The White House Visit
by Toby Barazzuol on Tuesday Sep 3, 2013
Recently, I had the honour and pleasure of being invited to visit the White House in Washington, DC for the Champions of Change Awards Ceremony recognizing pioneers of crowdfunding in the United States. Only a week earlier I had been in Boston at Harvard attending the Growing the Impact Economy Summit. Both amazing opportunities emerged from my Fellowship with the Business Alliance of Local Living Economies (BALLE).
Needless to say, I was excited to visit the legendary White House to learn how they practice recognition at one of the most influential organizations in the world. And just in case, I brought along a special edition Awesome Award, because you never know who you might run into at the White House...
With only 24 hours in Washington, there wasn’t time to explore the wonderful city. So shortly after noon I connected with fellow BALLE Fellow Mickki Langston from Denver and we made our way down to the White House for the Champions of Change event that afternoon. We were instructed to enter by the South Eastern visitor’s gate where people were slowly filing in past security. Most passed easily enough, but somehow, I was held back, possibly due to the spelling of my name, possibly due to the fact that I’m from Canada. After a 45 minute wait, during which we saw President Obama fly overhead to another meeting (dang, there goes my plan!), I was cleared by security and our tiny group of 4 detained foreigners made our way inside the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB) to await our escort to the event.
Inside the EEOB we went through another security check and were joined by an intern who guided us through the hallowed halls to the event chamber for the day’s main event. The Champions of Change is an ongoing White House program that recognizes a different group of changemakers every couple of months - this particular event was focussed on pioneers of crowdfunding.
On this day, 12 changemakers were recognized in two moderated panel discussions, with each panelist allowed a few minutes to share their story and insights and experiences. It was inspiring to learn of so many great companies that are accomplishing impressive things through creative uses of finances and funding models. Indeed, many of these pioneers are creating models as they go and having a chance to learn from them is one of the many great elements of the Champions of Change program.
I was surprised to see that the recipients didn’t receive any physical awards as part of the ceremony. I guess the invitation to and recognition from the White House was considered enough. Certainly the prestige and honour of being recognized by the White House is memorable, but it would have been nice for the recipients to have taken home beautiful awards that they could have showed their friends and displayed proudly for a lifetime.
Following the two panels, there was some time available to network and, of course, take pictures on the White House podium for posterity. I had the chance to meet many of the Champions and other people from across the US who were working on amazing and creative projects. Amid the flurry of business cards and the buzz of networking, I spotted President Obama’s Deputy Assistant and Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement Paulette Aniskoff near one of the exits. As I knew the President was currently flying somewhere in a helicopter and wasn’t about to make a cameo appearance, I knew I had to move quickly so I introduced myself to Paulette and thanked her for hosting this recognition ceremony. Then I asked her a favor...would she be willing to present an Awesome Award to the President on our behalf? After a brief explanation about the awards, she seemed particularly delighted when I told her that you can’t buy an Awesome Award - the only way to get one is to win one by being awesome! My dream was that Obama would feel so empowered by the award that he would have the confidence to stand strong for the environment. Needless to say, I was totally surprised when Paulette accepted the Awesome Award and said she would do her best to get it into the President’s hands! Stay tuned to see what happens!
Following the networking, we were transferred to the White House Conference Centre for some crowdfunding workshops. There were 5 breakout sessions, each exploring a different theme: Education, Culture and Creativity; Global Development; Main Street Small Business; Technology and Startups; and Scientific Research. As attendees, we could participate in any session we chose, and each workshop also included Champions and was moderated by a senior government official. The focus of each workshop was to discuss and explore what was happening at the leading edges of these communities, not only to share and cross-pollinate ideas, but also to make the government aware of trends on the horizon so that they could incorporate them into their government policies. I attended the workshop on small business and the conversations and ideas around crowdfunding was lively and spirited. There are so many interesting possibilities as we start to explore new ways of financing and new models of value in what many are calling “the new economy”.
After the sessions, the groups dispersed into Washington and I decided to walk around the White House grounds and explore the city. Overall, it was an amazing experience and a unique opportunity to see how recognition is practiced at the highest level of government. I certainly learned a lot of new things in regards to cultivating leadership through recognition - things that can be applied in communities of any size. And at the same time, I felt that we could have offered the White House some tips on improving the overall effectiveness of their Champions of Change Program. Hopefully, both of those things will happen one day soon.
As for that one Awesome Award waiting to get to President Obama? We’ll just have to wait and see….