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Taking Up the Baton: Jocelyn Frye

A woman with a medium deep skin tone smiles. She has grey-streaked black hair, glasses, red lipstick, a pearl necklace, and is wearing a white suit jacket with white accents on the collar.

Meet One Obama Alum Who is Leading the Fight for Women's Equality

In October, Obama White House alum Jocelyn Frye was  named President of the National Partnership for Women and Families (Opens in a new tab). The move was a homecoming of sorts for Jocelyn, who had previously spent 15 years there as an attorney focusing on gender and discrimination issues, before becoming Policy Director to First Lady Michelle Obama from 2009-2013. We caught up with Jocelyn to discuss her new position and how her experience in the Obama Administration continues to inform her work today.

Q: To start out, could you walk us through your role in the Obama White House?

A: Well, I was asked to be the First Lady’s policy director. In that capacity, I was tasked with trying to help her build out her policy portfolio. What was helpful and exciting is that she had a very clear vision of what that work should look like and where she thought she could be most impactful, born out of her own experiences.

She said to us that she wanted to be strategic and do more than simply parachute into an issue for a moment and then disappear. She wanted us to figure out the right policy ideas that we needed to be pushing to address her issue priorities, and develop a strategy for moving these ideas forward. That’s how we started — being informed by things that she was really interested in tackling. She wanted to focus on the health and well-being of kids, born out of her own personal parenting experience. She wanted to do something with military families because she had met military spouses on the campaign trail. So we started there and then went forward with trying to think through how we could add value and make progress given the president’s portfolio — she was very clear that we were not there for our own agenda, we were there to lift up the president’s agenda.

Michelle Obama a black medium brown skin woman sitting on a plane wearing comfortable clothing sitting with five woman with mainly light neutral skin tones holding binders and talking, the table infront of them have binders and paper on it

First Lady Michelle Obama speaks with Jocelyn Frye onboard Brightstar during a staff meeting with Melissa Winter, Katie McCormick-Lelyveld and Frances Starkey after leaving in New York, New York, Feb. 9, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

Q: How do your experiences in the Obama White House continue to affect your work today?

A: I really loved the team of people that we had in the First Lady’s office — they were all collectively, very talented people who came to the table with different expertise. Everybody had a role to play, and I continue to be reminded that success comes from building a strong team and valuing every member.

I also would tell anybody that the opportunity to work in the White House, and really in government generally, was life changing in a number of ways. I love advocacy work, I love policy work and thinking about how you come up with policy solutions that really move the needle for people and make their lives better. Your goal as an advocate is to lay out an ideal policy, but the reality of government is that a lot of times you can’t do what’s optimal. You have to govern and think through what is possible given the moment.

It really forced me to think critically about, “what does change look like in an environment where we may not be able to do what advocates want?” For me, that was an important way to think about many issues, because my task then — and I consider my task today the same — was to figure out what progress we can get over the finish line. If the ideal, perfect, optimal idea isn’t going to be possible, you don’t just throw up your hands and say, “That’s the end of the story.” The next step is to figure out, “Well, what is possible? How do you actually get something done that is true to your principles and your values?”

I think that experience has helped make me a better advocate, being able to get the most out of the levers and tools that you do have available is an important skill to have. My experience in the administration enabled me to think more concretely about what progress we can make that will make a difference and what is and is not possible. That critical thinking was really important and having that experience was invaluable.

Lastly, I would say that it is always easy to reflect back on an experience and just remember the positive end results. The truth is that progress is hard, progress takes time, and progress sometimes is painful and requires that you go backwards before you go forward. So I think about my experience in the White House as squarely focused on being strategic and playing the long game. There were wonderful, long-lasting successes and there were times where it was really challenging and difficult — but you keep pushing. Even when you have setbacks, you take those setbacks, you learn from them and you grow.

That perseverance and resilience in the face of sometimes stark opposition was a necessary lesson to learn during the Obama Administration and I encourage people to learn that lesson too.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit more about what you are working on now? This seems like a pivotal moment, in particular for women’s health.

A: It’s a critical time for women’s rights and women’s progress generally. The National Partnership is a multi-issue organization focused on improving women’s lives by pursuing a wide range of economic justice and health justice policy solutions. There are three principles that we know are critical to women’s progress and that ground our work: access to equity and opportunity; access to health care, caregiving supports, and communities where care policies are prioritized; and utilizing an intersectional lens to elevate and deepen understanding of women’s diverse experiences across race, ethnicity, disability, LGBTQ status and so forth. We work on a huge portfolio of issues — from health equity and improving Black maternal health, to paid leave, to equal pay, to reproductive health and abortion care, to pregnancy discrimination — but they are all critical, now more so than ever.

Important gains that women have made over decades are now under attack. In the current environment, we see folks who are really hellbent and determined to take away people’s rights and that is pushing us to be thoughtful, creative, and persistent about the different ways we can continue progress in the face of enormous resistance.

One key takeaway from my experience in government was the importance of trying to shape the public narrative to lift up the real-world experiences of women, people of color, and people of all genders. That was the power of the president and the first lady in the Obama Administration — they were often able to rise above the chatter and connect with real people to talk about why a particular issue affects you and why it is important. That ability to connect people’s personal stories to policy decisions is what we need to be doing now across all of our issues, and that’s the work that we are trying to do at the National Partnership.

A room of various people mainly light neutral skin tones sitting at a table looking at a woman with a medium brown skin tone wearing a red dress and a short brown bob

First Lady Michelle Obama attends a meeting with Partnership for Healthier America Board members in the Map Room of the White House April 7, 2010. Jocelyn Frye is at far left. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

Q:The mission of the Obama Foundation is to inspire, connect and empower the next generation of leaders. As someone who is a leader of a large organization, when you talk to young people today looking to make change in the world, what advice do you have for them?

A: Never underestimate your capacity and power to make a difference. I often reflect on the president’s last speech that he gave in Chicago just as he was leaving at the end of the second term. Part of what he said in that speech was that many of us are the people who can drive change – and that part of the effectiveness and impact of the Obama Administration was that it was full of a whole plethora of people who were changemakers in their own right. When I run into people from the First Lady’s office, I am often excited and impressed and floored by the things that people are doing.

Not everybody has to run for office — people are doing things in their own communities, in their own companies. Change happens not because of one person. Change happens because there are a whole bunch of people doing really important things in their own communities, collectively helping to move the ball forward. That’s how young people have to think about it. Don’t worry so much about what other people are doing – what makes sense for you? How do you want to impact the world?

The very last thing I would say is that it is important to be true to yourself and your values. It’s easy to forget now that when we came into the administration in 2009, it was on the heels of a political campaign where Michelle Obama had been caricatured by opponents who deployed racial dog whistles and stereotypes about Black women to try to paint her as threatening or angry.

But the thing that I was always confident about was her capacity to fundamentally flip that script and that narrative. She changed it because of who she was — she was authentic and brought her full self to the work. I think that’s an important lesson — don’t be confined by what people say you can do – if you want to do it, do it. Particularly for women and especially women of color, people often are very comfortable putting us into boxes that limit what we can do and what roles we can play. She didn’t let them do that and none of us should either.