Jul 08, 2013 | By Bethan Johnson, NETWORK Intern
According to Merriam-Webster’s definition of an intern, my role at NETWORK would be as “an advanced student or graduate usually in a professional field…gaining supervised practical experience.” After this, my second and shortened week with NETWORK, I have realized that my role is so much more than that phrase.
Aside the fact that I am neither a graduate nor an advanced student, the implied 9-5 nature of internships differs from my experience. I assumed that I could shed my newly developing “lobbyist” persona as easily I did my business clothes after a long commute. I quickly learned that I couldn’t be satisfied by the limited definitions often associated with the word “intern.”
I have quickly wanted to be the first person in the office and the last person out; I love checking my email in the hopes of finding some new project I can help with. The obsession has even gone so far as to unofficially adopt raising the federal minimum wage as a critical piece of legislation to follow, meaning I spout off numbers to friends and spend my nights thinking about the best ways to convince potential supporters to see the benefits of increasing the minimum wage.
Despite this growing passion, by the middle of my second week I realized that, while I loved the challenge of inspiring change, the work can also be frustrating. Seeing potentials for improvement being ignored or closed off, researching failed bills or undervalued NGOs, or learning the extended timeline on a life-altering piece of legislation has, on occasion, temporarily made me lose faith in the awesome power of American politics.
So I promised myself a weekend away from work. As trivial as that may seem coming from someone who has spent only a little more time in the workforce than it would take to name all of the subcommittees in Congress, I hatched the idea that a time away from the commotion of Congress and from the occasionally pernicious power struggles of politics would give me clarity. I thought the only major parts of work that I would miss during my extra two days off would be my co-workers and the tempting smells of the food trucks. (I admit I did actually spend the entire weekend searching high and low for one certain dessert truck)
Honestly, the idea of celebrating the Fourth of July in Washington DC excited me well before my decision to avoid work did. As the child of a proud Welsh mother, Independence Day parties never really happened for us; instead, we traveled to our grandmother’s to celebrate family birthdays and tried not to mention the other holiday in front of Mum. Living away from home for my first Fourth of July, I knew that this Fourth of July had the potential to be different, to be real…to be American. So I decided that if I was going to celebrate Independence Day at all, I would celebrate it all the way. I mapped out my day so that every moment was bursting with American-ness: the Independence Day Parade, American History Museum, tour of the Mall, and fireworks under the Washington Monument.
The task of avoiding work seemed easy with the help of fireworks and floats. I thought I could go back to the person I was three weeks ago.
But, as it turns out, NETWORK simply wouldn’t give my mind the weekend off. I considered how our children and our children’s children would remember us, our society, our actions and inactions, as I walked through the halls of the American History museum, as my friends and I watched the Independence Day Parade and walked past the Capitol Dome, and most powerfully as we sat in front of the Washington Monument watching the fireworks explode and disappear before our eyes.
As I looked up at the jubilant sky, flashing red then blue then white and red again, it seemed clear to me that America has always been about the future. We inscribe on our money “In God We Trust” because we know there is a future we are invested in; we construct buildings like the Washington Monument or the World War II Memorial because we as a society need to guarantee our stories are told throughout the generations; we explode fireworks on the National Mall to show all generations that America has awesome power and, despite our financial difficulties and political divisions, traditions are valued in America.
The true weight of the day really hit me when my friends and I decided to walk to the Lincoln Memorial to kill time before riding the Metro home. While we laughed and said we would do this in the hopes of avoiding the transportation-challenged tourists, in reality we went because we knew that the place would feel more honest and true that night than on any other.
Standing before the gigantic Lincoln statue for the first time in 5 years, I recalled my eighth-grade civics trip, which brought me to the exact same place; just as I did then, as I read his words, his commitment to honor and his hope for a brighter future, I shed a tear.
To the left of President Lincoln’s statue is his Gettysburg Address, given in commemoration of the Battle of Gettysburg just 4 months prior. In it, a sick and weak Lincoln found the courage to say, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
I soon realized the tear came from a new place, a deeper place, a place built on the foundation NETWORK has given me. The commitment Lincoln described, this promise to battle onward knowing that my voice may never be distinguished from among the crowd or remembered, was what my time at NETWORK will hopefully prove to be.
While the realization was refreshing, I quickly recognized a mental slip into the NETWORK mindset and, in the hopes of preserving my personal promise, I tried to escape for some air on the steps.
One thing I have learned while living in this city is that Washington DC can always boast historical tributes within walking distance, and the Lincoln Memorial is no different. As I walked across the steps I came to stone that marked the location of the podium used during the March on Washington. There I stood, in the same place that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins and John Lewis stood almost 50 years ago.
No sooner had I planted my feet upon that stone than did I remember the words so often read to us in school in the days before Martin Luther King Jr. Day. On that late August day, Dr. King told America, “In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
With Dr. King’s sightline, with President Lincoln staring at my back, and with Congress before me I asked myself the question I’d been too afraid to ask before: where are our leaders today? Who are this generation’s great leaders?
The marble ghosts of the men around me seemed to whisper the answer in my ear. America’s best leaders, the men and women we chose to honor above all others, were citizens of great vision and foresight. George Washington and the Founding Fathers risked every security to ensure the freedom of their neighbors; President Lincoln led America into a war with itself to end the greatest institutional injustice in America; President Roosevelt recognized the necessity of war and slowly prepared Americans to fight; Dr. King inspired hundreds of thousands to stand up for the rights of all Americans.
These were not political pundits or popularity hounds; they were men willing to risk life and security to protect the values Americans treasure most.
Leaders like these are hard to find today. In a political and economic climate that focuses on balancing the budget and arming for the next potential attack, many Americans have lived with the misfortune of never knowing what truly great American politicians sound and act like. Politicians tell constituents that this must be the era of sacrifice, unabashed and indiscriminate sacrifice.
I was shocked to read in the 2013 Faithful Budget, signed by NETWORK, the line “We cannot leave our children a legacy of debt, but neither must we leave them with a legacy of rising poverty and growing inequality.” The sentence struck me for the simple reason that such arguments have fallen away from politics, and we have begun to accept the narrative of unchallenged defensive action. This sentence proved to me that voices, harboring the same passion and urgency as Dr. King and the Founding Fathers, still exist somewhere within politics.
So, this Independence Day I found myself reinvesting in America’s future. Sorry Mum, I may be a little bit more American than when I last saw you. And this particular Fourth of July holiday also made me realize three things: one, food trucks are still the most convenient way to find lunch in DC, especially if you want to avoid three days-worth of sunburn; two, being a NETWORK intern may, at this rate, never really end for me; and three, that Americans must demand of our political leaders that they look to our history in order to become proactive and inspiring leaders.
I will close with those words that have pleasantly haunted me this weekend, and I imagine will continue to do so for the duration of my time working in politics. Although written for an audience almost 150 years ago, I think President Lincoln sensed America’s future so strongly that he spoke even to us as he said, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all whi