Get to Know a Truman: Caitie Whelan (Maine, 2007)

Caitie Whelan. Photo credit: Andrew Propp.

Caitie Whelan is the Founder/Noter-in-Chief of The Lightning Notes, a short daily post to help us move the world forward. It features great ideas and striking stories to remind us that we matter and that improving the world is our matter. Prior to The Lightning Notes, Caitie was a Senior Foreign Policy Advisor in Congress, co-founded a school in India with a community of lower caste musicians, and raised pigs in Italy. She is a graduate of Brown University – where she co-launched their Social Innovation Initiative and is a member of the Brown Women’s Leadership Council – and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, where she co-founded and chaired the Salt Alumni Board. She is a Truman Scholar from Maine.

1. How did you use your Truman scholarship?  What was the most valuable thing you learned from your Truman experience?

I haven’t used it yet. And even if I never do, the most valuable thing about the Truman is the people. I still get a little awestruck after spending time with a bunch of Trumans – it’s beautiful to know there are such huge-brained, huge-hearted people out there remaking the world. I am a bigger, better and most importantly, kinder person for this community.

2. Tell me more about your work co-founding a school in India with a community of lower caste musicians.

One of the best, most humbling experiences of my life. The Merasi are a community of lower caste musicians in the desert of northwestern India. Most of them live on the periphery of society and social opportunity.

When I first met the Merasi during my time off from college, I was nearly blinded by all the things they didn’t have – money, education, a vote or say in how society worked – that I almost missed what they did have, which was this incredible musical legacy that existed nowhere else in the world.

Change, for all its unpredictability, is always better built on assets than deficits. And the Merasi wanted to change their situation with education. Reading, writing, arithmetic education to increase their social mobility, but also music education to conserve their cultural legacy.

So, with a wonderful Merasi man and the invaluable support of an organization called Folk Arts Rajasthan (that had first introduced me to the Merasi), I co-founded The Merasi School.

I split my time between the US and India co-running the school for a few years. With each phase of development, we aimed to lift up community capacity higher and higher and work me more and more out of a job.  It was, like most things I’ve done, building the airplane while flying it. We had some great successes, some hard learning experiences, and more than enough moments of affirmation in the classroom to know that we were building something worthwhile. I’ve since stepped down, but the school today has more students and more velocity than ever.

3. How did you come up with the idea of The Lightning Notes?

I worked in Congress for six years. In the mornings, I walked from my apartment west towards the Capitol Building. I was a Senior Foreign Policy Advisor for a wonderful man. It was the kind of job where your phone calls got returned and you were always out of business cards.

But one morning walk, I realized that I wasn’t looking forward to going into work. Policy was one way to help move the world forward. But I knew it wasn’t the way I could be most effective.

I’ve always been moved by words and words capacity to stir us to action. But the only writing I was doing were memos on trade policy and talking points on tax reform. Which were fine, but they weren’t catalyzing anyone to go make the world spin faster. So, I decided I’d write for two months to see if I had something worth saying.

Every day from January to March 2015, I’d go into work early. And down in the cafeteria while the Capitol Police were eating their egg sandwiches, I’d write. About how we can take risks, handle fear, and live in such a way that when our time is over and done, we don’t have any unlived life left in us.  Then I built a website and came up with kind of a snazzy name. March 1st rolled around and I believed in what I was doing, fiercely. And I think Gandhi’s really right when he says, “To believe in something and not to live it is dishonest.”

So, I left my job and launched The Lightning Notes, a short daily post to help us move the world forward. It features great ideas and striking stories to remind us that we matter and that improving the world is our matter. If I do my job right, you should be able to read a post in 60 to 90 seconds with your morning coffee or tea and leaving feeling a little bit better about yourself and the world.

4. What are your plans for its future?

Now, I take these Notes off the page and into the world with workshops on the Art of Risk Taking. They’re full of all the tools that have worked for me on taking risks; handling fear, failure, rejection, and criticism; and reducing stress and burnout.

When you put something out into the world that didn’t exist there before – be it a new business, piece of art, idea – it’s a process of experimentation, trying to figure out how it can contribute and be useful in a really big sense of the word.

It’s been an incredible experience. It’s blown up all my expectations and become much richer, more challenging, more amazing than what I’d planned for.

5. What is the most rewarding aspect of your current position?  The most challenging?

The most rewarding part: For me, success is waking up in the morning and looking forward to the day. These days, usually I do. But if not, it’s on nobody but me to figure out why and shift my behavior or, more often, my mindframe to make it so.

The most challenging part (which has also been the most triumphant): I thought building my own business would be just one initial leap in the darkness. But it’s actually leap after leap after leap. And leaping, I’ve learned, is a muscle that needs to be exercised regularly or else it becomes less and less available to us.

So, I leap each day. Writing Notes; crafting, proposing, and giving workshops. Sometimes I land great. Other times, it’s a faceplant. But it’s the leap itself that matters; if you’re doing it just to stick the landing, that’s a brilliant setup for heartache.

6. Which activities outside of your work are most inspiring to you?

Nothing lights me up more than people. How they think about, move through, and make sense of the world. And especially the little acts of kindness and creation people do in the face of huge unkindness and destruction.

Long and hot showers (with apologies to mother earth), walking with the sunrise, having friends who are much older and much younger than me (one of the best-kept secrets of being alive), anyone who doesn’t discount themselves for not being the best, little and large gestures of courage.

7. What were the top 3 things you learned from your experience as a Senior Foreign Policy Advisor for Rep Sam Farr?

  1. Kindness wins. By kindness, I don’t mean niceness, which is flimsy. By kindness, I mean acting with great heart, even if no one else around you is (for the record, I didn’t always do this). It doesn’t mean you’ll for sure get the policy outcome you want; as a Democrat in the House with a Republican majority, I often didn’t. But at least you don’t give folks the double win of a legislative victory and getting you to stoop to nasty, catty, or less humane behavior. And, I have to say, that kindness has yielded some generous and unexpected policy and personal dividends from folks on all sides of the aisle, even now two years out from my time in Congress.

  2. You have to be the caretaker of your integrity. There are plenty of temptations, some very little and some quite big, that come your way, and you and only you can decide what you value and how you’ll live out those values with each decision you make.

  3. EB White was in a writing club at Cornell where the motto was “never to take oneself too damned seriously or too damned lightly.” I think that’s about right for Congress, too. The work is important. It touches many lives, sometimes in deeply personal ways. But having a light touch enables you to grow, learn, not get carried away by ego, keep two feet healthily on the ground.

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