(The Root) — "D.C. can either build you up or tear you down," says 26-year-old Keith Benjamin. "It's just a matter of how you manage it for yourself."
Washington, D.C., is a city with a reputation across the country for Capitol Hill dysfunction and, among some of its own young professional residents, soul-killing competition and superficiality. Benjamin says lessons about how to thrive in the nation's capital were important parts of what he absorbed four years ago, when he took part in the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Emerging Leaders Internship Program.
"There's so many people at the foundation who just really took care of me," he says.
Now Benjamin is the street scale campaign manager for the new Safe Routes to School National Partnership, where he helps push for state and local environmental and transportation policies that benefit children in underserved communities throughout the country.
The CBCF — a public policy, research and educational institute founded in 1976 by members of the Congressional Black Caucus — hopes that by placing college students and recent graduates in positions on Capitol Hill or in government agencies through the program, it will "create a corps of trained young leaders with the skills, outlook and contacts necessary to generate and sustain positive change in Washington, D.C., and in their local communities."
For Benjamin, a Swarthmore College grad who spent the fall of 2009 in then-CBC Chair Kendrick Meek's office doing, in his words, "a little bit of everything," it's fair to say it worked.
He's since served on the Presidential Inaugural Committee, worked for the Democratic National Campaign Committee, completed a Give1Project fellowship that took him to France and Senegal and lobbied for the Transport Union Workers of America. In his current role with Safe Routes to School, he says, "My job is to build coalitions and figure out how we can make communities all over the country more active so people can be healthier, have more access have more equity, black and brown, underserved, white rural poor, whatever that may be. That's in my job description — I don't have to integrate it into my everyday work, I don't have to supplement."
And he sees the work he's doing as urgent. "Post-Trayvon, beyond just the stop-and-frisk conversation, beyond 'Stand your ground,' there is the issue of community safety — how do communities protect themselves? You can't be talking about how a kid can do well in school when they had to go through hell just to get to school."
He could arguably be the poster child for this year's CBCF Annual Legislative Conference, a four-day D.C. tradition packed with educational policy forums, community-education workshops and policy briefings from an African-American perspective. The foundation says this year's ALC theme, "It Starts With You," is "a call to action to be and lead the positive change needed in public policy."
Benjamin will be at the conference for the fifth year in a row. His first priority: spreading the word about the work he's doing in his new job among the thousands of attendees the organization predicts. He's also a bit sentimental, hoping to reconnect with CBCF staff and relive the "family environment" that he says characterized his experience with the program. "They look out for their own. And then there's a sense of obligation to new classes who come in. If I hear somebody say, 'I'm a CBCF fellow or emerging leader,' I stop in my tracks, because I know what they're dealing with. I know what they're going through."
Not only does he remember that experience, but he says he's also still reaping its benefits.
"It helped me to begin to become fluent at an early age in terms of how to manage myself in the city — how important relationship-building is, how important your reputation is."
Just one takeaway the now-D.C. insider will have on his mind as he navigates the policy forums and receptions this year: "When people hear your name, they attach it to something you're doing. Not 'Keith in the nice suit and bowtie,' but Keith who works on transportation and environment issues'," he says. "I'm very, very grateful for being able to learn that early on."
The CBCF Annual Legislative Conference kicks off Wednesday, Sept. 18, in Washington, D.C.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer and White House correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.