Strategizing for a more perfect union

Strategizing for a more perfect union
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Across history, there’s been a deep divide between the rulers and the ruled. Even in democratic countries, where the people rule, the national capital usually emerges as an elite enclave, which the rest of the nation notices and resents. This is how populist movements, even revolutions, are born. So wise leaders, looking to preempt disruption, should turn to strategies for national harmony and equality.  

Today, the United States has the “elite capital enclave” syndrome. Of the 3,144 counties, or county equivalents, in this country, four of the 10 most affluent counties are in the Washington, D.C., area.  

And these statistics were in evidence before the recent surges in federal spending. Yes, the overwhelming share of federal funds are being distributed to the 50 states and other jurisdictions, and yet a quick look around D.C. tells us that a disproportionate share of the money remains inside the Beltway. 

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What we need is an ongoing and ceaseless plan to keep moving money, power — and talent — back to the states.  

Fortunately, we have a key element of such a plan in hand already: Fellowships. In D.C., fellowships typically follow a well-known model: A talented fellow, usually on the younger side, comes to Washington for a year, puts heart and soul into the job, and then returns home, having gained new insights into the ways of Washington. In this way, power, defined as knowledge, is at least somewhat equalized between the core and the periphery.  

Happily, in the nation’s capital, dozens of programs operate this way, including the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships, for which I had the honor of serving as director from 2017 to 2021.

The White House Fellowship was established by President Lyndon B. Johnson on Oct. 3, 1964. LBJ’s words that day signaled the spirit of “one nation” idealism that has always guided the fellowship, “A hundred years from now, when historians look back on the Johnson administration, I hope very much that they will be able to say: ‘There, once again, was an era when the young men and the young women of America and their government really belonged to each other—belonged to each other in fact, and belonged to each other in spirit.’” 

So now, six decades later, how abides that spirit of national belonging? For the nation as a whole, the story is, shall we say, mixed, and yet LBJ’s vision of the White House Fellowship continues to flourish, providing the nation with an exemplar of the good that is now, and the better that could be.   

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Meet Crystal Moore, born in Meridian, Miss., who was a White House fellow from 2017-2018. During her time as a fellow, Crystal worked in the White House House Domestic Policy Council, focusing on policies affecting Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). As she told me in a recent interview, “This work was both incredibly professionally and personally rewarding to me.” 

Today, Crystal is back home in Mississippi, working on educational technology and online learning for HBCUs. And she recalls with fondness her 12-month deep dive into the inner workings of the federal government, “My experience challenged many pre-existing perceptions. I learned to hold an openness, to learn from unexpected places and people. It prepared me to lead with an open hand, building bridges from all points in the political spectrum.”

Crystal says of herself now, “Today, I am a better advocate, strategic thinker, and partner to HBCUs due to my fellowship experience.” She further volunteered of the 13 other fellows in her class — now her 13 friends —“are united by our common goals and values.” And as a result, she says that the fellows can now look beyond their differences to serve the public, and they give her hope for the future of the country. “Hope,” there’s a good word.  

The White House Fellowship — among the many fellowships in Washington — has made its contribution toward equalizing opportunity across the 50 states.  

So perhaps now, as a matter of national strategy, fellowships could be expanded — perhaps dramatically — so that they, along with other programs of national service, can help level up the nation and make America a more perfect union.  

Elizabeth Dial Pinkerton served as director of the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships from 2017 to 2021.