On Monday evening The LEAP Ambassadors headed south towards Houston to attend yet another amazing World Affairs Council event, this one featuring former Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper. From June 2019 to November 2020, Esper served as Secretary of Defense under the Trump administration–during what he concedes were highly unusual times. WAC Director Maryanne Maldonado led off the evening…
Esper was born in Marshall’s hometown, and during his time at West Point, Esper studied Marshall the man and military strategist. Marshall was known widely for his characteristics of honor and integrity, which Esper tries to live by.
Right off the bat, it was clear that Esper would not shy away from the harder topics. The first question was based on working with President Trump and the atmosphere in the Capitol.
Esper acknowledged the difficulties, noting that while some of the media reports were exaggerated, he and other Cabinet officials had to do a lot of “managing up”: that is, managing their supervisor, to ensure that actions detrimental to the United States weren’t turned into policy.
Ronan and Esper then explored different parts of American military experience in recent years, including turmoil in North Korea, the strategic prioritization of Afghanistan, and domestic protests surrounding the George Floyd protests.
Presidential focus for the past 20 years, irrespective of party, has been on Afghanistan. As Secretary of Defense, Esper identified bring some sort of conclusion to the Afghani war as a priority, but he identified numerous steps he would have taken to avoid the catastrophic pullout that the US undertook a year or so ago.
More recently, Esper was confronted with a (quite literally) trigger-happy Chief of State during the protests surrounding the George Floyd killing. Esper clearly doesn’t relish the government’s frequent turn to the military to solve things outside their wheelhouse: they weren’t, for example, the best choice to call on during COVID, and they weren’t designed to quell domestic unrest–and they definitely weren’t going to “shoot protestors,” as the President had purportedly inquired about.
While Esper was often critical of Trump, he also noted that some of the criticism was overblown. He noted that some of Trump’s unconventional tactics ended up effective, and he noted that some of Trump’s policies have been followed by Biden.
The evening was concluded with a few more thoughts from Esper, particularly his thanks to those who serve, and his hope that military service would be less frequently invoked–but, when invoked, more widely participated in by the general public.
The speaker for the luncheon was Elliot Ackerman, a CIA Officer and Marine stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq, and who, in more recent years, has been a best-selling author of both fiction and non-fiction. The discussion was moderated, as usual, by the excellent Ronan O’Malley, the Director of Programs for WAC.
Attending with us were several SHSU students (Ashlyn Parker, Kiara Williams, Cynthia Boyd), an advisor (Stephanie Fors), and SHSU/community leaders (Gene Roberts, Dean Hendrickson, and Ken Holland).
Ackerman’s book The Fifth Act: America’s End in Afghanistan was the hot topic, and the conversation began with how the title of the book came to be. While he was on vacation with his family, Ackerman was asked to write a 500-word piece about the 20-year war in Afghanistan.
Ackerman joked that he was shocked and thought there was no way to detail and cover 20 years of war in 500 words. When he was asked to write about the operation in Afghanistan, it was referred to and described as a tragedy and he explained that his journalist’s mind made the connection of tragedy with Shakespeare’s plays. Because tragic drama often unfolds in five acts, and because there was a natural breakdown in five parts, Ackerman focused on these five topics: (1) President Bush,( 2) President Obama, (3) President Trump, (4) President Biden, and (5) the fall of the war.
Ackerman then harkened back to an earlier time in history and the construct of blood and treasure. In more detail, he explained that during the Civil War and WWII two main factors rose: the need for someone to fight and someone to pay. But, typically, everyone or almost everyone had to fight, pay, or otherwise sacrifice–and that, according to Ackerman, is no longer true.
Another difficulty is that, most wars can be marked as “victorious” following a positive and defined outcome–such as liberating Europe (WWII). With the War on Terror, a victory was preventing something (i.e., a terrorist attack) from happening. That poses some difficulty in terms of attributing credit or in achieving a defined conclusion.
The book and the non-fiction drama on which it is centered was interesting, so much so that almost all the LEAP guests, including the students, bought books. But the event was also satisfying for the company we were able to enjoy, the always-pleasant prospect of visiting with WAC staff (Ronan, Jahan, and Sandija)…
…and also meeting our advisor’s (Professor Mike Yawn) supervisor, Associate Provost Ken Hendrickson, who spoke following Ackerman, helping wrap up the event.
In short, it was another great World Affairs Council event, just made more great by the fact that it was held at an SHSU campus.
This past spring, I was nominated as an Alternate Delegate to the Republican Party State GOP Convention hosted in Houston this year. The convention was held June 16-18, and I was fortunate enough to attend on Saturday, June 18. Due to an opening in my Dad’s schedule, he was able to accompany me to the convention!
We left from Huntsville bright and early in the morning and headed south to the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston. The convention hall was filled with patriotic booths advertising for campaigns, merchandise, and there was even one with antique maps and flags! The first session began with the National Anthem and speeches from several different leaders in the party.
While the Chairman of the Party, Matt Rinaldi, was leading the GOP in the 15 priorities, I was asked by Walker County’s Republican Chair, Linda McKenzie to move forward to a voting position . Seated next to others from my county, I cast my first vote at the convention by selecting my top priorities.
The GOP reconvened after a quick break, and we were back to work! This time, we had until 5 p.m. to get through the proposed platform, which had almost 300 items listed. Thankfully, before we got too far into the platform, a convention-goer made a motion to reduce the time per section from 25 minutes to 2 minutes, making it possible to get through the entire platform. This motion was met with some disdain, but ultimately did pass among the GOP.
I cast my vote on each item during the discussion, and my dad even snuck up to our section to snap a photo!
Even though it was the last day, the convention was buzzing with energy and excitement for the weeks hard work. I’d like to thank Republican Chair, Linda McKenzie for her hard work and for mentoring me through my first convention!
Dinner at the Grove
One thing is for sure after a political convention, you’ll be hungry! Because we were in Downtown Houston, my dad and I knew that the options were limitless. After a brief online search, we set off on foot towards The Grove. The restaurant was surrounded by (what we thought were ancient) beautiful trees with bending limbs that matched the surrounding park, Discovery Green.
My Dad chose the red snapper, which was highly recommended by our waitress, and I had the filet mignon. It was so big that I needed help finishing it! We thought we had no more room for anything else… but we decided we couldn’t leave without trying the cookie butter gelato. It was the perfect dessert to conclude our meal!
After dinner, we meandered through the park while we waited for the sun to set (a necessity for our next stop) and came across a pop-up flea market! Vendors lined the road selling everything. Leather goods, handmade razors, apparel, and baked goods. My dad and I window-shopped for a little while and enjoyed the summer evening weather before heading to our next site.
Although my dad was a bit skeptical about public art when we first arrived, he slowly began to enjoy himself as the sun set. Turrell’s Skyspace is best viewed at dusk, and the unique design of the space is an excellent display of colors. We wandered in and around the space but enjoyed sitting inside the most.
While the lights are changing color around you, the interior square appears to change as well. However, it is actually just the night sky viewed in comparison to the colors in the space.
The second day of our trip was dedicated to art! Our first stop was to the Rothko Chapel. Rothko is best known for his abstract expressionism and muted colors. The chapel was commissioned in 1964 by the Menils and was intended to be a place of reflection for followers of all religions. Unfortunately, pictures were not allowed inside, but the experience was not lessened. The interior chamber of the chapel is in the shape of an octagon and adorning each wall are massive paintings. At first glance, it is simply a white room with black paintings, but upon a closer look, each painting is distinct. The muted canvases each have a different draw to them, as if they have their own story or personality. There are diptychs, and triptychs each with slight hues of maroons, greys, greens.
The exterior, which was designed by Philip Johnson, Howard Barnstone, and Eugene Aubry (separately), and features Broken Obelisk, by Barnett Newman in a reflecting pool designed by Johnson.
Overall, we enjoyed the new and different experience, and, upon reflection, stands out as one of many highlights over the summer.
As community members in Huntsville gathered at Kate Barr Ross Park to celebrate July Fourth, smiles glistened off children’s faces, and relaxation ran through the parents’ bodies, knowing their children would have a safe and fun July fourth. There was fun for the LEAP Ambassadors as well, but our primary job was to volunteer for the City’s annual Fourth of July festivities.
We were working under the supervision of our friend, Isabel Behm, who has a City internship, and who was, in turn, working under the supervision of Kristy Wheeler and Penny Joiner. And there was a lot of supervision to give–hundreds of people came out to join the fun–fun that included a selfie station, face-painting, a rock wall, a bouncy house, candle-making, food vendors, and a dunking booth.
In fact, we took advantage of some of the fun. Before we got sweaty–or, before we got too sweaty–we made use of the selfie station, taking photos with props…
….and without props.
Others also took advantage of this station throughout the day.
Another big crowd pleaser was the rock-climbing wall. Reaching the top was quite an accomplishment, providing a workout, a lot of fun, and the sense that you could touch the clouds!
If citizens wanted to take out some aggression, they could also try the dunking booth. Local celebrities such as Glenn Edwards (KSAM), Aron Kulhavy (City Manager), Greg Mathis (Fire Chief)…
…and Penny Joiner (Director of Parks and Recreation) sat in the water seat, and for a dollar, people could get three tosses of a softball for an attempted dunking. Few people besides Kristy Wheeler hit the target honestly…
…but a lot of people took the opportunity to run up and use their hands to dunk the celebrity.
It’s possible that we did that to Aron Kulhavy a couple of times….
Thankfully, however, Mr. Kulhavy does not hold grudges, and he even took a selfie with us afterward–photobombed by a police officer!
Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the day was seeing the kids have fun at the event. Indeed, once they were cleared by us to go, they overflowed with excitement and headed straight to the fun activities. A fan favorite was the watermelon-eating contest…
…where one young person actually won twice!
Of course, the Ambassadors couldn’t sit out this event. Morgan and I were nervous and excited for this event, and it lived up to its billing. We dove into this event, doing our best to keep our hands behind our back, while not making too much of a mess. This was only partially successful.
Of course, it took me almost no time to recover from the loss and massive intake of watermelon; within seconds I was on my phone!
Although we lost the competition, we and the entire LEAP program got to see how different departments work together to build a better Huntsville community.
Of course, the watermelon contest wasn’t the only event. There was also face-painting by Lacy Wilkinson…
Another fan favorite was the bouncy-houses, which the kids loved (it’s possible some of us slid down the slide…).
And what do you think could top that entire afternoon? Fireworks, of course! The City put on a great show for the 1,000+ people who came out, and it was quite a show, building up to a grande finale.
It was a day to remember for us: the smell of fresh burgers, the fun of rock-climbing, the joy springing from each family that entered the park, and the beautiful fireworks helped bring a community spirit that is a part of living here.
Our evening–and my first LEAP Center event–began with a trip to the Glade Gallery, which hosts not only beautiful art, but also many of the events held by the World Affairs Council.
At the Glade Gallery we viewed an array of paintings and sculptures. As we were roaming the gallery, we noticed some art pieces that also happened to be for sale- some were priced up to $31,000!
And we even saw a Marc Chagall!
Our main objective of the evening, however, was to hear from Julián Cárdenas, who was speaking on Venezuela’s political and energy situation–and how these are being affected by the Russian-Ukraine War.
Considering Mr. Cardenas served in the Venezuela State Department, is an energy expert, and a law professor at the University of Houston Law, he was a good person to hear from on this topic!
Mr. Cardenas and WAC’s able moderator Ronan O’Malley discussed the challenges faced by Venezuela since the Chavez and Maduro regimes, of which there many. With economic policies that aren’t working, the country facing sanctions imposed by other countries, and widespread corruption among government officials, Venezuela is also facing soaring inflation–in fact, inflation has climbed to thousands of percent, making the US’s inflation rate of 10 percent seem tame.
Cardenas discussed numerous topics we needed to learn about: realism v. idealism in foreign policy, the G-7, NAFTA, and programs such as “food for oil.” We also learned the term “brain drain,” of which Cardenas was a part–he left when conditions became intolerable there.
Following the main discussion, we were able to chat a bit with Mr. Cardenas, pose for a photo, thank the wonderful WAC staff, and head out for dinner.
We drove down to Casa Medina just in time to grab a couple of seats before they closed the kitchen. The service was excellent, and the food was solid! I ordered the shrimp enchiladas, and I was pleasantly surprised with the amount of shrimp and cheese on top. I am a bit of a shrimp enchilada connoisseur, and this dish is a guaranteed 10/10 on the Ashlyn Parker scale!
Judge Hatchett was very enthusiastic as she shared her stories and words of wisdom to inspire all the attendees. Unlike other speeches, Judge Hatchett meandered around the room and asked questions of attendees. She encouraged everyone to establish professional and private goals and to stick to them!
For us, the breakout session was an opportunity to learn from senior managers at the conference.
After the breakout session, she left us all pondering her powerful message: “on the other side of fear is your freedom!” Reminding us to not be afraid to act upon our dreams and do what we are meant to do.
Receiving a standing ovation from the audience, Judge Hatchett walked off the stage to converse on a more personal level with a few of the attendees. It was then that we realized what a small world we live in when we “bumped” into Scott Wayman, who, as it turned out, is married to Diane Gottsman! For those wondering who Mrs. Gottsman is, she comes to Sam Houston State University (brought in by Career Success) every semester to teach us about etiquette, and we very much enjoy her annual visits, where we pose with her in annual selfie.
So, we did that with Mr. Wayman!
As we got ready to leave, we said our goodbyes to Ms. Breland, Mr. Wayman, Mr. Stokes, and Judge Hatchett.
We are looking forward to attending the 2023 TCMA Conference in Allen, Texas!
As we sprinted to the last day of our conference trip, we prepared for our busiest and most fulfilling day. We headed to the Lost Pines resort for a delightful breakfast and one of our last opportunities to network and learn from other city employees. Our conversations soon came to an end when the World-Renowned ER Physician and Iraq War Veteran, Dr. Sudip Bose took the stage.
Dr. Bose spoke on how to be the best leader, even when while under A LOT of pressure, which is something that various city managers have dealt with through COVID-19 and its effects. Utilizing his military background as an analogy to various situations, Dr. Bose was able to relate with the many city managers in attendance.
Dr. Bose reminded us that “challenges without support are discouraging,” stressed the importance of knowing when to let go of a situation and move on, and highlighted the importance of knowing when a window of opportunity is presenting itself.
Perhaps most important was his message emphasizing preparation, a lesson he learned in the military: “the more you sweat in peacetime, the less you will bleed in war.”
Dr. Bose’s closer was perfect lead-in to the different sessions that we would hear, involving: (1) cybersecurity and (2) how and why it is important to address mental health needs.
The cybersecurity session focused on the importance of addressing and having a multi-layered defense and an Incident Response Plan.
Ryan Burns with Texas Municipal League (TML), who is a former SHSU graduate, led this session addressing all the concerns of its attendees as well as covering what he thought was most important.
Without saying too much, Burns advised everyone on how “it takes everyone to combat a cybersecurity threat and each city must plan, prepare, and test their plans, revising as necessary.” As city managers and employees, they must be PERFECT all the time compared to a hacker who only needs to get it right once.
Morgan and Isabel reported that the session covering mental health was comforting to see so many cities focused on the mental health of their employees.
TCMA has partnered with Deer Oaks Employee Assistance Program to provide mental health support for its members. Rep. Kristina Herrera, explained the various services that will be available for TCMA members and their families and the importance of utilizing them. The concept, as with all proactive health efforts, is that providing mental health services is not only the right thing to do, but will ultimately lead to a happier, more productive work force.
The City of Austin awaited us, so we left the conference early after enjoying a quick lunch!
We had the pleasure of meeting (and, for some of us, re-meeting) a passionate artist, Daniel Arredondo, whose work entranced us for almost two hours. One of most prevalent themes in his work is “what lies beneath,” the idea that what is beneath the surface is often more important than what is on the surface.
It may be appropriate, then, that his work often depicts trees. But he also showed us his landscapes and, in a new twist for him, his recent, more abstract pieces.
Arredondo’s passion was apparent throughout our visit. We asked him how he knew when a painting was done, and he simply described it as a gut feeling.
Morgan seemed to gravitate toward the pieces that were more southwesterly in appearance, a bit reminiscent of Georgia O’Keeffe landscapes. Jessica was fond of his signature style paintings of “what lies below,” landscapes of trees and their roots growing underneath–so much so that she bought one of them!
We also got to see him in action! Arredondo demonstrated how he starts an abstract painting and described why he chooses the media that he does. He mentioned multiple times that he has never done a demonstration in front of others; it was such a treat! I loved how passionate Arredondo was, how detailed he was in his descriptions of his process, and the hospitality with which he welcomed us. Today was filled with so much laughter, great conversations, and fellowship. It was a great day to start the end of our trip!
At the end of our stay, Arredondo gifted us with pieces that will serve as reminders. Some of his earliest works adorned the front of the cigar boxes, and he was kind enough to let us choose ones that spoke to us.
Many, many thanks to Daniel Arredondo for showing us was art is from the other side of the canvas.
We switched gears from the roaming hills of West Austin and headed for the heart of Austin, the Texas State Capitol.
We began our capitol tour much like we do others, by commenting on the interesting or unique architectural features and designs. Professor Yawn walked us around the groups and explained that the extensions to the structure were fundamental in accommodating our Texas-sized legislature and staff. While the extensions and supporting features are new, they did not distract from the aesthetic of the Capitol established in 1885.
The red limestone exterior of the Capitol seemed to glitter in the setting sunlight, and we made our way into the north entrance. Upon opening the front doors, we of course stopped to look at the 7-pound door hinges, detailed with the Texas Seal.
We posed with Elizabet Ney’s rendering of a young Sam Houston…
…and pondered on the surrender of Santa Anna.
But, of course, from the rotunda, the most interesting piece is the interior of the dome, which is beautiful.
And we also followed toured the floors viewing the different governors throughout history, settling on our favorite.
As we were leaving the sun was just setting under the tree line and we snapped our final photos.
After a lovely tour of the capital and a relaxing drive around Austin, we were ready to kayak and spend some time on the peaceful water of the Colorado River.
And while Jessica and Izabella accomplished a peaceful journey, that certainly was not the case for Morgan and me.
I knew it might be a bit rocky when Morgan began our ride by saying, “Isabel…I’ll do my best not to yell at you.” Part of our problem is that we thought I, sitting in front, should be steering, when, in fact, that was Morgan’s job. (Editor’s note: both parties lacked any semblance of navigational skills, exacerbated by the fact that Morgan is often flummoxed by even simple directions.)
Our meandering, inefficient paddling, however, did not prevent us from seeing a beaver casually swimming along the shoreline!
While we worked just to paddle forward, Jessica and Izabella enjoyed a leisurely tour along the river, using what Jessica referred to as the “slow-and-steady approach.” Although we aren’t ones to judge, it did appear that Bella was allowing Jessica to do much of the work….
Around 8:30 pm we began to paddle to the dock. The trip back was where Morgan and I experienced the most action. We attempted to convince Jessica and Bella to tow us into the dock, but they selfishly refused to play along. This left us to our own devices which, at one point, rendered us fighting limbs and the shoreline, running aground (and encountering a spider–eek!) as we ineffectually tried to return to the dock.
Despite these misadventures–or perhaps because of them–we very much enjoyed our time on the water, and it was a fitting and madcap ending to a wonderful day.
…who introduced our keynote speaker for the general session, Nora McInerny, whose talk, “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” played on themes she discusses in her podcast and books.
She displayed her dry, witty sense of humor while also touching on loss, grief, change, and new beginnings. Most importantly, she addressed the ability to genuinely answer the question, “How are you?” I think we often answer with the word “fine,” which is okay, but sometimes, it’s okay not to be okay.
Following McInerny’s inspirational words, we had a chance to meet her and discuss her talk.
She was very generous.
Today was a unique day with their awards luncheon! Once the doors opened, we scurried off to get a table and save Huntsville’s City Manager, Aaron Kulhavy, a seat next to us. For most of the luncheon, we were conversing with Aaron to get to know him and learn more about city management.
Our entrée for lunch consisted of Ham with Barbeque sauce, and grits, accompanied by a variety of vegetables such as corn and some delicious carrots. Once we finished our main dish, we started on our dessert which was a delicious fruit tart with oranges and strawberries. Countless city officials were recognized for their outstanding work and accomplishments throughout the years. It was truly an amazing and rewarding experience.
Once the luncheon was over, Aaron Kulhavy took us around and introduced us to multiple people from the surrounding areas before we split off to the breakout sessions.
Isabel enjoyed the economic development conference presented by Imelda Speck, the Economic Developer in Irving, Texas, which is Isabel’s hometown! Speck along with the other panelists talked about the effects the Covid-19 pandemic had on their cities and small businesses. Isabel found it interesting to hear about the programs the City of Irving implemented to try and soften the blow. Jessica found this session particularly easy to understand and follow thanks to her Finance Internship with the City of Huntsville.
In ways, her internship with the Finance Department helped her understand things in different sessions such as previously mentioned and the strategic plans session. However, this can also be said of Morgan after interning with the City Secretary.
Morgan’s favorite conference, All Disasters are Local, Your Emergency Program Should Be, Too, by Nim Kidd. Kidd talked about three new technologies that they are putting in place to cover more bases regarding emergency management. It was also intriguing to know how they are also starting the first academy in the nation for emergency management and will be placing 100 new agents in 100 new counties.
Despite many good sessions today, my all-time favorite was the opening session with Nora Mclnerny.
Dinner in Downtown Bastrop
Once the conference wrapped up for the day, we were beyond excited to explore downtown Bastrop and eat at a local place. On our way to Piney Creek Chophouse, we took a moment to admire the various bookstores, coffee shops, and beautiful homes in their downtown. Piney Creek Chophouse is a nice neat little local restaurant that has a unique architectural design and interior that adds to the character of the place.
Often Professor Yawn forgets to feed us, but makes up for it when he treats us to a fancy steakhouse. Never failing to get us appetizers to hold us over until our entrees arrive, we ordered Crab Cakes, Crab-Stuffed Mushrooms, and Bruschetta.
We were also provided with a delicious, crafted artisan bread accompanied by butter. The crab cakes were bursting with flavor, and we even convinced Jessica, who isn’t a fan of crab or seafood, to try a bite! We couldn’t get her to try a mushroom, but maybe we’ll have some better luck next time.
As we waited for our main entrees, Professor Yawn gave us a quick crash course about dining etiquette. Soon enough, our main entrees were brought out to us, Morgan and Izabella shared a Filet Mignon served with Mashed Potatoes and Haricot Verts. Jessica and I both shared a New York Strip accompanied by Mashed Potatoes and Haricot Verts as well.
Professor Yawn enjoyed a Strawberry Salad and a side of fried Brussel Sprouts which we all absolutely loved.
Each dish had its own quality that made it special, and each dish was full of different flavors. We all had our own unique experiences. After our main dish, I was sure I was full and had no room for dessert…. I was wrong.
Dessert included an exquisite Bread Pudding, A Molten Lava Cake, and Banana Foster. I found the Banana Foster the most interesting since our waitress brought the dish out covered in flames which certainly made for a cool and unique presentation. The Banana Foster had a very strong cinnamon taste and a slight hint of coconut, it was one of the favorites and there was not a single piece left on the dish. The Bread Pudding had more of a sweet, rich taste and the Molten lava cake was very neatly presented, and the brownie was super rich and paired with the ice cream, it made for a wonderful combination.
We all had a great time at dinner, and it was the perfect way to end a long eventful day.