Interview with Yohannes Abraham: Reflections on Public Service, Civic Engagement and the White House

Yohannes Abraham, Chief of Staff of the White House Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs. (Courtesy Photo)

Tadias Magazine
By Tadias Staff

Published: Monday, December 19th, 2016

New York (TADIAS) — As the first Ethiopian American in a senior White House role, Yohannes Abraham is a trailblazer in both our community and within the larger African Diaspora in America. Since 2009, he has worked diligently inside the White House, only steps away from the Oval Office, helping to shape the Obama legacy while serving as Chief of Staff to Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to President Obama.

Reflecting back on the past eight years and the personal journey that led him to serve in the historic presidency of Barack Obama, Yohannes credits his parents first and foremost for his interest in public service and civic engagement.

“It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact time when I became interested in public service, because serving our community and country was always part of the family dialogue,” Yohannes tells Tadias in a recent interview. “Both my parents are proud U.S. citizens, and they wanted us to be engaged citizens as well.” His mother and father immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia in the 60s and Yohannes was born in Alexandria, VA and raised in Springfield.

“I attended Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology and was a Political Science major at Yale, focusing on U.S. foreign policy” Yohannes adds, noting that his parents raised him and his sister with a strong sense of service to community and the importance of helping people.

What solidified Yohannes’ choice to work in government and politics was a desire to give back. “I am lucky to have always had an extremely supportive family,” Yohannes says. “My parents gave my sister and me a great foundation and made clear to us that it was incumbent upon us to give back, reminding us that not everyone had the same opportunities that we had.”

Shortly after graduating from Yale, Yohannes secured a job with Senator Obama’s campaign in Iowa in 2007 with the assistance of a fellow Ethiopian American.

Like many young people at the time in this country, Yohannes points out that the inspiring moment for him came following the 2004 election, where one of the high points was the election of Obama as a Senator. “At the time I was in college, and I was captivated by his 2004 convention speech,” Yohannes remembers. “When he won the Senate seat I followed him more closely and realized that his values were very much aligned with my own, and that from a vision and policy perspective he stood for things that I was passionate about.”

For Yohannes, there are many highlights from his job organizing 14 precincts in Iowa for the President’s first campaign. “There were many memorable parts of working on the campaign, and it was especially interesting to be there early on in Iowa. We were a relatively small team. None of us went to Iowa because we wanted to work in the White House one day – that wouldn’t have been a smart bet at the time. We were there because we believed, and we worked hard to build support for the Senator, block by block, voter by voter. We became a part of the communities we lived in, and we built a sense of family with our teammates. It was not glamorous stuff…we would work all week to get a couple hundred people to come see him,” Yohannes shares. “It was pretty incredible going from those smaller events of a couple hundred people to events with tens thousands of people over time.

And what was the most memorable moment of working for President Obama at the White House?

“The night that the House passed the Affordable Care Act,” Yohannes fires back. “It was a moment that I felt we did something good to improve people’s lives. That’s the good stuff. Of course, I’m hugely grateful to have had the opportunity to do some very cool things, and I treasure those memories as well – Air Force One, formal dinners, those sort of things are once in a lifetime. But the best memories are either when we moved the needle in a way that did some good in the world, or simple moments of camaraderie with teammates. In fact the best part of my job is the team that he put around him that I have had the chance to work with, and became friends with. It’s a group of really talented, committed people.”

“As my Chief of Staff, Yohannes has been one of my closest and most trusted advisors,” his boss Valerie Jarrett shares. “He’s smart, passionate, hardworking, and most importantly deeply committed to helping people. It’s been a great joy having him by my side over the past four years, and I’ve enjoyed watching him ‎grow into the talented leader that he is today. I have no doubt that he will continue to be a force for good in whatever he does in the future.”

Yohannes is also quick to point out that he is not alone in having served as an Ethiopian American in the current administration. “There are several Ethiopian Americans in the administration, some of them in very senior positions,” he shared. “If you speak with any of them and chart their path you’ll come up with a few common threads. You’ll see that there is a real commitment to education. I think you’ll also see that most of them followed their passion and raised their hand to be helpful. There’s no road map or secret memo that lays out the path to making a difference. If you see a cause or candidate that moves you, show up. Lend a hand. Don’t wait for a formal invitation.”

Among those making a difference is fellow Ethiopian American Henock Dory, a White House Staff Assistant and Policy Advisor, who reports to Yohannes.

“Working for Yohannes has been a truly invaluable experience,” Henock said in a statement sent to Tadias. “His dedication to serving both his country and the Ethiopian American community is driven by a passion and work ethic that knows no bounds. As a young Ethiopian American myself, I’ve been fortunate to find in him a role model and mentor that inspires me to emulate the integrity, intellect, and leadership he displays on a daily basis. I’m eager to see how the example he has set, the work he has executed, and his future accomplishments will carry our community forward.”

And what role did mentors have in Yohannes’ career trajectory? “First and foremost, it’s my parents who are my mentors,” Yohannes explains. “Over the course of my service for President Obama they were my constant rock, giving me wisdom and strength when I was frustrated or discouraged. Look, they came to the United States not knowing anyone, immigrating to a country where they barely spoke the language and had no family and little money. In the face of all that, they worked their way through college and graduate school and built successful professional careers. They did all that to build a better life for us here, and they are my inspiration. Now, in addition to my parents, I also have also had fantastic bosses who have helped me along the way. Over the course of these past years, Valerie Jarrett has been both a fantastic boss and friend; she is like a member of my family. She is a really strong and active force in my life. Another great mentor is Jeff Zientz, Director of the National Economic Council.

“Yohannes possesses a rare combination of intellect, drive, and leadership ability. He is one of the most effective individuals I have had the privilege to work with across my decades of experience in the private sector, and, more recently, in government,” says Jeff Zientz. “Most importantly, Yohannes is at his core a dedicated, high-integrity person. I look forward to seeing the good he will do for the world in the years to come.”

Of course, along with all the things Yohannes loves about his job come the challenges.

“Firstly, even when things are bad, even when things aren’t necessarily fun you never have to doubt that the work you are doing is important. What you do matters to people’s lives” Yohannes emphasizes. “It’s highly motivating to know that if you do a good job you help more people, and if you do a bad job you help less people. This is something that has kept me and the whole team energized. What I really enjoy about the job is being surrounded by people who are as committed to the work as you are, and are going the extra mile — it gives you the strength to do so yourself.”

“The challenges are varied,” Yohannes adds. “No two days, let alone two weeks are the same. Only a certain percentage of the day works out as you assumed, and the challenges range from dealing with a natural disaster to working in support of a priority item on the legislative docket; not having a template makes it exciting. There is also the challenge of losing time with family and friends. I definitely wish I had seen more of my family. Some of my younger cousins are now talking about driver’s permits — I blinked and now they are young adults.”

Asked to sum up his current motto in three words, Yohannes responds: “Try to Help.” He elaborates on this message a bit more to say: “this runs across both professional and personal life. It is a driving force in my life and it’s largely driven by my parents who stressed the importance of giving back. It’s part of my Christian faith. This is not to say that it’s unique just to the Christian faith, but I was raised to believe that it’s incumbent on me to help folks that might not be in a position to help themselves or go it alone.”

Yohannes encourages the broader Ethiopian community to remain engaged.

“I think it’s important for those of us who were born in this country to fully appreciate the sacrifices our parents made to forge better lives for us. That puts whatever challenges we face — however daunting they may be — into context. When I think about the scale of the obstacles my own parents faced as compared to my own, I’m both humbled by and deeply grateful for their incredible strength of character. I think an important way for my generation to honor our parents and the foundation they have created for us is to be active, engaged citizens here in America. Think about it. Our parents moved to a new country, in most cases knowing no one, having nothing, and speaking little English. They did so in the hopes of finding a better life for their families, and by and large they did. We are the beneficiaries of their choices, and we owe it to them to make the most of the opportunities they unlocked for us. We also owe it to our communities, and America writ large, to contribute to the diverse fabric of civic life. Doing so makes the country stronger, and it makes our community’s voice stronger within it.”

“In much the same vein, as a newer immigrant community, we owe it to those who fought for justice in the country before we ever got here — Latino farmworkers, civil rights organizers, foot soldiers in the women’s suffrage movement, and so on — to be good stewards of the duty of citizenship. If a civil rights organizer could risk their life for the right to vote, what excuse do we have to not be first in line at the polls? What excuse do we have to be unregistered or apathetic? What excuse do we have to ignore the plight of other communities that may find themselves in need of allies in the face of injustice? To my mind, none. That’s why I’ve been so happy to see a surge of civic engagement amongst younger Ethiopian Americans in the past few years. I hope it’s something that will continue.”

Last but not least, Tadias posed the question of a future run for Congress or Senate to Yohannes, and although he doesn’t yet know if he’ll run for office he certainly has “100% clarity” that he is going to stay involved in public service.

“I’ve seen firsthand many examples of how active civic participation can lead to change and I’m committed to being a part of that for the rest of my life,” Yohannes shares. “Big picture, I hope in the near future we have Ethiopian American Senators, Governors, and Mayors. That hope is not unique to politics — I also hope we have Ethiopian American Generals, Admirals, CEOs, union presidents, and news anchors. That’s what we should aspire to as a community. As for me personally, I’ve seen that there are a lot of ways to be of service without running for office, and so I plan to focus more on what I want to see get done than on where I want to be. That could lead me in a lot of different directions.”


Related:
Overview of White House Ethiopian American Policy Briefing
White House Ethiopian American Policy Briefing and Civic Engagement

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