, fostering a sense of independence, while highlighting the immense importance of developing together. The constant reflection we’ve engaged in as we look back at our internships, our relationships, our late night snaking in the kitchen, and our D.C. level experiences has united us not only as a network, but as humans looking to make the world a better place (it literally cannot get more cheesy).  I slowly have learned to take advantage of open doors, and started saying yes to happy hours, forums, debates, and policy lunches, when I once would have said no. I’ve depended on myself to get home on the Metro without a smartphone. I have been forced to be intentional about who I communicate with and when, and truly been able to rely on myself as my own resource. I’ve grown to appreciate political celebrities for their policies and not their position. Most importantly, I’ve learned that this is a great place to make a change. It just takes a while.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Think Tank Truths

June 9, 2013

A social “theory” carried out by cynical academics, angst-y undergraduates, disgruntled suburban-dwellers, and middle-aged couch potatoes, is that Congress is dumb and makes poor decisions (when your side loses, anyway). I have learned and now witnessed differently, but still see that Congress needs help getting their information from time to time. Theory tells us that interest groups have a lot of power. In my POLS 322 class last semester, U.S. Congress, we looked at how interest groups exert influence over Congress by educating those policymakers who know little about the subjects they need to debate, often including their own sway into whatever information is exchanged.

Here, in Washington, D.C., I’ve come to learn that interest groups and think-tanks have even more power than we had previously given them credit for. Working at a think-tank (which in a way falls under that label of “interest group”), I have discovered that not only do interest groups have power over policymakers, but they directly influence and sway policy decisions both among the congressional body and within the White House. Lobbying with Campus Progress, a college-student-focused activism group run by the Center for American Progress, I was able to attend meetings that had been arranged through the think-tank with members of congressional offices (from Minnesota) on the Hill.

Milling around with more-senior members of the think-tank, I soon learned that they had received some insider knowledge from White House and Congressional staff about the timing of loan-interest-related amendments and the content of debate that had not yet entered the floor. The staffers were able to cater their messaging to say what senators and representatives needed to hear. They had the best facts and figures about the effects of an increased loan rate, and had it summarized into quaint handouts with state-specific information. They made it incredibly easy for members to get some background about the issue of student loan interest, understand who it affects in their respective districts, why they should care, and what best-advised options are for addressing it in a timely fashion.

I went to the Hill as to lobby my members of Congress as a student, but also as a constituent. To disprove the stereotypes Mayhew highlights in The Electoral Connection, the members of Congress who are supposed to represent me and listen to my stories did, and I did not observe that they were only interested in “beating” the opposition or gaining personal power. Particularly on this issue, there was an expressed desire to come together over an issue that affects students from every spot on the political spectrum, constituents or not. I went to talk to staff members in Minnesota congressional offices about student debt after college and the approaching deadline for loan interest rates to double (which is the soon-arriving date of July 1st). In each office, I shared my debt story and reasons why different proposed plans would benefit students like me and support the freedom to pursue education for those who can’t cover the costs straight out of pocket.  Though I only met with staffers, they each identified how my congressional representatives were already or were planning to address the issues I identified. The answers they gave were not always what I wanted to hear, but as a constituent, I was able to make my case for different plans and keep them accountable to the student voice—a voice they might not often hear when they spend time in DC.

The organization I was lobbying with provided that “putative empirical primacy,” accountability, and amplified my voice and access. The theory-cracking surprise, however, was that , despite not meeting with the Senators and Representatives themselves, this issue wasn’t about reelection, at least for now, with all of them having just re-secured their seats. No, it was truly about me being a constituent, here, at a very convenient time, making the right case, with the right think-tank and the right information. It almost seems like a coincidence, the timing, the information, but coincidences don’t happen often in this town. Everyone’s too smart for that.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Letter to the Editor

The following letter to the editor was featured in the College of St. Benedict/St. John's University student paper, The Record, on October 19th, 2012.
Dear Editor,
I spent all of last summer living and interning in Washington, D.C. through the CSB-SJU Washington DC Summer Study Program. It was by far the most rewarding experience of my college career. I worked for an environmental think tank researching and writing about the environment, agriculture, and international development. Not only does this fit perfectly with my majors, but it is also the type of setting that I see myself in after college. In D.C., I received incredibly valuable first-hand work knowledge that becomes more and more relevant as I graduate in two years. Additionally, I made long-lasting connections with co-workers, the other Bennies and Johnnies in the program, and CSB/SJU alums.
My summer also included a whole host of memorable opportunities that can only be experienced in the nation’s capital. I spent Memorial Day at Arlington Cemetery, listening to President Obama speak. I toured National Public Radio. I spent my weekends gawking at the many Smithsonian’s and monuments, and I spent the Fourth of July watching fireworks on the Capitol lawn.
As students at CSB/SJU, we are so incredibly lucky to have so many awesome opportunities. At times it is easy to be overwhelmed with how many interesting programs, speakers, and clubs there are to partake in. But, I am writing this letter to encourage any interested students to not let this awesome opportunity pass by. There are so very few like it. I guarantee an unforgettable experience, beneficial professionally, academically, and socially. For more information email dcstudentworker@csbsju.edu.
Katie Spoden