May 12, 2010

Reynolds Foundation Fellows Mingle with Washington, D.C. Elite

Reynolds Fellows on the steps of the Supreme Court

From March 24 to 26, more than 70 outstanding Reynolds Foundation Fellows in Social Entrepeneurship from both New York University and Harvard University met in Washington, D.C. to exchange ideas with 30 leaders in government, business, and medical research.

The gathering marked the first Social Entrepreneurship Summit of the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation, and also included representatives of the other scholarship programs supported by the Foundation, as well as the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

The Social Entrepreneurship Summit drew veterans of the last six presidential administrations, among them Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi; Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy; former Secretary of State Colin Powell; former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers; U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics; the National Security Advisor to the President of the United States, General James L. Jones; Congressman John R. Lewis; Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health; Anthony Romero, Executive Director of the ACLU; labor leader Andy Stern; Carlyle Group Founder David Rubenstein; Pulitzer Prize recipients Rick Atkinson, Neil Sheehan and Donald Graham, Chairman of the Washington Post Company.

The Reynolds Fellows and other student delegates stayed at the historic Willard Hotel, just one block from the White House, and many of the Summit programs were held at the Willard, a center of Washington's social and political life since it first opened in 1818. On their first evening in Washington, the students were whisked to the august chambers of the Supreme Court of the United States for an informal meeting with Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. Justice Kennedy initiated a discussion of the Court's work and the constitutional issues it consider, and emphasized the importance of civil debate with a quotation from Justice John Marshall, "Rational discourse is the safeguard of freedom." The entire company remained at the Supreme Court for dinner with the Justices, where they heard welcoming remarks from Summit Host Catherine B. Reynolds.

The following morning, the Fellows met a series of exceptional speakers in the first symposium session of the Summit, held in an elegant and intimate meeting room of the Willard. The first speaker, Jacqueline Novogratz, is a prime example of the concept of social entrepreneurship. Founder and CEO of the Acumen Fund, she has channeled philanthropic contributions into self-sustaining enterprises that provide essential services to some of the poorest people on earth. Ms. Novogratz illustrated her address with vivid anecdotes of her experiences, from Africa to South Asia.

The Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Anthony Romero, engaged the Fellows in a passionate discussion of the importance of civil liberties in the atmosphere of heightened security prompted by the war on terror. He fielded students' questions.

The Summit also heard from the Director of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, Sonal Shah. The Indian-born economist is President Obama's liaison to social entrepreneurs and the nonprofit sector. David Rubenstein, who served as a domestic policy aide to President Jimmy Carter before founding The Carlyle Group, the private equity firm with interests in every sector of the economy, emphasized the importance of building on one's early accomplishments, rather than resting on one's laurels. The final speaker of the morning was a member of President Obama's Cabinet, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist.

The discussion of finance and government continued over lunch at the Willard, where the Fellows heard from the Director of the National Economic Council and Assistant to the President for Economic Policy, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers. A former president of Harvard,  his alma mater, Summers delivered a summary of current national economic issues, as well as educational issue dear to his heart, the importance of the mathematical study of probability.

In the afternoon session, the Director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins, and the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, engaged in a lively discussion of the federal government's role in medical research. Dr. Collins, a pioneer of genetic medicine, is now responsible for allocating the $31 billion the government appropriates for health research. Dr. Fauci, long a leader in the struggle against HIV-AIDS, touched on the current state of this effort. Both men stressed the need for transparency in medical research, which they weighed against the privacy concerns that arise from the collection of genetic and medical data.

The physician scientists were followed by former Secretary of State Colin Powell. As a young infantry officer in Vietnam, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the 1991 Gulf War, and as Secretary of State at the onset of current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, he has had a unique insight into the most crucial episodes of our history. A central figure in American foreign policy and national security for nearly 30 years, General Powell gave the Fellows the benefit of his incomparable perspective on world events, as well as that of his own inspiring life story.

Another participant with a unique insight into America's wars, past and present, was journalist and author Rick Atkinson. Recipient of multiple Pulitzer Prizes for reportage, and for his multi-volume account of the American army in World War II, he is also author of the most acclaimed account of the every day life of combat soldiers in Iraq.

Struggles of another kind were addressed by the last speaker of the afternoon, Andy Stern, President of America's fastest growing labor union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). He received an enthusiastic reception for his discussion of SEIU's work on behalf of some of the least visible workers in the American economy, and of SEIU's influential role in the landmark health care legislation--the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act--that had passed the House of Representatives the previous Sunday.

That evening, the Fellows traveled to Capitol Hill just as the Senate was preparing for a final reconciliation vote on amendments to the health care bill. Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine received one group briefly in her office before taking to the Senate floor to cast her vote. Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi received the other Fellows in his Capitol retreat, alongside the Senate floor, with a breathtaking view of the monuments. A number of Fellows watched history in the making from the Senators' private gallery as the reconciliation package received the approval of the Senate and was sent to the White House for the President's signature, the last act in a political drama that had consumed Washington for more than a year.

The Fellows had dinner in the Mike Mansfield Room, adjacent to the floor of the House of Representatives, where they were met by someone familiar to the Reynolds Fellows from Harvard's Kennedy School: David Gergen, former advisor to four U.S. Presidents and now the Director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Kennedy School. Mr. Gergen introduced three prominent members of the House of Representatives--Roy Blunt of Missouri, John Dingell of Michigan and John R. Lewis of Georgia--and asked them to share the stories of their own life journeys. The distinguished legislators obliged.

The third Congressman to speak was an American hero--and living legend of the Civil Rights Movement--John R. Lewis. In powerful words, he recalled the rise of the nonviolent protest movement--the lunch counter sit-ins, the Freedom Rides--and the harassment, arrests and physical attacks he and his comrades stoically endured, including the near-fatal beating he received leading a voting rights march across the bridge in Selma, Alabama. That he has now served more than 20 years in Congress, representing constituents who were long denied the right to vote, is a testament to the vitality of American democracy, and a reminder that the freedoms we enjoy were purchased by countless acts of courage, like those of Rep. Lewis.

After dinner, the party was joined by a surprise guest, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, fresh from her legislative victory in the protracted health care debate. The Speaker was received with an emotional ovation from the Summit Fellows, conscious of the momentous nature of the occasion. She offered thanks to President Obama for his tenacity in the long campaign, and recalled a lesson taught by her father, himself a Congressman and Mayor of Baltimore. Many things are valued in the political process, he told her, but in the end, only one thing determines success or failure. "Get the votes," she said, beaming. "And this time, I got the votes."

Returning to the Willard after dinner, the assembly heard from writers with profound insight into two agonizing chapters of American history. Jay Winik, the acclaimed author of April 1865: The Month That Saved America, discussed the enduring legacy of President Abraham Lincoln's leadership during the Civil War. Neil Sheehan first won recognition as a courageous Vietnam War correspondent and later received the Pulitzer Prize for A Bright Shining Lie, one of the most lasting books to emerge from that conflict. Sheehan discussed the tragic complexities of America's involvement in Vietnam, and the lingering effect of the war on our country today.

Additional presentations on Friday were made by: Donald Graham, Chairman of the Washington Post Company, which also publishes Newsweek and Slate; former Mayor of Indianapolis, Steven Goldsmith, now a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School;  Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of the D.C. schools, who began her career as a young leader of the Teach for America program; and  Karen Ignagni, President and CEO of AHIP--America's Health Insurance Plans.

For Friday's luncheon the assembly moved to historic Blair House. Known as the President's Guest House, this mansion, originally built in 1824, has welcomed foreign heads of state since its acquisition by the federal government during World War II. Its splendid interior is rarely seen by the general public, but the Summit Fellows were treated to a rare tour of its spacious rooms and tranquil courtyard. At Blair House, the Fellows received a summary of defense issues from the President's National Security Advisor, General James L. Jones.

The national security theme was developed further as the company was taken on a bus trip to Langley, Virginia, and the offices of the Central Intelligence Agency, where the Fellows received a tour and briefing, followed by a visit with one of America's most respected public servants, CIA Director Leon Panetta. A former U.S. Congressman, Director of the Office of Management and Budget and Chief of Staff to President Clinton, Panetta helped dispel some of the aura of mystery surrounding the nation's intelligence services.

At the end of the long day, the Summit participants returned to the Willard Hotel for a reception in the Crystal Room and a final dinner in the elegant Willard Room. Over dinner, David Gergen introduced a series of speakers drawn from the ranks of the Reynolds Fellows, and from the other programs that enjoy the support of the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation.

The administrative home of the NYU Reynolds Program is the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. The current class of 36 Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation Fellows at New York University were represented at the Summit by Magogodi Makhene. Ms. Makhene grew up in Soweto, South Africa during the last years of apartheid. As a Reynolds Graduate Fellow at New York University's Gallatin School, she is studying the use of private equity and venture capital as vehicles for economic development in sub-Saharan Africa. The final speaker of the Summit, Cesar Francia, grew up in Caracas, Venezuela. He studied International Politics as a Reynolds Fellow at New York University and he will soon be returning to NYU to earn a Master's in Public Administration. He is currently serving as a full-time aide in the office of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

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