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By Kevin Kopplin
NLC-Madison 2015 Fellow
When I applied to be a fellow with the New Leaders Council’s (NLC) Madison chapter, I never thought it would culminate with a trip to the White House. The New Leaders Council National Retreat took place from July 23-25 in Washington, D.C. After three exciting days on Capitol Hill, at the White House, and taking care of NLC business, NLC-Madison took home the prestigious 2015 “Institute Of The Year” award.
I had previously visited our nation’s capital once before, and had been eagerly anticipating an opportunity to return for more than a decade. The invitation to represent our Madison chapter at the NLC Retreat was both an honor and the opportunity I had been awaiting.
Thursday was “NLC On The Hill” day. Our first destinations were the Supreme Court and the elegant Library of Congress; both visits were all too brief and worthy of a return visit, either when court is in session or simply to observe happenings in the Library’s exclusive main reading room.
Our first visit on the Hill was to Senator Tammy Baldwin’s office, joined State Representative Mandela Barnes, a member of NLC-Madison’s advisory board. We were meeting with her Chief of Staff, Bill Murat, to discuss NLC’s role in cultivating future leaders of Wisconsin’s progressive movement when one of the current leaders, Senator Baldwin herself, joined our meeting. Senator Baldwin discussed her day’s schedule and shared her excitement for the Equality Act’s introduction before taking our questions and posing for a photo. We thanked both her and Bill for their time and leadership, and for inspiring us.
We were guided under the Capitol via the Senate Subway and a dizzying labyrinth of tunnels to the office of Rep. Mark Pocan, who has been a strong supporter of NLC. His staff kindly guided us through a tour of the U.S. Capitol building and we visited the House of Representatives Chamber. Our day concluded with an NLC welcome reception on the Hill, where we celebrated NLC with the NLC family and several members of Congress.
Friday morning convened at the historic Decatur House, which is in the shadow of the White House on Lafayette Square. Panels of industry experts covered topics including technology and innovation, healthcare, and sustainability. Our guest keynote speakers for the day were former Senator Byron Dorgan, strategist Christine Pelosi, Texas State Senator Wendy Davis, and journalist Chuck Todd. Former Sen. Dorgan shared insights from his decades in elected office and stressed the importance of continual innovation to our nation’s progress. After an impassioned introduction by Pelosi, Sen. Davis encouraged us to make our politics personal; she reminded us that “Behind our lofty ideals, there are people” and urged us to tell both their stories and our own. Todd offered his assessment of today’s political and media landscape, and urged an ascending generation that “History is filled with a whole bunch of people who didn’t wait their turn.”
We then had the honor of visiting the White House complex. We attended a policy discussion in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. The session was highly informative about the Obama administration’s work on immigration, racial equality, and education. Madison Alder Maurice Cheeks, a member of NLC-Madison’s board, got a shout out for his involvement with Madison’s My Brother’s Keeper program.
Our day concluded with a sobering nighttime walk of the monuments. We started outside the White House, walked through the pond dedicated to the signers of the Declaration of Independence, visited the Vietnam War Memorial, read the speeches on the walls of the Lincoln Monument, stared into the eyes of the soldiers at the Korean War Memorial, discussed the virtues of the new Martin Luther King Jr. monument, meandered through the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, and sat and discussed local politics as only political junkies like us could do on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial. To our surprise, it was 2am before we knew it and we called it a night without visiting our intended final stop, the World War II Memorial. It will make a worthy addition to the agenda for a future visit. Having seen most of these monuments in both daylight and moonlight, I definitely suggest doing the latter if possible.
Saturday at the retreat was largely dedicated to the NLC organization. The day began with the “State of NLC” address from executive director Mark Riddle, followed by sessions assessing our recent accomplishments and strategizing for our future successes. Our morning keynote speaker, New York Assemblyman Michael Blake, electrified the audience as he spoke with the passion of a preacher about his journey from humble beginnings to a life dedicated to public service.
The conference concluded with an awards dinner at the National Press Club, with addresses from HUD Secretary Julián Castro and Congresswoman Donna Edwards of Maryland. NLC-Madison was awarded the prestigious “Institute of the Year” award for outstanding programming.
It was a terrific retreat and I’m so glad I got to join my colleagues from NLC-Madison. This was a wonderful complement to my experience as an NLC fellow. Please consider applying for the next class of NLC-Madison fellows, or nominating someone who would benefit from NLC as much as I have.
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