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Activist, Scholar, Dandy

West Wingers

In conversation with Gautam Raghavan
By Gautam Raghavan |
JANUARY 13, 2020

President Barack Obama talks with Gautam Raghavan in the Red Room of the White House, June 13, 2013.
(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Gautam Raghavan served as President Barack Obama’s liaison to the LGBTQ community as well as the Asian American and Pacific Islander community from 2011 to 2014. Earlier in the Obama administration, he worked for the U.S. Department of Defense and served on the Pentagon’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” working group. Previously, Raghavan worked for Progressive Majority, the Democratic National Committee, and the 2008 Obama campaign. Currently, he is the Chief of Staff for U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal (WA-07).

What idea is at the heart of your book and what new way would you like people to think about it?

West Wingers isn’t just about working in the White House; it’s about public service. Sadly, in recent years – and I believe due to the actions and approach of the current inhabitant of the White House – Americans have lost faith in government and grown cynical about the people who work there. My goal in editing this collection of stories was to remind readers about the nobility of public service and the experiences and stories that motivated so many of us to work in the White House and give back to this great country.

Is there anything in your personal life or that of someone you know that inspired you to care about this topic?

I vividly remember watching The West Wing throughout high school and college and being so deeply inspired by the stories and especially the characters: passionate patriots doing their best despite challenging circumstances. When I finally found myself working in the actual White House, I found that same cast of passionate patriots – people from every walk of life who were inspired by Barack Obama and shared a commitment to making things better.

What did you learn while researching or writing that surprised you?

Two things: first, across the board, every single author who contributed to the collection talked about some version of “imposter syndrome” – about not feeling “good enough” to earn a place on the White House staff. These are brilliant people! Lawyers, activists, organizers who brought incredible talent and skill to their positions, and nearly all of them – from junior to senior staff – felt some level of inadequacy. The second thing I learned is that, as staff, we are not used to putting ourselves in the story. We are trained to talk about the boss or the cause, but not about ourselves. We all had to un-train that instinct and really think hard and reflect about what we felt, learned, and experienced during our time in the White House.

What resonance do you think your book has for the South Asian American community?

Three of the authors in West Wingers are South Asian American, and all of us wrote in some way about our immigration story and our experience as South Asian Americans. From Rumana Ahmed sharing her family’s experience with Islamophobia in the aftermath of September 11th to Aneesh Raman chronicling his father’s love of JFK and immigration to America to my reflections on American possibility and opportunity – I hope South Asian readers will find something in each of our stories that resonates with them.

Did you have a particular audience in mind when writing this book, and if so what do you hope they take away from reading it?

I very much hope young people read this collection and see that a career in public service is possible for them – especially young people of color, women, immigrants, LGBTQ folks and others who have historically been underrepresented in the halls of power. I never thought this career would have been available to me, and with so much cynicism and toxicity in politics, I worry that future generations will rule out politics and public service – when in fact, we need their engagement now more than ever.

What advice did you receive that really helped you in the writing process or what advice would you have for new authors? So many people want to write a book but it feels daunting. Did you have a process for writing, such as blocking off chunks of time per week, or writing each morning before checking email, or something else?

Having edited 17 of these stories – and written my own – I was struck by the different writing styles of each of the authors. Some of them were very methodical, sending multiple drafts every few weeks; others took their time to think and reflect, and when they finally wrote they churned out a gorgeous near-final draft. One of the authors was having difficulty putting pen to paper (or hand to keyboard), so we sat down and just had a casual conversation that I recorded and then turned into a loose outline – and then they got to work and it turned out beautifully. Turns out all they needed was to pretend like they were having a conversation with the reader! So my advice would be to figure out what process works best for you to get the most authentic and powerful content – and do that.

If there is some social or cultural or political change that could come about from people reading your book, however large or small, what would you like that to be?

Public service isn’t about cronyism or cynicism, or about lining your own pocket – it’s about giving back and making life better for your fellow American. I believe there is no platform that can make as big a difference in the daily lives of people as government – not the private sector, philanthropy, media, the arts – and with so much at stake, we desperately need people to believe once again in the power and potential of public service.

Gautam Raghavan is the Chief of Staff for U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal (WA-07). He worked under the Obama Administration as a liaison to both the LGBTQ+ and AAPI communities.