When Deesha A. Dyer — then-Social Secretary for the Obama administration — was hosting singer Aretha Franklin for a 2015 performance at the White House, she was given an unexpected request.
Franklin, feeling cold, insisted that Dyer light a fire in the White House for her. “And I was like, we can’t, you know, burn down the house,” Dyer says. Instead, Dyer turned up all the heaters until the house became uncomfortably hot, noticeable even to the audience members present.
“But then,” Dyer laughs, “when [Franklin] gets on stage, she tells the audience, ‘Whew, it's hot in here!’ And we're like, are you kidding me?”
Dyer, who served as Social Secretary from 2015-2017, has no shortage of stories from her time working in the Obama administration. She was in charge of hosting all the social events at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, ranging from formal state dinners to tea with the First Lady. “Man, it was crazy,” she remembers, a hint of nostalgia in her voice.
Now, Dyer is a Fall 2019 Resident Fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics.
Growing up, Dyer had no idea that she would become a key figure in a presidential administration. She was born in Philadelphia, Penn. and was not from a college-educated family, nor one particularly politically involved. Dyer attended a boarding school for low-income families, and then the University of Cincinnati, where she dropped out before completing her freshman year. College was “just not for [her],” she decided, and she left to pursue odd jobs instead.
At 29, Dyer returned to her studies, this time at the Community College of Philadelphia. In 2007, her first year at college, Barack Obama was beginning to make waves in the Democratic primary. Dyer had never been deeply interested in electoral politics, but Obama’s campaign struck a chord with her passion for activism.
“Barack Obama… introduced me to politics in the sense that I felt like I was a part of politics,'' she says. When he was elected, Dyer felt like the electoral and activist sides of politics seemed to overlap for the first time — so she decided to get more involved in Washington, D.C.
Dyer decided that she wanted to work in Obama’s White House, and applied to be an intern in the Office of Scheduling and Advance in 2009. To her surprise, they picked her.
Dyer says that to succeed in Obama’s White House, interns needed not extensive experience within the gates of power, but instead “a quest to learn… passion for the country… passion for democracy, community service, the passion really for the people.”
“And that's what I had.”
The following year, in 2010, she was hired full-time at the White House. Dyer served the President and First Lady in the Office of Scheduling and Advance until, in 2015, she was selected to be the White House Social Secretary.
As Social Secretary, Dyer was in charge of the White House Social Office, coordinating all the events, and choosing whom to invite. With this power, Dyer worked to expand the representation of marginalized communities in a space typically closed off to them.
“I made sure that I tried to be a bridge as much as I could in those communities,'' she explains. “I made sure that if somebody wanted to come for a tour, somebody wanted to sing at the White House, or somebody wanted to ask a question, they wanted a birthday greeting… that I do whatever possible to make that happen.”
“I didn't want them to feel like the government and the White House were so far away,” she adds.
Dyer says she tried to stay authentic to herself throughout her time at the White House. “When I felt like I wasn't being accountable to [my community], I had to check myself.” At the end of her tenure, she says she “felt like I represented the best of my ability to have lasting change.”
After what she calls the “dismal” 2016 election, she recalls the Obamas reminding their staff that the progress they made was not for nothing.
But despite the close of her tenure at the White House, she knew that it was just the beginning of her career.
She decided to focus on her nonprofit beGirl.world, founded in 2014, which seeks to empower high school girls in Philadelphia through globally focused education and travel. When traveling with the President, Dyer explains, “I wouldn't see any black people in the U.S. embassies — like, ‘kind of awkward, there’s a lot of us back home.’”
Dyer realized that many people may not go on to become foreign diplomats because they lacked “a global perspective of what they can do,” a mindset she resolved to change starting with high school girls.
The excitement and pride is palpable in Dyer’s voice as she talks about how the young women in her program have become more globally aware, with many later studying abroad in college. These students, as well as the students Dyer has met at Harvard, make her more optimistic about the future.
“What gives me hope is that young people are redefining and challenging and succeeding,” she says. “Breaking down walls and then putting them back together.”