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Reflections: My Week on the Hill

By: Naomi L. Adler, Esq., President & CEO, United Way of Westchester and Putnam

Attending the State of the Union:  As I was being introduced by Congresswoman Nita Lowey to Leader Nancy Pelosi at a pre-speech reception off the House floor on Tuesday evening, I had a flashback to a moment during our United Way's recent disaster response efforts. It was at 5am, two days after Superstorm Sandy, and many of us had been sleeping on the floor of our offices, working around the clock. At that moment, I realized that my Community Impact and 211 teams had to immediately respond to a food scarcity crisis while continuing to field thousands of other calls for help. The moment felt a bit sureal, but we knew that our United Way team of staff and volunteers had built the tools and relationships to rise to the challenge. Yet again, I was humbled by this unique moment that I was able to experience because of the power of United Way.

Throughout the night, as soon as I mentioned that I was the CEO of a United Way in Westchester and Putnam, so many of the other Congressional representatives and their guests smiled widely as they told me how THEY were engaged with their local United Way. Surrounding me were proud Board members and Campaign chairs -- business leaders, from Pennsylvania, Florida, Iowa and beyond, all of whom made a point to tell me how proud they were to be working with our network!

In the front row of the galley area of the House of Representatives, sitting 30 seats down from the First Lady, I watched the members of the Supreme Court parade in with all of the other dignitaries and remembered the moment that I left the formal practice of law as a prosecutor to engage in our very different kind of advocacy. At the time, I was worried whether the new work would be as engaging and if I would still be able to help parents and children so directly. But here I was, just a few feet away from President Obama, listening to him talk passionately about how critically important early childhood education is to the future of our nation, thinking about how our United Way had been saying the very same thing in campaign speeches and Born Learning Trail ribbon cuttings throughout so many years.

Advocating on the Hill:  The day after the speech, I joined many of my CEO colleagues from around the nation as we went over to advocate on the Hill. We went from office to office, talking to our Members and their staff, many of whom were surprised to hear about the scope of our work in their districts. It was clear that our positions within our United Ways had given us valuable insight. We also had a unique ability to show that the impact of eliminating the charitable deduction and imposing sequestration on health and human service programs (such as Head Start and EFSP) would be catestrophic. 

One of the staff members with whom I met,commented that he had heard that I had been in Albany, New York on Monday, February 11 (on 2-1-1 day, to remind our state elected officials about how we needed their continued support of the statewide 2-1-1 system).  "We use your 2-1-1 helpline every day", he said. "And I think that your financial education work has really made a difference in Yonkers." I almost whipped out my iPhone and asked him to repeat it for the camera!

Testifying before Congress:  On Thursday, I attended the first half of the United Way WorldWide CEO Summit and headed over to the Hill again to testify in front of the House Ways and Means Committee. 13 of my colleagues participated as well, representing United Ways of various sizes and geographies. I will never forget the honor of being introduced (I could just hear my family and friends cheer from their computers as they watched the webstream!) as well as the impact of learning from the others who so passionately spoke about their organizations. 

As I return on the train to New York, I know that there is a lot of work back home that awaits me, much of it well away from the spotlight, as much of what United Ways do is "behind the scenes". But this week taught me that this work is more important than ever, and that our friends and supporters can be found everywhere -- in the Halls of Congress and even in the House Gallery during an amazing moment of history.