UT alumna inspires civic participation, ‘army of women’ in political anthology

Jordyn Zitman

UT alumna Taylor Lustig, who graduated in 2012 with highest honors and dual degrees in government and psychology, said the story of her career in the White House is one of many left untold.

A group of 10 young, diverse female staffers who served during the Obama administration came together to publish “Yes She Can,” coming out on March 5. The anthology includes one chapter written by each author detailing a meaningful and personal anecdote or experience from their time on staff. The book has received high praise from influential feminist voices such as activist Gloria Steinem and actress Amy Poehler.

Lustig worked in the Obama White House from age 22 to 26 in various offices before the end of the administration in 2016. While at UT, she qualified for the Archer Fellowship, which sends students to intern in Washington, D.C., while taking classes at night. Up until her junior year, Lustig said she had never considered a career in government.

“That experience was really what opened my eyes to Washington, D.C., and made me start thinking about career paths here,” Lustig said. “There was a lot of interesting stuff happening, and I kind of loved it.”

After graduation, Lustig volunteered on the Obama campaign in Chicago. She was later offered a full-time position as an intern in the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Her work focused on church-state policy and religious community outreach.

When she began working in the White House, Lustig said a pecking order was established quickly. She said that the willingness of her colleages to provide guidance and mentorship slowly chipped away that intimidation.

“You’re taught that there’s definitely a hierarchy, and you’re not going to march into the Oval Office and talk to the president or any senior staff,” Lustig said. “But people were so nice and willing to share career advice and were really invested in the young people.”

Jaimie Woo is another contributing author to “Yes She Can,” and worked in the Office of the Vice President at 24 years old. She said young staffers can sometimes feel out of place in the high-stakes environment.

“When you’re surrounded by such incredible people, you feel what I call ‘imposter syndrome,’ like, ‘What am I doing here?’” Woo said. “Getting past that is about believing in yourself but also finding a community of other people who align with you and support you.”

Despite an increase in visibility of youths in the political sphere, many remain hesitant to pursue a career in government. Roderick Hart, a Shivers Chair in Communication, government professor and founder of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, said this can be attributed to cynicism toward government.

“There’s a culture of cynicism that’s aided and abetted by a variety of people, and I think that’s a big part of it,” Hart said. “Young people are more impressionable and also have more of a herd mentality. It’s harder to adopt opinions and positions outside the established order.”

The authors’ hope for “Yes She Can” is to encourage young women and people everywhere to engage in civic participation, as well as demystify what it means to work in government and lead policy.

“This book is really meant to inspire and to assure women that they belong and that there are people who come from all backgrounds that were able to make their way to the White House,” Woo said. “It’s meant to serve as that inspiration and also tool to young girls who maybe never thought about a career in government as an option.”

Although their individual stories may not be of wide interest, compiler Molly Dillon relayed the idea to the women that their collective experiences at the White House were important to share.

“It’s always a little scary putting your story out there,” Lustig said. “But we hope that putting out these stories from a diverse group of young women will inspire the next army of young women and young people to consider or pursue careers in public service at all levels.”