As middle school "theater nerds" in the Eileen Boevers Traveling Troupe in Highland Park, Molly Dillon and Taylor Lustig had no idea that more than a decade later:
- Taylor would help Molly secure clearance for actor Jamie Foxx into the White House, and
- Molly would support Taylor with a "Pope Survival Pack" on the eve of the papal visit to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
And Dillon and Lustig would be most surprised to learn that they'd write a book together. Let's back up.
Lustig grew up in Deerfield, and it wasn't until her freshman year at the University of Texas that she was surrounded by peers whose teen social calendars had not revolved around bar and bat mitzvah parties. As a kid on the North Shore, she had not considered religion central to her identity, but said, "As soon as I left home, I realized it was a big part of who I am."
Fast forward through a double-major, a semester at a D.C. think tank, and a White House internship, and Lustig found religion front and center in her government role: Policy Advisor in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, where she helped faith communities access government resources.
Dillon, who grew up in Highland Park, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Johns Hopkins University and earned her master's in public policy from Georgetown University. She served four years in the White House, most recently as the Policy Advisor for Urban Affairs, Justice and Opportunity, where she focused on civil rights policy.
"Coming from the North Shore, it was comforting to see a familiar face in D.C.," Dillon said of reconnecting with Lustig in their 20s, both staffers within the Domestic Policy Council during Barack Obama's presidency.
Neither planned on a career in government. Lustig had not even understood what a "think tank" was when she applied to work at one. Dillon was passionate about social issues in college, "but hadn't even realized government was an option."
Which is why, when a literary agent friend suggested Dillon pen a book about her time in the White House, she considered it. Dillon was excited by the opportunity to show girls that government is a viable career choice--and a powerful way to bring about change. Over the course of many conversations, the solo book idea evolved into a multi-author anthology by young women, for young women.
Dillon reached out to colleagues, including Lustig, collecting commitments from women with unique perspectives to share. Yes She Can: 10 Stories of Hope & Change from Young Female Staffers of the Obama White House (Penguin Random House) was on its way to becoming reality.
A "prolific writer of fan fiction" as a kid, Dillon has long enjoyed reading and writing. Her greatest writing influence came from the handwritten correspondence between her grandparents during her grandfather's World War II service. "The power of the written word has always been important to my family," she said.
With Lustig's first formal foray into writing, she appreciated that every Yes She Can author was encouraged to write in her own voice. This "come as you are" approach applied to the staffers' time in the White House, too, empowering each to bring her authentic self to policy work. Through her book chapter, Lustig aimed to illustrate that public service, good government, and progress are the result of open-minded people with diverse experiences and opinions.
Lustig said all 10 authors share a hope that readers see themselves in the stories and realize that government work is an attainable path. "If we had heard these stories when we were younger, we may have been more confident, understood more what it means to be in public service," she said.
The authors are frank about their vulnerabilities and challenges--including struggles with imposter syndrome--and the encouragement from supervisors and colleagues that helped them succeed. A unique workplace culture was set by those with influence, said Dillon of her mentors who went out of their way to model that "there is strength and power in kindness."
Dillon noted she was lucky to see women in leadership roles from a young age, especially Northshore Congregation Israel's Rabbi Wendy Geffen, with whom she remains close. Dillon said Shabbat at the Glencoe synagogue "feels like home," and that Judaism has always been a big part of her identity.
For Dillon, the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) translates to government work. "Service is how we bridge the gap of how the world could and should be," she said. "We have not finished the task of building a more perfect union. I hope young Jewish girls reading the book see that service is a way of being a good member of the Jewish community."
Read the insider details about White House visits from Jamie Foxx and Pope Francis in Yes She Can, available now.
Caren Friedman is a communications consultant and freelance writer living in Chicago. You can find her at carenfriedmancomms.com.