White House Summit on Working Families Marks a 'New Movement'

In many ways the Summit, held on June 23rd, felt like a movement, a combination of a political pep rally and a church service with crowds of true believers jumping to their feet, calling out from the audience, and cheering.
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First Lady Michelle Obama called the White House Summit the beginning of a movement, a movement for working families. In many ways the Summit, held on June 23rd, felt like a movement, a combination of a political pep rally and a church service with crowds of true believers jumping to their feet, calling out from the audience, and cheering.

If it is a movement, it has been several decades in the making. As I looked around the room and on the stage, I could see people who have been working on these issues for ages -- from Gloria Steinem speaking out for women; Kathleen Christensen of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation calling for making flexibility the standard of the American workplace; Alex Gorsky, CEO of Johnson & Johnson, talking about how his company changed its Credo to include the company's responsibility to working families in 1989; Ellen Bravo of Family Values @ Work mobilizing communities to pass paid family leave and paid sick day legislation; and so many other workplace pioneers.

Yet, it wasn't just the "true believers" or the "pioneers" who were present. For example, Families and Work Institute was able to invite 60 small, mid-sized and large employers we've identified as creating "effective and flexible workplaces," a number of whom are relatively new to these issues and clearly would not be found at political pep rallies. But they're the ones forging a new trail, providing innovative workplaces where bosses go above and beyond helping employees make work work.

In a number of ways, this event really does mark a new movement. In the past, there have been clearly divided, often competing camps -- equal pay and advancement for women, domestic violence, workplace flexibility and work-life assistance, child care, early learning, etc. There have been those who want Washington to solve working families' problems and those who believe solutions lie with employers. At the Summit, there was less talk about "either/or" and more talk about "both/and." And there were many new players. One long-time leader said she looked around the room of more than 1200 people and hardly recognized anyone.

If there was a theme, it was stated by the First Lady -- "it begins with each of us." She told the familiar story of being a nursing mother and being invited for a job interview. Unable to find child care, she decided that she should be authentic, so she took her daughter Sasha with her to the interview, where she was offered a job at the University of Chicago. Although she didn't mention the recent uproar over a mother who left her young children in her car to go to a job interview and ended up in jail, the First Lady acknowledged being an exception.

Offering insights on what men face, Vice President Joe Biden told the story of being present for 87 percent of the votes as a new member of the Senate, soon after his wife was killed in a car accident. Although his handlers urged otherwise, he went on television and faced the issue directly, telling voters that if they re-elected him to a second term, he would only make 87 percent of the votes. I won't miss important or procedural votes, he told them, but if it's a choice, I will put my children first and go home on the train to be with them.

Like the First Lady, both the Vice President and the President (who talked about taking some time off when Malia and Sasha were infants so that he was there for the 2:00 a.m. feeding and the soothing), stated they were lucky, more privileged than others. They had more resources and more options than those who might lose jobs by putting their families first.

Others told personal stories too, describing themselves as feeling alone in facing problems managing work and family life. Or if their workplaces were supportive, they felt they'd won the "good boss lottery."

They and the other speakers urged everyone to take action in helping working families (such as providing paid sick days for one's child care providers or not assuming someone who needs to take an elderly parent to the doctor is a slacker or uncommitted to work). They said the solutions were not just in DC, but with Mayors (who passed a resolution to promote An Early Learning Nation on June 23rd too: city councils, governors, and employers. The President also spoke out for paid leave and improved child care.

There is no mistaking the sounds of kumbaya on the 23rd for any sense that there is long-term unity or that whatever path we each take, the journey will be short or easy. But I, for one -- long after I stepped off the podium as a speaker, long after I watched the hotel staff sweep away the debris of the Summit--felt renewed energy to make workplaces work better for employees and employers, especially for those with the fewest resources. Employees shouldn't have to win the "good boss lottery" in order to nurture their families and care for them economically.

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