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Special Feature

First Time in the US: A Doting Reflection of Washington D.C.

As a lifelong community organizer from a humble family and the Youth Exploring Solutions, a passionate, non-profit and voluntary grassroots youth-led development organization that is primarily a self-sponsored institution since its inception in 2007, I was honored and delighted to be chosen in a very competitive process among over 2000 applicants worldwide to participate in the Community Solutions Program.

A professional development program of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the United States Department of State designed for the best and brightest global community leaders and implemented by IREX (International Research & Exchange Board).   Therefore, it is with the utmost sincerity that I must convey my gratitude to the Government and people of the United States of America.

It seems unbelievable, yet a reality as I boarded the plane from Robert International Airport en route to the United States of America via Banjul and Brussels.  At long last, after a long flight, I finally arrived at Washington Dulles Airport on a sunny afternoon.  Having been cleared of all security, custom and immigration formalities, I got my baggages and gradually moved toward the exit terminal, where I met Michelle Weisse, Program Associate of the Education Programs Division of IREX holding up the Community Solutions Program logo.

Coming from a developing country like Liberia – a small but great country on the West Africa with vast natural resources and yet lots of challenges –I admired and appreciated the outlook and infrastructural development.  I was especially impressed of the accessible design of public transport facilities to people with disability and physically challenged individuals.  Before departing Washington Dulles Airport, the Chauffer served us cold bottles of water perhaps as a welcome indication.  While on the road to Georgetown University Hotel and Conference Center, I was privileged to network with young and great leaders from Macedonia, Israel and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Eventually, I met with fifty-six leaders from thirty-four countries around the world working on various change projects to make the world a better place.

The welcome orientation was comprehensive, intensive and impressive and as well provided a unique opportunity to learn, listen and interact with scores of U.S. Department of State officials, civil society organizations, professors and other experts in the field of leadership and strategic development.   There were break-out sessions and thought-provoking panel discussions with focus on environment, women and gender, tolerance and conflict resolution as well as transparency and accountability.   Besides, the exercises arising from lectures including icebreaker activities were also eye-opening and fascinating.

One of my most memorable moments was the Welcome Brunch held at the Hay-Adams Hotel overlooking the White House.  Each leader was assigned a tag with color indicating their thematic area and a specific table number.  It was a great pleasure to sit on the same table with Laneice Brooker, Country Affairs Officer for West Africa of the U.S. Department of State.  The brief remarks of Joyce Warner, Senior Vice President & Chief of Staff from IREX inspired and motivated me and possibly all of the fellows.  Similarly, I was impressed listening to the extemporaneous speech delivered by Dr. Tomicah Tillemann, Senior Advisor to the Secretary of State for Civil Society and Emerging Democracies of the U.S. Department of State. 

After the longest day of orientation, the time was certain for Washington D.C. tour.   On our way to the National Mall, an open-area national park with iconic structures and rich history that attracts many tourists from all walks of life, our tour guide narrated the historicity and layer of the City.   Our first stop was at the Capitol, which is popularly called Capitol Hill and is the official seat of the United States Congress.  This neoclassical-style building was originally designed by William Thornton, a British-American physician, inventor, painter and architect.  It has a beautiful landscape with green grass, trees and good-looking flowers as well as attractive benches along the paths that offer pleasant spots for visitors to appreciate the building and its surrounding areas.  At the East Capitol Street entrance to the Capitol Plaza are two large rectangular stone fountains.  It was amazing to see a small, hexagonal brick structure named the Summerhouse.  This structure contains shaded benches, a central ornamental fountain, and three public drinking fountains.  In addition to being the seat of Congress, the Capitol as well as the grounds of the Capitol Hill play host to major events, including presidential inaugurations, Independence Day celebrations, and the national Memorial Day Concert.

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From the Capitol, we proceeded to the White House, the official residence and principal workplace of the President of the United States.  We arrived at the North façade and had vivid view the picturesque flower garden and fountain.  It was interesting to note that the White House was originally named the ‘President’s Palace’, ‘President’s House’ or ‘Executive Mansion’, but as a result of its lime-based whitewash, people nicknamed the building ‘White House’ and in 1901 president Theodore Roosevelt made it the official name.

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial was our next stop.  The memorial is modeled after the Pantheon of Rome and composed of circular marble steps, a portico, a circular colonnade of Ionic order columns, and a shallow dome.  The building is an adaption of neoclassical architecture and is located on the Tidal Basin, surrounded by a grove of trees.  The interior of the memorial has a 19-foot bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson looking out toward the White House. On the panel of the interior walls are excerpts from Jefferson’s writings.  Most prominent are the words which are inscribed in a frieze below the dome:  “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

We then moved to Lincoln Memorial, a stunning structure that echoes a classic Greek temple designed by Henry Bacon.  The structure contains 36 columns and above the colonnade, inscribed on the frieze, are the names of the 36 states in the Union at the time of Lincoln’s death and the dates in which they entered the Union.  Their names are separated by double wreath medallions in bas-relief.  The cornice is composed of a carved scroll regularly interspersed with projecting lions’ heads and ornamented with palmetto cresting along the upper edge.  Above this on the attic frieze are inscribed the names of the 48 states present at the time of the Memorial’s dedication.  A bit higher is a garland joined by ribbons and palm leaves, supported by the wings of eagles.   A 19-foot larger than life-size marble statue of Lincoln sits in the center of the memorial and the words of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address are inscribed on the walls.  The memorial has been the site of many famous speeches, including Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Our final stop was the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, which was still undergoing renovation.  The memorial is referred to as the “Stone of Hope” and it is a 30-foot statue of King gazing into the horizon and concentrating on the future and hope for humanity.  There is also a 450-foot inscription wall, made from granite panels, that is inscribed with 14 excerpts of King’s speeches, sermons, and writings chosen by the ‘Council of Historians’.  In addition to the fourteen quotations on the Inscription Wall, each side of the Stone of Hope includes an additional statement attributed to King. The landscape elements of the Memorial include American Elm trees, Yoshino Cheery Tees, Liriope plants, English yew, jasmine and sumac.

Besides, the arranged tour, I needed to activate my phone to communicate with family, loved ones and friends back home, so I decided to adventure into the city center.  Accompanied by one of my colleagues, we firstly managed to obtain the direction of Connecticut Avenue and then headed for the bus stop to board Georgetown University bus to the city center.  From asking for assistance, we succeeded in tracing our designated point.  I left my colleague activating his phone and departed to do likewise.  The process was long than expected, so I finished late and unfortunately, I could not easily locate where I drop-off from the bus.  It was funny, but turned serious and yet embarrassing to just be asking for direction.  Consequently, I started walking and at the same time admiring the cars and buildings as well as the movement of people.  As I walked, I tried hard to imagine and deeply reflected about the road, but then again almost all of the roads look the same.  Being left with no alternative, I decided to take the shame from my face and ask for direction.  Fortunately for me, most of the people I asked were willing to help.  So, I literally walked for over three hours to arrive at Georgetown University Hotel and Conference Center.  Though, it may seem laughable, on the other hand, it was a very fond and worthwhile experience, because I am quite similar with some streets and areas in Washington D.C.

About the Author:  Mr. Stephen B. Lavalah is an advocate and the Founder/Executive Director, Youth Exploring Solutions selected for participation in the Community Solutions Program, a program of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) of the United States Department of State and implemented by IREX (International Research & Exchanges Board).

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