Legislative Assistant, Office of Congressman James P. Moran (D-VA, 8th), Washington, DC, 2010-present
New America Foundation, Consultant, Washington, DC, 2009-10
Catholic Relief Services
Country Representative, Jerusalem, 2005-8
Country Representative, Belgrade, 2001-5
Country Representative, Havana, 1998-2001
Senior Communications Associate, 1995-98
The University of Texas at Austin, MA (Latin American Studies) and MA (Communication), 1994
Georgetown University, BA (Philosophy), 1987
How do you define your cause?
I became interested in Capitol Hill because it fit with what I saw as a pattern that had developed in my professional life in international development. The programs that I most liked working on in international development involved connecting people to the processes of change affecting their lives. Many times it plays out in postconflict situations or times of major transition, such as in Serbia. After the wars, the country was changing the way it provided social services and dealt with vulnerable groups. The new government didn't have a way to engage citizens in the major social policy reforms under way, so Catholic Relief Services (CRS—see previously in this chapter), the organization I worked with, was trying to provide a space for that conversation.
We were trying to elicit insights from the affected communities and suggestions on how to reach them more effectively and more collaboratively. Our role was to provide a forum and a way for the people who had not been included in the national conversation to be included. Basically, it's about participation; the quality of participation determines the level of people's sense that they belong to a place, that they have a right to contribute to the national conversation.
After working on projects overseas, I was really interested in looking at the US perspective. Because of the preponderant role the United States plays in the world, we have a decisive impact on other countries. If we fail to advance the quality and scope of our participation here at home and the sense of belonging for people throughout society, then social development in so many other countries will face more setbacks and take much longer, with huge human consequences. They're looking to us as a model. It's kind of a romantic way of looking at my arrival on the Hill and my interest in working in politics. We have a lot of benefits here that other countries don't have and we have a lot of influence. What we do creates ripples of change that play out in developing countries.
What drew you to this cause and your field?
Curiosity, for one thing. I was always interested in the world when I was growing up. My family hosted international visitors, and my parents were active with our local Catholic parish council. When I graduated from college, I volunteered to go to Peru for a year through a Georgetown University program, which really changed my life. I fell in love with the people and the culture of Peru. I lived in a small village and got to know how they lived. I always was thinking, "How is the way we live in the United States affecting them?" The idea of doing something professionally to satisfy that curiosity was really a gift.
How would you describe your field?
I love the interaction that we get in our DC office with people who care about an issue. Sometimes I agree with them, sometimes I don't. But they are trying to affect change. For example, we have groups that come in to discuss human rights in Southeast Asia. Lately, Burma has been changing, Vietnam has been changing, and the question of China's role and our competition with China occupies a lot of attention in Congress. We have a lot of folks in the 8th district in Virginia who were born in the region: in China, Tibet, and Vietnam. It's really great the way that they are trying to affect change. It's not that different from the experience of working with a Serbian organization advancing the rights of people with disabilities, as I did in Belgrade. Their goal is to improve the quality and accessibility of services for the disabled. They were actually participating in the political process, which they had previously been denied.
In a general way, that's what I define as the focus of my career: facilitating the efforts of others to be involved in these political processes that affect their lives so much.
How would you describe your career path?
It's always been very much a work in progress. It often feels like I'm building a bridge while standing on it. I think that's the way a lot of people feel (laughs), but I just followed what I thought was interesting. And I was interested in the processes and what the people were trying to do to make them fairer. I think that's the essence of development: participation and fairness.
I wasn't the kind of person in international development who got a big adrenaline rush from emergencies and crisis response. Obviously, when you work for Catholic Relief Services, or CARE, or Save the Children, you will be involved in emergency response and post-conflict work. It's incredibly compelling. And that's what I did at first. I started out in Cuba, then worked in postgenocide Rwanda for a short period. I worked in East Timor as the conflict ended there. There are people who spend their whole lives doing emergency response, and they get really good at it. But that wasn't me. I was always more attracted to governance.
Where did you start, and how did it help you get to where you are today?
The importance of service was always a big component of my family life, the importance of trying to be a part of the community. My whole family went on a church-sponsored trip to work in a very poor community in Appalachia. I was too young to go, but they always had stories about this experience. It probably wasn't the best model of development, but it was something that got my family involved in the lives of others. I think that stuck with me.
What are the major day-to-day activities of your current position?
I'd love to say I spend a lot of time thinking deep thoughts and writing laws, but it doesn't always work that way, especially when you're in the minority party. A lot of my job is serving the constituents. We have a very active and well-informed community in Northern Virginia, and you have to respond to the things that concern them.
Right now we're working on humanitarian assistance to Syria. I'm trying to figure out if there is a way that we can do something, even while the conflict is still raging, to help the administration and to help the civilians who are being harmed by the conflict.
You communicate with the administration to bring focus to issues, you try to develop consensus with staff in other offices. Congressman Moran has a strong interest in gender equity in US foreign policy and asked me to draft a letter to the State Department highlighting the importance of specialized assistance to victims of rape and other gender-based violence in Syria. I worked with NGOs and the staffs of other members of Congress—about fifteen members signed—and that helped to raise the profile of this issue. Usually I'm working on two or three collaborative projects like that.
There's a certain amount of time spent supervising and mentoring. The congressman has made providing quality internships for young people a top priority. We always have interns in the office, and we consider it an important part of the job to help them figure out what they want to do and how things operate in a congressional office.
What is your best advice for developing networking skills?
When I look back, I wish I'd been more courageous in reaching out to people whom I respected or that I wanted to emulate. You shouldn't be shy or hesitate to contact people who have written something that impressed you or done something that you think is intriguing and admirable. Just get into the conversation. I would advise people to get involved in that community, to reach out, to do your best to learn and be involved.
The Hill can be an isolating, alienating place. It's big and can seem impenetrable. So it's really important to network and develop relationships that are not just about transactions, because it can also be a very transactional place (laughs). But it's a very big community and a fairly diverse community. You have to make yourself go out of your comfort zone of just being at your desk and writing emails. You need to find people in different communities involved in different issues.
Do you have a mentor? How has he or she affected your life and career?
Yes, I've had mentors I met through academic or professional circles; over time they became friends. In particular, I think of a Jesuit professor at Georgetown who has been a close friend for decades. And I just hit it off with my first boss at CRS. We still talk regularly, and I feel like she's part of my family. Cardinal McCarrick, a CRS board member, has been a mentor to me. I got to know him while hosting his visits to Belgrade and Jerusalem when I was posted there. He was always willing to talk, to ask about my family, to offer advice, and even to ask me for help. I never really thought of these relationships as formal mentoring relationships, but that's what they are.
But I also feel I haven't done a good enough job of cultivating these relationships. My advice would be to reach out for help and counsel when you're looking for work. Do it all the time, and make it a priority.
Do you consider yourself a mentor to others?
I have a big family, and I've developed a kind of mentoring relationship with the ones who are getting to college age and beyond. It's a gratifying thing if somebody, especially a younger person, wants to discuss things with you.
I've also been able to maintain friendships with younger colleagues and interns from different jobs. I don't know if I'm doing it right because I don't tend to reach out to them. I'll feel like I'm interfering. But if they're interested, then that's great. In particular, a couple of the interns who have come through Mr. Moran's office have stayed in touch, and I like it. It's great to talk to them. They're super smart, and I feel honored to write their recommendations or to introduce them to friends who I think might also be able to give them advice.
How have you maintained a balance between work and personal life?
It was more difficult living on my own in other countries. Work can become your whole life. But I'm a pretty outgoing person, and I've developed friendships around the world. It's important to be able to decompress and socialize. Basketball was always a way for me to do that overseas. Regular periods of R&R are helpful.
When I was working overseas, I always went home during the holidays, when things tended to slow down. Interaction with my family has been really important, especially my nieces and nephews. I've been able to maintain really close relationships, even though most of the time I've been far away. And now, with a wife and daughter, I have absolutely no difficulty carving out a very happy but busy personal life outside of work! It helps that my boss and my colleagues are so accommodating.
What lessons have you learned as your career has progressed?
You should be willing to reach out to other people and explore ideas. That's really important to somebody just starting out. A lot of time people think it's not their personality to do this. But they should do their best anyway. I think it's rewarding.
Always ask questions. I don't do that a lot, but I've learned a lot from my wife, who is really fearless about that. It's okay not to know something, to seek to understand something. It doesn't necessarily reveal something bad about you. If you don't know something, that's okay. Asking questions is important. I should have learned this a long time ago . . . (laughs).