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Making Themselves At Home Beyond the White House Walls

By Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The worker bees of federal Washington -- people like Mazzie Simmons of Waldorf, who commutes 30 miles to her desk as a retirement specialist at the Office of Personnel Management -- don't expect to hear high praise from the White House, or from anyone else, for that matter. "Nobody ever comes to say, 'Thank you for what you people do,' " she says.

Until, that is, Michelle Obama dropped by the agency last week, shook hands with hundreds of civil servants and lauded their dedication. In her 35 years in government, Simmons had never seen such a thing. Obama, a political rock star and fashion sensation worldwide, impressed Simmons as a down-to-earth woman who has "the interest of people at heart."

It was the ninth time the first lady had come to a federal agency, always to tumultuous welcome, to deliver a pep talk. From the auditorium stage, she told the bureaucrats that such visits give her the chance "to better understand not just the work that you do but the lives that you live."

Political hype? To a degree. But in their extraordinary outreach to ordinary local people, the Obamas have made themselves known to Washington in a way that no first couple has in modern memory -- crossing lines of race, class and power since moving into the White House.

"It's been nothing short of incredible," says Mayor Adrian Fenty. "It's really an unprecedented level of energy and commitment to Washington, D.C., and the issues that are important to the people who live here. It brings an excitement to the city that I haven't seen before, and I've lived here my whole life."

Locals know that Washington isn't one city but three. There is the federal core with its marble monuments and hives of government toilers. There are the leafy enclaves of the prosperous class, mainly in Northwest. And then there's the sprawling "other" Washington where poverty and crime persist.

Together or separately, the president and his wife have paid attention to all three -- but considerably more than their predecessors to low-income neighborhoods. They've staged events at public schools and community centers. On the service day held before the inauguration, he wielded a paintbrush at Sasha Bruce Youthwork, an emergency shelter for teens; last month she dished out risotto to the homeless at Miriam's Kitchen.

And today, Michelle Obama has invited Jill Biden and a small army of congressional spouses and kids to bag food at the Capital Area Food Bank for distribution to a thousand school children who depend on the program to eat.

Besides do-gooder events, the first couple are also also prone to spontaneous, we're-just-folks outings: There's the president sitting courtside at Verizon Center, watching the Chicago Bulls; there's the first lady and her staff having burgers at Five Guys in Dupont Circle. Michelle Obama also expands her social circle on the weekends, cheering on her daughters at soccer and basketball games along with other parents.

"They are trying to become familiar with all of Washington," says longtime resident and Democratic strategist Donna Brazile. "They're good neighbors."

Not long after his election, Barack Obama spoke of wanting to "open up the White House," and his wife talked of "contributing to the community. " As first ladies often do, Michelle Obama has taken up the mantle of goodwill emissary and cheerleader for her husband's agenda. Doing so has pushed her to the forefront of community engagement. Along with introducing herself to thousands of federal workers, she has invited several hundred kids from low-income neighborhoods to White House events.

At a White House bill-signing in February, Brazile says she approached Michelle Obama and said, "Madame first lady, don't forget Anacostia. Many people often forget about the kind of places where we grew up."

As African Americans who did community and nonprofit work in Chicago, the Obamas were already inclined to push themes of public service and volunteerism. But as outsiders, they needed connections to help turn words into deeds. How do you find the youth conservation group to plant trees with in Kenilworth, as they did last week? Or settle on the SEED public boarding school in Southeast as an exemplar of education for urban kids?

One important hire was Jocelyn Frye, a Washington native and classmate of Michelle Obama's at Harvard Law School. Frye serves in a dual role: as a domestic policy adviser to the president and director of policy and projects for the first lady. She describes herself as part of the "connective tissue" between the East and West wings.

"The outreach starts with both of them; it is part of their style," Frye says. "When she and her family moved here they didn't just want to sit behind four walls. They wanted to get out."

Frye spent 15 years at the nonprofit National Partnership for Women and Families in Washington. She is among the few administration staffers with lobbying backgrounds who received exemptions from its non-lobbyist hiring policy.

Now her work includes finding places where a visit or activity by the first lady will tie into a broader theme or agenda. "It's easy to write down on a piece of paper that you want to inspire people; it's harder to make that real," she says. Frye put at least three local sites on Michelle Obama's radar: Miriam's Kitchen at 24th and G streets NW, Mary's Center for Maternal and Child Care in Adams Morgan, and Anacostia High School -- all of which the first lady visited. (Frye also suggested two lunch spots Michelle Obama went to with local leaders: B. Smith's and Georgia Brown's.)

In her remarks, particularly to young people, Obama invariably stresses the importance of diligence and personal responsibility. She tells of being an ordinary girl growing up in a working-class family on Chicago's South Side -- but look where she is now, thanks to hard work.

"I have, in some way, been where you are, because, you know, I didn't come into this position with a lot of wealth, with a lot of resources," she told a group of mostly Latino teens in an after-school program at Mary's Center in February. "There is no magic dust that was sprinkled on my head or on Barack's head. We were kids much like you who figured out one day that our fate was in our own hands.

" . . . I feel like it's an obligation for me to share some of that with you. If it's as simple as sitting around in a circle answering questions or being in a room shaking a hand or giving a hug or reading a story, I want you all to see me and to see Barack, and to have access to whatever we can offer."

After reading to children in a day-care classroom that afternoon, Obama learned that some 80 other staffers had hoped to meet her, too, before she went to talk with the teenagers. But the Secret Service had a problem: Only 15 of the center's management types had been cleared. The solution: Cafeteria tables were lined up in the kitchen to serve as an impromptu barrier that Obama could reach across to proffer handshakes and photo opportunities to everyone, including janitors.

"She made it very personal," says Mary's Center CEO Maria Gomez, a public health nurse who founded the clinic in 1988.

The Obamas' focus on local service groups, as opposed to national ones, has had a multiplier effect. The publicity inspires volunteers and donations. In her 35 years working with teens in crisis, says Deborah Shore, executive director of Sasha Bruce Youthwork, a president had never visited. After Obama did, the number of volunteer calls rose five-fold. "It makes such a difference, really," she says.

The same is true at Mary's Center. And over at Miriam's Kitchen, an entirely new crew of volunteers is expected to arrive soon: members of the first lady's own staff.

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