To this day, the remembrance of an oral argument in law school gives her a ghastly uneasiness. But now she finds a way to joke about her abysmal experience and how she ultimately overcame her fear of public speaking. After all, it is the reason she didn’t become a litigator and instead began working in public service.
Today, she has become one of the most respected and powerful women in the government. As Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama, Valerie B. Jarrett runs the Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs and also chairs of the White House Council on Women and Girls.
Jarrett often highlights matters pertaining to women’s issues in her White House blog and revealed to ADW the candid advice she gives to young women. “You can have it all, but not necessarily all at the same time,” said Jarrett.
She cautioned the idea of expecting to have everything because “life is full of tradeoffs.”
The last time ADW sat down and spoke with Jarrett, she was visiting Atlanta for the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday commemoration at Ebenezer Baptist Church. ADW’s Kenya King caught up Jarrett again as she rounded out the White House’s fifth stop at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) graduation ceremonies this spring.
ADW: We know that President Obama made available $850 million for education reform for HBCUs. Are there any new initiatives?
Jarrett: We’re going to continue to try to address their important needs. You’re right. He did make [resources] at a time when our federal budget is shrinking. He made sure he made additional resources available because he believes so strongly that they are the pillars of academic excellence, not just within the black community because the graduates go on and they impact our society as a whole, so we’re always working with the HBCUs and the President’s Advisory Council to think of new and innovative ways of supporting them.
ADW: As a woman in public policy, what do think women need to be success at policymaking?
Jarrett: I think you need intellectual rigor and a creative mind. The same thing that men need. I think you have to look at things not as they are but as they should be and then go through the analysis of what it takes get from where we are to where we want to go. Intellectual curiosity is an essential ingredient of sound policy. That’s how we’re constantly improving. Looking at how we’ve done things and then thinking what’s a different way, what’s a better way. One of the things President Obama always does is that he pushes us to find new solutions. Constantly. What are the best practices that we can examine and see how we can take them to scale. That’s one of the real important challenges of public policy at the federal level. Often the best ideas come from the ground, people who are trying things in communities. How do we lift those up and take them to scale.
And you have examples here in Atlanta – redevelopment projects that have worked really well. Where public housing has been torn down and mixed income communities have been born again. I visited the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York not long ago and what Geoffrey Canada is doing there is something that would be terrific if communities all over the country could do that. One of the exciting things about working in the White House is you get to have this bird’s eye view of what works and what doesn’t work all over the country.
ADW: It seems that Congress doesn’t work with the President as much on certain policies he desires put in place. Are there any executive orders he would like to implement before the end of his term?
Jarrett: Well, he’s constantly looking for new executive orders that he can sign. We can send you the details in connection with our effort to get sensible gun control legislation a couple of months ago after the tragedy in Newtown, and Aurora and Chicago, all over the country. We pushed congress to pass a law that would provide for background checks. At the same time the president signed 23 executive orders that would give him authority to do things within the federal government – he and the federal agencies – to help streamline the process and make it more efficient to get guns out of the hands of people who should not have them and so we’re always looking at ways of doing it. We’re pushing for immigration reform right now, but he signed an executive order that allowed the Dream Act children to stay in this country. That’s a stop gap measure. Doing whatever is in within his power and there are a host of other executive orders that he will be looking at. Oftentimes, the most comprehensive solution can be achieved through legislation.
ADW: And congratulations on the Equal Futures Partnership.
Jarrett: Oooh, that’s a huge thing on an international stage. It’s so heartening to see…in September of last year, we started with 12 countries and now we have nearly 20 and counting. We had a terrific event maybe a month ago at the World Bank where all of the finance ministers from those countries came out. I thought that was so important because obviously the economic piece of women’s empowerment is vitally important. We’re working with both the economic as well as the political empowerment. We’re convinced if we have more women in congress, we’d have a lot more progress made.
ADW: What’s next for you after this term? Do you have any political aspirations?
Jarrett: I do not have any political aspirations. At this point, all of my effort goes into trying to see what we can do to move our country forward. I should, since I’m giving commencement speeches, encouraging them to plan, I should have planned my own life, but I’m just going to see what happens next. But this is definitely the pinnacle. It doesn’t get much better than this.