In early November, Cyrus Merrill, a middle school history and social sciences teacher at The Harker School, gave his grade 8 history students the chance to speak with the special assistant to the nation’s deputy chief of staff/director of policy planning.
Amira Valliani ’06, said her job entails supporting Jake Sullivan (the deputy chief of staff and director of policy planning) in anything he needs, from putting together his briefing book to helping figure out his office’s strategies. “If you’ve ever watched ‘The West Wing,’ you’ve seen the people who walk into meetings and pass the characters notes saying that the President wants to talk to them,” says Valliani. “I’m the person walking into the room with the note, except instead of the President wanting to speak to my boss, it’s usually Hillary Clinton.”
Valliani started as a National Economic Council intern at the White House, and has written speeches for Hillary Clinton. Merrill says she spoke to the group while the grade 8 class was in Washington, D.C., and now the students have had the chance to interview her about the state department and how it functions.
Merrill says the call lined up with the students reading about the founding of the department under Washington. They had studied “the isolationist positions of Washington and the embargo of trade with all the world under Jefferson. The students asked [Valliani] about whether there are any isolationist state department staff, and she not surprisingly said, ‘not at all today.’” Additionally, Merrill says, “She pointed out that while there are no ‘embargoes’ in the language of the state department today (similar to what we had read about with Jefferson cutting off trade with all of the world to avoid war with Britain in 1807), the state department has been actively working on the similar idea of sanctions, especially with Syria at the moment.”
The day before the call, students brainstormed questions they wanted to ask Valliani. In addition to learning about isolationists and embargoes, students got some basic information on what her day-to-day looks like, including a picture of an atypical day, like the one Valliani talked to them on. When one student asked what she was doing that day, Valliani said, “Not much, because my boss is in Hawaii. But that’s why I have time to talk to you!”
Merrill elaborated on that, explaining that Clinton had just left for an Asian-Pacific conference in Hawaii.
In her more typical day of work, students learned that she has to access information constantly on vastly different topics. “In one day,” says Merrill, “she had to become well-versed in river environmental safety (for overseas efforts by the U.S. to encourage other nations to reduce pollution and runoff, etc.), as well as nuclear security issues. To do so, she relies on those in the state department who are experts in each of these fields.”
She also explained that she is a political appointee, meaning she will lose her job if Obama loses the election.
Valliani then talked to the students about treaties. They do not do many, as Merrill described. “It’s mostly ongoing negotiations, and contacts with different contacts in similar foreign agencies around the globe responding to crises,” he said.
Also on the topic of crises, Valliani told the students that, “they have CNN on all the time, because sometimes the news is faster than even contacts of their own with foreign issues that arise.”
In turn, Valliani asked the students questions. “What is the worst thing that happens if foreign negotiations collapse?” she asked. The students correctly answered, “War.” Merrill says she went on to describe how this is always a pressure to make negotiations work.
Merrill says he hopes the event made students realize “that these real world issues really do have an impact, and that there are a number of interesting careers involved in politics and foreign affairs.”
He will continue to keep history relevant through these interviews with people who work in fields in the present that have direct connections to what they have studied from the past.
This year alone, the students will speak with an Obama speechwriter right after the State of the Union address, a Federal Trade commission attorney about the government’s effort to deal with monopolies (in connection with the industrial revolution), a Latin-American journalist about perceptions of the U.S. in Latin America today (in connection with Teddy Roosevelt’s policies started 100 years ago) and civil rights activists. They’ll also speak with one modern artist and, “Hopefully,” says Merrill, “a rap musician about anger and urban tensions when we get to modern America.”
Merrill is always looking for interesting people. He is currently looking for people with connections to any government agency – especially the SEC, FDIC or a fashion or music historian.