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Demystifying DC: Reflections of a Humphrey Policy Fellow


Having worked in the nonprofit sector since the mid-90s, I’ve been involved to some degree on a variety of cross sector efforts. With plenty of projects and possibilities to focus on in the nonprofit sector, I felt influencing the legislative process was far better left to the policy wonks (affectionately stated) and elected officials. Divide and conquer, was my thinking, and we’ll get more done. Naturally, the simplicity is overstated, but the complexity of the legislative process coupled with a busy professional and personal life, it was easy for me to keep my distance.

I love getting things done and working with people to find smart, creative solutions that work, so it’s inevitable when you care about the common good, you work across sectors to *accomplish more and lasting results.*

A respected colleague of mine started talking about Humphrey Policy Fellows program and the amazing folks who orchestrate it annually. It was the perfect opportunity for me to be intentional about my future work, learn more about the challenging and historic legislative process, and make it more accessible and less mysterious. About half way through the nine-month program, I’m delighted to have been selected for the 2014-2015 cohort.

The Humphrey describes the program as having three competencies:

  • mindfulness
  • strategic effectiveness in context, and
  • persuasion and collective action

I’d have to agree, and would add to the list:

  • unfettered access to state and national thought leaders
  • smart, hardworking, humble people
  • relationships, relationships, relationships

Since I’ll blog about the Fellows program again later this year, here are reflections on our jam-packed and life-changing trip to Washington, D.C. this past November.

Three days of access to people who are influencing every tug and push of American politics and the chance to not only hear what they’re focusing on, but ask probing questions. We met with State Department foreign policy experts, presidential and vice-presidential advisors, Bloomberg news editors, Pew Center execs, respected columnists and commentators, our own MN Senators, and more. No fewer than 28 national thought leaders in three days.

The greater good was clearly the inspiration of the many brilliant people who took time to meet with us. Their commitment to advancing their cause(s) was palpable and they knew they were just one important component of many that needed to come together to make impact. Despite the fact that the media wants you to believe that bi-partisan collaboration is in historic gridlock, what came through in our interactions was that people were working hard to get things done for people…it was difficult to tell where their political allegiances actually were.

Our agenda was filled with impressive thought leaders…and yet, they were equally humbled to be interacting with the amazing group of Fellows from Minnesota. Having a chance to get to know the smart, hardworking, humble Fellows who comprise the group is yet one more asset of this impactful program. Fellows range in age, professional background and experience in politics and share a commitment to inspire, organize, and work effectively with others to advance the public good…it’s an amazing cross-section of Minnesota’s talent.

Selfie in Biden’s Office when we visited with his Chief of Staff. My 16- and 13-year-old kids have yet to teach me how to take a good selfie!

Nothing gets done in Washington without relationships. Okay, that’s an incredibly obvious statement, but what resonated with me is that I know this to be true in my work and life, and it’s not much different in Washington. Whether it was Vice-President Biden’s chief of staff stating that one of his biggest priorities was to help sustain a friendship between Biden and President Obama after their term (*a rarity in the Oval Office*) OR President Obama reaching for the Executive Order to get immigration reform underway after 18 months of bipartisan boondoggles, talented people who strategically build relationships are key to getting things done.

Elected officials repeatedly shared that mobility and technology has resulted in less time to get to know their peers. Fifty years ago, our elected officials would be sent to DC and, in whatever ‘downtime’ they had, they learned to know each other as people rather than partisan platforms. They realized they were more alike than different: Alzheimer’s had touched their families, the civil rights movement was shaking their districts, hunting and a love for the great outdoors were a shared past time, etc. Disagreeing with a colleague on the other side of the aisle is different than hating the person on the other side of the aisle…and there is a shared sentiment that more time to build meaningful relationships is needed.

The second half of the Fellows program is just now unfolding and I can’t wait to share the next few sessions with you. I’ll probably start with what Sunday alcohol sales and new friendships have in common; suffice it to say, the new Speaker of the House, Kurt Daudt, is central to story. And likely some musings on the civic projects my cohort of Fellows are just now embarking upon. Until then!

Julie Brekke is a Vice President at PPL, a multiservice organization dedicated to helping low-income individuals and families become self-sufficient.  Overseeing fundraising, communications, and seven programs ranging from housing-based services to employment training programs, she applies rigor and compassion to PPL’s work.  Julie’s entrepreneurial drive and personal warmth foster creativity and collaboration, with evident results among the staff she oversees and PPL’s organizational and philanthropic partners. Julie lives in the Linden Hills neighborhood of Minneapolis with her husband, two kids, and family pets.

Phillips Family Foundation

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