Federal Connections – Inauguration Insight

I set my alarm for 3:30 am so that I would make it on the first subway train out of Virginia, into DC. I had signed up as an Inauguration Volunteer – one of those people wearing the little red caps – and had to be at the foot of the Washington monument by 5 a.m. to meet my team. Surely, I thought, the first train would not be full. Wrong. The 4:05 a.m. pulling into the station was packed, and I barely squeezed in. Yet people smiled and joked. A man from Louisiana made me promise not to breathe out, only breathe in.

At our volunteer designation point on the Mall, only about two-thirds of our team had been able to make it in on time. I was one of the lucky ones; the biting cold whipping across my face was only a small discomfort. I stomped my feet, and worked at pulling my gloved hands as far up as I could into the arms of my coat. In the dark, not just the moon but three monuments lit the way. From where I stood, I could see the Capitol, the Washington Monument, and, at the far end, glowing just as bright, the Lincoln Memorial.

We counted off and moved to our “stations.” My job, I was told, was to help people find the Porta-potties, the First Aid tent, the Mall (“Is this the Mall?” out-of-towners are known to ask as they stand on the Mall). At 7 a.m., only a few people had trickled in, and the thought came to me (as if it were my party!), “What if people don’t show up?” By 8 a.m., the trickle turned to a flood, and my worries changed. “What if I get crushed in the mob?” I went off to help one woman who was afraid she was going to faint, getting her to the First Aid tent and then to a museum to warm up. After that was done, I had to give up on the idea of working as part of a team, as there was no way I would make it back through the crowd. I saw that other red-hatted people also had dispersed, having gone off doing similar deeds. So I went solo, trying to help as I went along, asking those who looked lost if they were lost, reassuring a woman who had lost her son that I had just seen a park ranger go by with a boy that fit her son’s description, and getting a man who was feeling claustrophobic some space.

At one point, I found myself in a crowd blocked off by the National Guard, or whoever the people in camouflage were, unable to get back to where I was supposed to be. For a brief moment, I admit, I was irritated. “Wait, I’m a volunteer! Don’t you see my red cap? You should let me across!” There was no changing his mind. He was kind and friendly, but he had his orders.

That’s when it hit me. My little red cap gave me no power but the power within. It gave me no authority but the authority to try to bring whatever I had in me to help others. That little red cap was on my head for me, to remind me of my purpose that day. “You must be the change you wish to see in the world,” Gandhi had said. I noticed something else, too. All around me, people without red caps were being helpful to others, calming people down, making light of the crowded condition, empathizing with the people who had tickets for the seated area and who could not get there.

There were many glitches that day, from the overcrowded trains, to the illogic of which entry points were open and which closed, to the lack of a coordinated exit strategy at the end. There is surely a “lessons learned” exercise underway somewhere. But that’s not what I will remember when I look back on January 20, 2009. What I will remember is how nearly two million people, complete strangers packed so tight at times it was hard to breathe, chose to see the person standing beside them as a friend, not a danger; as someone to help, not fend off; as someone who, like them, wanted to share in this moment in history. When finally, after all that waiting in the cold, our new President spoke, his words touched me directly: “On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.”

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Don Jacobson

Abigail – Thanks for sharing your terrific story of service. I love your line about realizing that the “little red cap…gave me no authority but the authority to try to bring whatever I had in me to help others. That little red cap was on my head for me, to remind me of my purpose that day.” And that’s very cool how others–who didn’t have the little red cap–also took ownership of their reaction to others and chose to help. It’s the same way in government. We can all–no matter what level we are–take ownership of our work in order to make things better for someone (whether it’s a colleague or a customer).

It sounds like it was very inspiring to be a part of the crowd.


Rachel Liss

I wish I could have been part of a crowd. I was at work and management promised they would have a live feed from CNN set up in the cafeterias of each building on campus.

It turned out that they intended to use laptops and projectors to access CNN online and project the live video onto a movie screen.

However, they failed to reckon on the millions of online users accessing the same thing. The video kept on being dropped and eventually the IT guys turned the whole thing off and wandered away. We eventually received an e-mail directing people at work to stop watching the events at their desks because it was slowing the system down… *rolls eyes*

Later, I heard that one of the buildings got the set-up going, but the IT guys never came back to my building that day.

I ended up listening to a little bit of it by accessing a local news station on-line, but stopped when I realized the important part was over.

I didn’t see Obama speaking until I found the video on Washington Post’s web site when I got home (CNN didn’t seem to have the whole speech, just snippets).

I am still disappointed over how it turned out at work. My unit’s clerk marched in the 60’s and I felt bad that she didn’t get to share in real time the joy of seeing the first black American President speak.