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Bringing Blue and Gold to the White House

By Nicole Duran

Published Mar 24, 2010 1:45 PM

After graduating about a decade ago, neither actor Kalpen Modi '00 nor documentary filmmaker Jason Djang '97 expected to end up in the White House. Both now work for President Barack Obama (although Modi recently announced he's returning to Hollywood), with Modi in public engagement and Djang in new media and online video. UCLA Magazine gave them both the Q&A treatment, as well as three other Bruins — Lynne Weil, Brian Jones, and Lezlee Westine — making a difference on the Hill.

Kalpen Modi

Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement; also known for roles on TV's House and 24, and in the Harold and Kumar movies.

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What was your major?
KM: I graduated with a BA in Sociology and a specialization in theater, film and television.

Where did you grow up? How did you end up choosing UCLA?
KM: I grew up in New Jersey and wanted to find a program that was strong both academically and artistically. At the time, I had a particular interest in studying film and television, so when I was accepted, I thought UCLA was the best fit of an academically solid school with a competitive arts program and the opportunity to pursue a film career outside of the classroom.

What did you like most about attending UCLA?
KM: The diversity in student body and types of courses offered. Sadly, I hear that both have decreased over the last several years.

Are you using what you learned (from your major, your classes) in your work now?
KM: In a way, yes. I tried to take advantage of the broad coursework offered as much as possible. I remember taking a premed class: LS 2: Cells, Tissues, and Organs as an elective because I thought it was interesting. While utterly useless in a traditional sense (I wasn't going into medicine), believe it or not, that exposure helped provide some of the tools I used in artistic depictions of science folk as an actor. There are three main areas of my current job: arts outreach, youth outreach, and Asian American & Pacific Islander outreach. Of those, the arts and AAPI portions are directly related to my UCLA coursework. But undoubtedly, I credit a lot of the outside-the-classroom opportunities on campus with providing me with the tools to take risks and end up on the path toward what I'm doing now.

What was your UCLA experience and how did UCLA prepare you for where you are now?
KM: I really enjoyed the diversity all around: taking both premed and film classes, pledging a fraternity but studying a lot. I like the idea of balance, having the opportunity to experience and take advantage of a broad range of interests.

Read about other Beltway Bruins. Alumni in D.C. media, on the Hill, and in the White House are making a difference.

When you were a student, did you ever foresee your career taking this direction?
KM: The goal was to work in both the arts and public service, so while these were the careers I strove for and the reason I chose UCLA, I still feel incredibly fortunate to have these opportunities.

How did you get here?
KM: I spent a couple of years after graduation living in dumpy Los Angeles apartments working odd jobs for gas money and trying to get my foot in the door of the film industry, then was fortunate enough to begin working as an actor. I would take breaks where possible to pursue studies at one of Stanford's graduate programs in International Security (which has a very convenient online web interface for distance students), then started lecturing and teaching workshops at universities, which led to a job as an Adjunct Lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania in Asian American Studies, Film Studies, and Sociology. I joined the President's campaign back in October of 2007 as a volunteer in Iowa working on Youth Outreach and Arts Policy. There was a writer's strike going on in L.A. at the time, so I was able to pack up and move to Iowa without much repercussion. Once he won the Iowa caucuses, I traveled to another 25 states on behalf of then-Senator Obama. What was most striking was the desire by young Americans everywhere to see fundamental changes in the cost of education and access, national security, the economy, and environment.

What's the most rewarding part of your job? The hardest?
JD: I feel like every day I have the opportunity to do something unprecedented. Our department, New Media, is in fact new to the White House. Previous administrations had websites, but we've been able to take our online program to a new level. With regard to video, now we post every one of the President's speeches, every press briefing, various meetings and events, and produce some fun feature pieces like our "Inside the White House" series. And we push all this content out to various social networks. Knowing you're blazing new trails is pretty rewarding.

Jason Djang

White House Deputy Director for Video

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What was your major?
JD: '97, Physiological Science

Where did you grow up? How did you end up choosing UCLA?
JD: I grew up in Orange County. As an undeclared/undecided freshman, the vastness of UCLA's academic options was a big selling point. I had previously been set on a small liberal arts college, but after visiting the Westwood campus as a high school senior and getting a taste of UCLA's tradition, it just felt right.

What did you like most about attending UCLA?
JD: I was a basketball and football fiend. I loved everything about going to the Rose Bowl and camping out outside Pauley for big and small games alike. Travelling to Seattle for the '95 championship wasn't bad either. Beyond sports, UCLA is where I met my best friends — those who continue to be central to my personal life.

Are you using what you learned (from your major, your classes) in your work now?
JD: Not in the slightest! I spent my undergrad years cramming the Latin names of muscles and the Kreb's Cycle into my frontal lobe. I ended up not pursuing med school like my program peers and how I ended up where I am now is a great mystery.

What was your UCLA experience and how did UCLA prepare you for where you are now?
JD: My experience was a truly rich one. I walked the campus this past holiday season for the first time in several years and every corner brought up an almost palpable memory. While the object of my studies may not translate to my current work, the rigor of my program did help instill within me a level of discipline, attention to detail, and work ethic that has helped open doors for me throughout my career. These characteristics come into play here every day. As the director of video at a place like this, I have to make sure that our content maintains not only a certain level of production quality, but is consistent with the President's overall message. Add to that the myriad little tasks and responsibilities that hit me every day in such a fast-paced environment, I'm glad I learned the ability to multi-task while keeping focused on the big picture.

When you were students, did you ever foresee your careers taking this direction?
JD: A pre-med student with dreams of producing video ... at the White House? I don't know if I had even conceived of watching video on a computer by the time I graduated. I still used a Juno e-mail account on my dial-up. If I could have foreseen this sort of absurdity in the universe, I'd be a rich man.

How did you get here?
JD: I started working in film/video editing right out of college. I worked in advertising for a number of years before migrating to documentary film and TV work. In the summer of 2007, I read then Senator Obama's The Audacity of Hope and had determined that for the first time in my life I would get involved in the political process. And just two days after that, I stumbled across a job opportunity for a documentary editor for the Obama campaign. I applied, and eventually showed up at the controlled chaos that was the Obama for America campaign headquarters in Chicago. It was supposed to be a three-month gig. I would do my civic duty, help get a candidate in whom I believed elected, and return to my life. Never in a million years did I dream of eventually working in the White House. One thing led to another, and here I am.

What do you like best about your job? About Washington?
JD: I like that I get to have a hand in every stage of production. When I worked as an editor, I felt like an assembly line worker. Now, I either do or oversee every step of a production. But beyond that is the obvious amazement for this workplace. We have a water cooler in our office like most offices. But if you time it right, you can be filling up your cup just as your boss is leaving in a massive VH-60 helicopter out the window. That's kinda cool.

Lynne Weil

Lynne Weil ('85 Communications) spent about 10 years as a broadcast reporter, including overseas stints and work with National Public Radio, before moving to Capitol Hill and now the administration. She spent 6.5 years as communications director for the House Foreign Affairs Committee. She begins a new position as press director and spokeswoman for the U.S. Agency for International Development April 12. She also holds a master's from Princeton University's international affairs school. Here she discusses her work in print, radio and politics.

How would you describe your career?
LW: I have the kind of career that makes sense in retrospect. When I was at UCLA I had no idea what I wanted to do when I grew up. I liked writing and I found working at the Daily Bruin opened up worlds that otherwise might have been closed to me. I found that journalism gave me a front row ticket to life.

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I started with UPI [United Press International] in LA working the overnight shift on the police beat. I'd be covering gang shootings in the middle of the night and freeway shootings; freeway shootings were big at the time. It was an eye opener. I once saw an officer interviewing a man with a red striped shirt. As I got closer I realized his shirt wasn't striped, that it was blood. His face was all cut up.

How did you become interested in foreign affairs?
LW: While still at UPI, I started filing stories for UPI radio too. After the Berlin Wall fell I headed to Germany. I figured there would be a lot of things happening. I had become friends with a German family while backpacking around Europe after college ... so I decided to move to Germany. I worked for the sort of the BBC of Germany, Radio Deutsche Welle. After my contract expired I decided to stay and freelance full-time. I worked for Vatican Radio, National Public Radio and Catholic News Service, who sent me to Bosnia right after the Dayton Peace Accords had been signed. I spent a week and came back with more than a dozen stories.

How did you switch from covering news to helping shape it?
LW: After I returned to the States I took a fellowship in [the late] Sen. [Edward] Kennedy's [Mass.] office as his foreign affairs legislative assistant. Then I got my master's in public policy at Princeton and I freelanced for the New Jersey section of the New York Times while I was up there. I still considered myself a journalist but then I realized that I wanted to be more of a participant now. So I applied for a blind speechwriter's job and interviewed with [then]Sen. [Joe] Biden's communications director. Democrats had just regained control of the Senate and Biden [Del.] took the Foreign Relations Committee chairmanship. He needed a press secretary. I spent two years there.

How did you end up in your current post with the House Foreign Affairs Committee?
LW: Well politics giveth and politics taketh away. When Democrats lost the Senate majority in 2003, I lost my job. I left the Hill for a while and eventually [the late] Chairman Tom Lantos [Calif.] hired me to work on what was then called the House International Relations Committee. When he passed away Chairman [Howard] Berman [Calif.], who is also a Bruin, kept me on. He was never a member who sought a lot of press, which provided more opportunity for me to be out there and be more visible and to concentrate on my other duty [committee aide on public diplomacy oversight issues].

That afforded me a lot of opportunities for overseas travel. I've taken [trips] to some really interesting places — Burma, the West Bank and Yemen. We visit the embassies and learn what they do with the taxpayers' money. [Yemen] was already a troubled place, and that was already well known in foreign-service circles. Security was very tight. It was fascinating; I never once felt under threat. To look at how hard our diplomats and their local partners work to advance the interests of the U.S. in a place like Yemen is breathtaking.

How do you handle what many have described as extreme partisanship on Capitol Hill?
LW: There's a saying that politics stops at the water's edge and it's been my good fortune to work on committees where the chairman and ranking member agree ... and have been very bipartisan. You can see in the Congress at-large an increasing partisanship that is corrosive [and the committee is not immune]. There are partisans on our committees on both sides. There are sharp discussions and disagreements; it's not like all the members get together and sing 'Kumbayah.' You have several dozen elected officials and not a wallflower among them. To get where they are, they have to be vocal and insistent and unafraid to defend their principles.

How do those issues get resolved?
LW: Why on earth would I talk about what happens behind the scene?

Capitol Hill is known for high turnover, how do you keep things fresh or new?
LW: In this job there is no routine; every day is different. There are always fresh challenges; in that respect, it's quite a lot like journalism. I speak to journalists all day long. I have no reason to be concerned that a job like this won't remain fresh. The chairman himself has a board agenda and he entrusts parts of it to his staff experts, including me. But have to be a jack of all trades; I have to understand all the issues the committee handles from nuclear non-proliferation to bilateral relations to development. There's a stimulating variety of things in which I am engaged.

[After the initial interview, Weil was offered, and accepted, a job in the Obama Administration as press director for USAID, the agency that oversees all foreign aid. She then answered a few follow up questions.]

What made you decide to leave the Hill and move to the executive branch?
LW: I've loved working in Congress and will leave a piece of my heart on the Hill. But the opportunity to serve in the Obama Administration was irresistible. This is an exciting time for our country and the way it relates to the rest of the world.

What will you miss most about the Hill?
LW: Most of all, I'll miss my friends and colleagues on the Foreign Affairs Committee Staff and the amazing chairman who makes it all happen: Howard Berman — who is a Bruin, too, by the way. The sense of community and purpose is strong among that group— it's a unique team, and I've been privileged to be a part of it.

What do you think will be the hardest in terms of transition, given the very different way the two branches operate?
LW: There will be plenty of challenges, and I relish the thought of taking them on!

Brian Jones

Brian Jones '93 is president of Latimer Education, Inc, a Washington, DC-based, for-profit education company that is developing an online university for African Americans. He is the former General Counsel of the U.S. Department of Education and current Chairman of the Washington, DC Public Charter School Board.

What year did you graduate and what was your major?
I graduated from the Law School in 1993.

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Where you involved in politics at all during college?
I've long been interested in politics. I volunteered for my first Presidential campaign in high school — Gary Hart [in 1984]. As an undergraduate, I was president of my campus's College Democrats chapter. And when I came to UCLA Law School in 1990, I switched parties and became active in The Federalist Society. So government service was always something I had in mind.

How did you get here?
After law school I went to work for a big firm in San Francisco. While there I got a call from a college friend about a new think tank that was being developed, the Center for New Black Leadership. My friend introduced me to the founders, and they hired me to move to D.C. and start the think tank. From there another friend — a law professor at Boalt Hall who was then working on the Hill — encouraged me to go to work for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, where I worked on federal court and Justice Department nominations. I then came home to California to work for [former California Governor Pete Wilson] as his Deputy Legal Affairs Secretary. After the election of 2000 I was asked to interview with the new U.S. Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, about being his General Counsel. Not long after that the President nominated me for the job. That was the greatest privilege of my career.

What do you say to people who say they hate lawyers?
"Ha-ha, very funny, Dad."

You served as co-chairman of President Bush's Brown v. Board of Education 50th Anniversary Commission, what was that experience like?
Incredible. We visited the five venues that comprised the Brown cases (Virginia; Delaware; South Carolina; Washington, D.C. and Kansas). That was a searing experience — to drive the long distances that African American students in Prince Edward County, VA were forced to walk to a segregated school, passing numerous other "white" schools along the way, or to be in Topeka talking with families that remember first-hand Oliver Brown's extraordinary determination was beyond moving.

How did you feel about Obama's election?
I'm a proud Republican but I cannot begin to tell you how proud I was on Inauguration Day 2009. I live about a block from Pennsylvania Avenue in downtown DC. The Inauguration and the parade were virtually right outside my door. To see so many people, of every race and background, gathered together and showing such unified pride in our country and our African American President, was indescribably moving.

What's the biggest difference between working in the legislative and executive branches?
Working on the Hill showed me how difficult the work of legislating really is. It also taught me that most people in government, on both sides of the aisle, do what they do because they love the country and want to make it better. Working in the executive branch — particularly as the general counsel of a cabinet agency — taught me that the Congress has extraordinary powers. I thought back to all those writings of Madison in The Federalist — he was on to something.

What's the most rewarding part of your job and the hardest?
Working and talking with real people who care about education as a public good is the most rewarding part of my job. The hardest part is that real, meaningful, enduring reform and progress in education comes slowly — far too slowly for my taste. I'm impatient.

Lezlee Westine

Lezlee Westine earned her MBA from UCLA in 1985 and her law degree from Georgetown University. She has worked in private practice, Silicon Valley, and for former California Gov. Pete Wilson and former President George W. Bush. She is president and CEO of the Personal Care Products Council, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group for the cosmetic and personal care products industry. Previously, Westine ran the White House Office of Public Liaison (now the Office of Public Engagement) for more than four years under President Bush. Here, she gives us a glimpse inside the White House and talks about the nexus of business and politics that she inhabits.

What's it like working at the White House?
LW: Inside the White House, it is like drinking water from a fire hydrant, and that really is what Silicon Valley is like as well. On your first day, you're shown where the ladies room is and you're given a kit with a pencil — I don't even think it was sharpened — a pad of Post-it notes, a ruler, and that's it. It's the White House so you assume you have unlimited resources, but actually you have such limited resources and a small staff to further the president's agenda, so it can be overwhelming. I had one person who was responsible for all of women's outreach, an issue near and dear to my heart, for example. So, I went to all the different offices [looking for talent], and I ended up increasing my staff because I took all the best people from other departments; I knew what I needed and I went for it.

What did you like most about working in the White House?
LW: It was thrilling to work in a White House where new ideas were welcome. For example, I did about 400 events a year with the president, I worked with key constituencies and was able to build coalitions; it was rewarding to be able to put my stamp on it. You're only able to do so if you can sell your ideas. I had such a great job; I was able to give these coalitions a voice in the White House and in our government.

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What are you most proud of?
LW: I'm most proud of the work we did with Afghan women. We created a council for Afghan women and conducted a lot of international outreach. We worked on various economic packages; those were some of the most successful; we created a coalition of about 1,000 organizations for some.

Were there any events that didn't really work out the way you planned?
LW: Every Thanksgiving the president "pardons" a turkey in a public ceremony. Well, we were pardoning the turkey and the turkey bit the president...something I really want to forget.

What is the difference between working in the political and business worlds?
LW: There really were a lot of similarities. A new administration in the White House is like a start-up. I came from Silicon Valley which is fast-paced, intense, results-oriented, very 'get things done,' but that's really how the White House was run. I did not view it as a bureaucracy at all.

What do you think of the partisanship, or perception of partisanship, that has taken hold?
LW: We have to rise above partisanship. In fact, I'm constantly working to find people of similar minds to create a network of those who want to be positive, work across party lines and get things done. There are strong bipartisan professionals who want to get things done, but they're not always the most vocal ones you hear on talk shows or talk radio. Being extremely partisan is not always the way to accomplish your goals. You can accomplish some things in the short run, and it might make people feel good temporarily, but in the end it doesn't make me personally feel proud or accomplished. The negative side of partisanship is very disappointing and I try to stay away from it as much as I can.

I am currently working with the Obama Administration to find areas of common ground and identify ways we can work together. Recently, I attended a dinner with my successor at the White House and all the former Office of Public Liaison directors to offer support and stimulate ideas for the new director. I feel strongly that we must support each other.

What do you miss most about UCLA/California?
LW: I really am bicoastal. I feel like a lot of my roots are still in California, and I do admire Californians' "innovative, opened-minded, results-oriented, looking-for-solutions- not-problems attitude." There's a little bit of that here, looking for problems instead of solutions.

What do you like most about Washington?
LW: People here are truly excited about their work, and I get tremendous energy from that. That energy really is symbolic in a view I never get tired of seeing from my office window — the White House. But, I have to tell you, that while I cherish my years there, I got it all out of my system.

I'm now thrilled to be heading this great organization and working for an industry that is so innovative and forward thinking. This is an industry that is extremely passionate about creating products that will delight consumers and help improve their lives through beauty. Once again, I have the greatest job! And, I thank UCLA business school for a wonderful start to an exhilarating career.