Editor's Note: This post is part of the Celebrating Black History Month series, which highlights the contributions of African Americans who are helping achieve the President's goal of winning the future through their work.
I‘m from Birmingham, Alabama, a city that found itself at the center of America’s Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s. Although I grew up a decade after the movement’s triumphs – the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 – my elementary and high schools remained segregated – not by law, but rather by custom and geography. I never imagined the day I would have the chance to vote for an African-American president, let alone work for one. It’s a thrill beyond measure, a reminder of how far we’ve come, and a cause for great optimism about the direction in which our country is headed.
During the years since leaving Birmingham, I was lucky enough to attend and graduate from Georgetown University – where I met my future wife, a yankee from Connecticut. I then had the opportunity to work for several remarkable Members of Congress – rising through the ranks from staff assistant for Representative Eva Clayton, to legislative assistant and legislative director for Representative Bud Cramer, and ultimately to chief of staff for Representative Artur Davis, my hometown Congressman. After then-Senator Barack Obama’s election, I was invited to join the Obama-Biden Presidential Transition Team as a part of the Congressional Relations staff where I served as the legislative liaison for Department of Transportation Secretary-Designate Ray LaHood.
Today, I’m the Assistant Secretary for Governmental Affairs at DOT, where, under Secretary LaHood’s leadership, we’re building bridges between people who need jobs and jobs that need doing. In his State of the Union Address, President Obama said that for America to compete and win in the 21st century, we must out-innovate and out-build the rest of the world. During our two years in office, that’s been our primary focus – first in deploying $48 billion in Recovery Act money to 15,000 projects across the country and now working on the president’s six-year plan to create jobs today by investing in the infrastructure of tomorrow. Specifically, I serve as the secretary’s principal advisor on legislative issues. One of my key responsibilities is to facilitate communication between the department and members of Congress – as well as state and locally elected officials.
In my life, I’ve been fortunate to follow in the footsteps of a number of great mentors. Without question, however, my mother is my biggest influence. My parents divorced when I was very young and my mother raised my siblings and me essentially by herself. She didn’t earn a lot of money. She sometimes struggled to pay the bills. But no matter how tough the times were – and there were plenty of tough times – she rarely complained or made a fuss. Instead, she pushed forward – never thinking of herself, always thinking of others. Along the way, my mother encouraged my aspiration and instilled a sense of quiet determination. From her example, I learned the lessons that I now occasionally have the chance to pass on: Work hard, don’t fear sacrifice, act with integrity, pursue bold dreams, strive for excellence, and the rest will take care of itself.
Dana Gresham is the Assistant Secretary for Governmental Affairs at the Department of Transportation.