Sometimes you meet a person, and their drive and motivation inspires you to the core. Jenna Brayton is certainly that person in my life. I had the privilege of meeting Jenna Brayton in 2015 while she was working under the Obama administration. The event was beyond meaningful, as it was celebrating the lifted ban on photography in the White House. Little did I know though, that I’d walk away from the event with more than just photographs… but a dear, dear friend.
Now, Jenna is an advocate, professor and community builder. I wanted to spotlight Jenna’s incredible story and also share her inspiring writing in her book “Yes She Can” – a collection of stories from the female staffers of the Obama Administration. I just know so many other Dame Travelers would love its message of encouragement and hope. Without further ado, here’s Jenna!
Hi Jenna, could you tell us a little about your story? What is your background and what was your journey to becoming a best selling author?
Of course! My story begins with President Obama – I was deeply inspired by him. I grew up in Chicago, and I had heard about him pretty early on because he was my state senator. When I graduated, I knew I wanted to work for him and I was able to find a position on his campaign. From there, I was able to translate that position into a job at the White House. After I left the White House, one of my colleagues (and friend!) came to me and suggested turning our collective experiences into a book – and here we are!
We actually met during this time at the White House! Could you tell our readers how our meeting story?
When I was working at the White House in 2015, I helped put together an event with the First Lady’s office and the Visitor’s Office to roll out a new policy allowing photography on the grounds. We wanted to bring in popular Instagrammers to announce the change and loved your work at Dame Traveler. We invited you to participate in the event and when you got there we hit it off immediately. As luck would have it, both of us ended up in New York City later and the rest is history. You’re wonderful and I love you!
What inspired the focus of “Yes She Can”?
I know for me I really wanted to show young women that there was an opportunity for them in a place like the White House. When I was writing my chapter, and when we were thinking about the larger book, I thought a lot about college-aged Jenna, and what would have helped and inspired her at the time. Back then I had no idea that young women could – and were! – working in a place like the White House. And even if I had some vague sense of it, I had no idea how to get there in my own career. Many of us who wrote this book say that “you can’t be what you can’t see” and in large part I think we were just trying to stand up and show women that this was an option for them if they wanted it.
Have you always found yourself interested in politics?
It’s always been an interest, but I haven’t always thought that I wanted to work in politics. Obama’s first presidential run was the first time that I thought about pursuing that path, and it’s entirely because I wanted to work for him. I was a bit of an Obama fan girl, and he was the impetus for my own time in politics.
What drew you to write about the White House?
We really wanted to show young women that this was possible. If we could do it, they could too. And, we really wanted to showcase the breadth of positions at the White House. I’m a political scientist by training, and I now teach classes on public policy, so it was sort of a natural fit for me. But it’s important that young women with a lot of different backgrounds and interests pursue jobs at the White House. My coauthor Elle Celeste is a scientist. My other coauthor Taylor Lustig worked in the faith office at the White House on outreach to religious communities. There are so many different types of people who work there, and we really wanted to show women that you don’t have to be a political scientist or even be interested in policy work to take a position there. The White House needs people with expertise in every area imaginable. We were very much trying to inspire the next generation of scientists, lawyers, teachers, and writers to think about spending a few years of their career working for the government – we think they’d learn a lot and we know the government needs them!
We’re so inspired by “Yes She Can”‘s message of empowering women to use their voices and make a difference. What takeaways do you want your readers to leave with after finishing your book?
I’d love for readers to feel like they see themselves and realize that they have the ability to do something. None of us were senior staffers at the White House – we all worked there when we were in our twenties – but we were all able to execute these incredible, impactful projects despite our age. Taylor Lustig wrote about helping plan the Pope’s visit to the White House to meet with President Obama. Andrea Flores wrote about helping the White House fight to get comprehensive immigration reform passed. Kalisha Dessources Figures wrote about bringing together one of the largest White House summits in history – the United State of Women – and filling the event with black girl magic. These were monumental moments, and we were lucky enough to not only get a chance to be there for them, but to help shape them. And we hope that our readers put down our book and realize they can work to try to shape the world too. Young women can and do change history every day.
I’d also love for our readers to have the confidence to just try things. Many of us didn’t know how to do the things we wrote up when we first started. Speaking only for myself, I had no idea how to build a film festival, much less one hosted and attended by the President of the United States. But I just got to it. Perseverance and problem solving skills go a lot further than many people think. I think that’s a really critical lesson, especially in our modern economy where career paths are less clear. I hope that young women read our book and just go out there and attempt things. And I hope they know that as they do that, if they make a mistake that that’s okay. It’s part of the learning process. In my coauthor Nita Contreas’ story, she wrote about making a mistake as she was flying on Air Force One, in front of President Obama – the stakes don’t get much higher than that! And it turned out fine!
I also think Dame Traveler is a great example of all of these lessons too – I’m sure you didn’t know exactly how to build this incredible, female-focused community until you tried! And I’m sure you’ve changed trajectories along the way. I hope people learn from both of us in that sense.
This is so necessary in our modern world, especially the encouragement and inspiration stories of the women featured in the book. How did you ever choose who to feature in it?!
I actually did not choose! The book was put together by my friend Molly Dillon, and she sort of assembled a group of White House friends. However, our agent is the one who chose to feature ten. Molly could have kept going! All of us always say that there are so many incredible young voices from the Obama White House that we could have featured hundreds more. We were just ten of many who could have put this book together.
What advice would you give other young women navigating through a heavily male-dominated landscape?
When they get in a position to do so, hire more women! But beyond that, be themselves! That advice is often viewed as a little contradictory, because society sometimes makes us think we need to fit in to be successful. But I think increasingly there’s a recognition that women bring something unique to the table, and we don’t have to try to fit in in order to get what we want. There’s enormous value and beauty in standing out, and I hope that all young women see that.
Title image by Carey Wagner.