Tina Tchen Works With President To Empower Women

Tina Tchen, a veteran Chicago lawyer, recently debuted in the public sector as the Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. She is also the executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls. Tchen talks about the function of her new role and how President Obama is using new tools to engage the public.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, are some people too poor to make the news? One essayist thinks so. We'll find out more in just a few minutes. But first, a newsmaker conversation with Christina Tchen, known a Tina Tchen. The veteran Chicago lawyer recently became the director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. She is also the executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls and she joins us now. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. CHRISTINA TCHEN (Director, White House Office of Public Engagement): Well, thank you very much, Michel. I'm happy to be here.

MARTIN: Not so recent, actually. You've been in the job for a couple of months now, but if you would just set the table for us, the office of Public Liaison existed since the Nixon administration. The Obama administration changed the name to the Office of Public Engagement. What does that mean? And what is the name change meant to tell us about what will be different?

Ms. TCHEN: Well, this is as you have noted, traditionally had been the outreach office for the White House, going back to the Nixon years. And it has often been the liaison between the White House and the various national organizations headquartered here in Washington who have Washington representatives. And that's certainly something that we have done in our first couple of months here.

But something the president very much wanted to convey was that this was a White House that would interact with people across the country and with people who are individuals and grassroots and not just folks as part of organizations. So as part of that re-missioning that he gave us about a month ago, we renamed ourselves the Office of Public Engagement. And we had a new charge from him to really do that kind of grassroots across the country outreach and have a real two-way conversation going between the American public and the White House.

MARTIN: In a way, it sounds like you want to talk over the heads of the traditional players in Washington.

Ms. TCHEN: I think we want to do both. I think we want to, you know, talk to the traditional players and have them involved. They're clearly important to what happens here in Washington and in our government. But we also really want the public engaged as well. I think we saw in this campaign a level of involvement across the board that was unseen. And we want to keep that going and have people really understand that this is their government and this is their White House.

MARTIN: A lot of people in this country.

Ms. TCHEN: Well, there are…

MARTIN: How…?

Ms. TCHEN: …but the new media give us lots of ways to do it and programs like yours gives us lots of vehicles for reaching folks.

MARTIN: Well, we appreciate your not calling us old media.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But what are some of the techniques that you will use given that the traditional ways - we've just discussed that your office's work is to reach out to associations, groups that already exist, that have all their existing membership lists. And they bring them into the room and of course who gets invited into the room is always a very interesting question. If you're going to kind of crack that egg and go right to the source, how? Do news outlets like mine become more important or do you have other ways?

Ms. TCHEN: Well, I think working with groups that have membership organizations, you know, and member - individual members across the country is always important. And we're continuing to do those efforts. But in addition, for example, we are expanding our presence on whitehouse.gov and you can see the video from the president where he talks about the change to the Office of Public Engagement. You know, my staff have been blogging about the events that we have here in the White House, so people can get a behind-the-scenes look.

And people can sign up to receive emails from the White House about what's going on. So those are some of the ways. I think we're going to continue to explore. This is very new, on how do you really reach people in new ways. And, you know, we will look forward to continuing to come up with new ideas.

MARTIN: You're also the executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls. And in creating the council, President Obama said quote "that above all is the true purpose of our government not to guarantee our success, but to ensure that in America, all things are still possible for all people." How do you go about doing that?

Ms. TCHEN: Well, one of the things that we've done with the council is go to each of the federal agencies and ask them to report on what they are doing for women and girls? What their plans are? So that we can coordinate those across the board because what we wanted to convey by creating a council of every federal agency and every major department in the White House is that the issues confronting women and girls belong to all of those agencies across the board. And we want everyone involved in addressing them, not just one office or one part of one department. So we've been out visiting the departments. We've been meeting with them and, you know, there's great stuff going on out there. And we look forward in the coming months to really shining a light on those and expanding those efforts.

MARTIN: And one of the obvious questions that some people have about the council is why? Why women and girls? Why single out half the population? For example, it's been noted that in this recession, layoffs have disproportionately affected male dominated job sectors. The issue of access to health insurance certainly affects both genders. How do you respond to them?

Ms. TCHEN: Well, certainly we are working on things like overall unemployment and addressing that through the Recovery Act and health care reform for all Americans. But as you know, women are half the population and have some issues that are unique to women that affect them and those issues have been neglected for too long. So, for example, in health care, women's health issues and the issues confronting women's access to health care are unique and need a focus. And I've been working with the health care reform office and with Secretary Sebelius to shine light on those issues.

MARTIN: Last month, for example, you and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius hosted a roundtable discussion with women, small business owners talking about health care reform. But again, you know, drilling down that, some people would say, well, all small business owners need health care. What is that about the women's situation that needs particular attention? Would somebody host a men's roundtable and how would that sit?

Ms. TCHEN: I will say that we've had, in addition to the women's roundtable, we've had large meetings of all small businesses here where we addressed issues confronting all small businesses. But women small business owners have particular - and it's been demonstrated - they have harder access to capital. Women employees, you know, have additional health issues, maternity care coverage, for example, that's been a problem. Even if you have insurance, oftentimes you are not getting maternity coverage.

You're not getting, you know, breast screenings that women need or access to reproductive health. So, all of those, you know, an ability to be able to draw down and focus on those issues while we're looking at overall issues confronting health care and small business is what we're trying to do.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Tina Tchen about her work as the new White House director for Public Engagement. She's also executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls. Do you ever get the sense that we live in parallel universes? That you've been working in this area for a long time. You've worked with the National Organization of Women, you've worked with the Girl Scouts. And for you, maybe it seems obvious that there are issues that - pertaining to women and girls that are different, like the whole fact of the scarcity of maternity leave or the fact that maternity leave is not as generous as many people believe it to be. But for other people, it's all new.

Ms. TCHEN: I think recently, over the last, you know, 10, 20 years, I think we have seen the issues that women face and girls face, come more to the forefront and be part of what the American public as a whole sees. And I think that's a great thing that's happened and a real evolution in our thinking. You know, you see it in TV shows, you see them in movies, you see the issues that working women juggling home and family, women who stay at home juggling the challenges of raising a family or caring for their aging parents. You see a lot of those issues coming to the forefront because of the issues that women face everyday and I think that's a real positive thing.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask you how you face the issues you face every day? I mean, and I'm mindful of the fact that if you were a man doing the same job, I might not ask that same question. But I'm also mindful of the fact that many of the people I meet, particularly younger women, want to know, how do they do it? So if you don't mind my asking, you've been a high powered attorney for much of your career. You've had a very active professional life. You're also a parent and now you're in this new highly visible role at the White House with this. Do you mind if I ask how do you… Ms. TCHEN: No.

MARTIN: …you do it?

Ms. TCHEN: I'm happy to answer that. I'm actually also a single parent, Michel. I have been a single parent since my son, my first child was an infant, and then I adopted a little girl who is now 12. As a single parent, I have two children. I have actually been blessed with being in a profession as a lawyer, which I was for 23 years, where I had the resources to have great support systems. I had both great friends, who supported me in Chicago, but I also had two, you know, wonderful people who were my nannies and - one for 20 years and another for 12 years. And one of them moved here with me.

So that's how I was able to do it, but that was because I had those resources and I'm very cognizant of the fact that most women don't have that luxury. that that is something I was able to do, to know that my children were not only well cared for but were loved and had a very rich experience and were safe at home. And I could very - you know, go to work, you know, knowing that, secure in that. Because I've had moments where I didn't have that and it's - it's hard to be at work and worry about your children at the same time. So, it's one of the things that we certainly want to keep addressing. It's one of the first lady's focus is to work on work-family balance and how do we provide that kind of security and support for all working people?

MARTIN: How will you know, if you have succeeded in this job?

Ms. TCHEN: Well, that's a hard question…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TCHEN: …because I think there's a lot to do and there's a lot of ways that we can succeed. I think from the Office of Public Engagement, we certainly - I will feel very good if what we have achieved by the end of the term here is not only support for the president's agenda and moving that forward, but to have people across the country really feel like they were able to be involved with what this administration does. And for the Council of Women and Girls, you know, I think we'd like to see some real progress on how the federal government can support what, you know, women and girls are doing out there, across America and internationally as well.

MARTIN: Tina Tchen is the director of the White House's Office for Public Engagement. She is also the executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls and she was kind enough to join us from her office in Washington, D.C. Or her offices, I should say, wearing two hats. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. TCHEN: Well, thank you.

MARTIN: Tina Tchen explained how the White House is trying to engage the public. Now we'd like to hear from you. She told us how the Office of Public Engagement is trying to reach out to voters. But do you want them reaching out to you? And if so, how? Are there specific concerns you would want to take to that level? Or is it just nice that they want to keep in touch? Or does it strike you as yet more spam? To tell us more, call our comment line at 202-842-3522, again that's 202-842-3522. Please remember to leave your name. Of course, you can also log on to our Web site at npr.org and click on the TELL ME MORE page to leave a comment there.

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