How to Think Locally, Systemically and Strategically

by Attayah Douglas '18.5
July 9, 2017

Victor Brechenmacher '18 reflects on his time in the Brown in D.C. program and shares his top tips for civic engagement.

Q: Briefly describe the work you did in D.C. through the program.

A: I worked as an intern at the Atlantic Council, a think tank focused on US foreign policy and security-related issues. At the Council, I helped write a weekly newsletter on US foreign policy, which involves monitoring the news, compiling interesting analyses on foreign policy developments and drafting a commentary that summarizes the most relevant issues at stake. I also prepared members of the Council for TV appearances by writing talking points and/or conducting background research and helped edit some of the Council’s publications. Outside of the internship, I took two courses with the other students on the program. Our coursework consisted of tasks as diverse as interviewing colleagues at our respective internship sites, simulating a negotiation between the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan and a media training at the Center for American Progress.

Q: What unexpected experiences did you have?

A: I wrote talking points which were later repeated by my boss on MSNBC and German national television. Seeing your contribution, however marginal it may be, make its way into a very public arena can be an exciting and rewarding experience.

Q: What was your most memorable experience?

A: There are many candidates, but I think the moments I felt most engaged were the ones spent in conversations with my peers in the program. This goes for daily exchanges about our academic interests and internship experiences as well as for our many field trips in the city, where our experiences often sparked interesting conversations. In particular, I remember a trip to the National Archives and the ensuing discussion of patriotism, history and collective memory.

Q: Why should people apply to this program and who should apply for this program?

A: Anybody whose interests relate, in one form or another, to public service, government, politics and public policy, social activism, non-profit work or a related field should feel encouraged to apply, regardless of academic background. The members of my cohort have a wide range of interests – some do not even plan on pursuing a career in public service, others are passionate about social justice or environmental policy – and this diversity of backgrounds, opinions and interests has contributed a lot to the quality of the program.

This also means that you should be prepared for, and excited about, engaging with topics that you haven’t studied or devoted much thought to before. Your internship allows you to pursue your interests in depth, but the program is designed to make you think about public service in a variety of iterations and perspectives, so an openness to this breadth, and a willingness to inform yourself on topics you are less familiar with are essential.

Besides getting to know DC with its many events, free museums and other types of cultural experiences, the program is a great way to explore different ways to put your academic interests into action. You do so primarily through your internship, but you also get to meet many people who have devoted their lives to public service and learn vicariously through your peers’ experiences.”

Q: What advice would you give for anyone interested applying and to the new cohort of students participating in the program?

A: Start thinking early about internships that would interest you, and don’t hesitate to get in touch with the program’s alums!

Q: What are your “Top Tips” from Washington?

A: Think strategically about whom to target and why: If you are lobbying Congress for a progressive issue, it may not be necessary to put pressure on legislators from solidly Democratic states who align with your position anyway – it makes more sense to target a Democrat representing an area that, say, voted for Trump.

  • Think hard and pragmatically about how to engage adversaries most effectively: there is research suggesting that telling people that their views are, say, racist leads them to become defensive and more entrenched in their view. Doing so might be cathartic, but counterproductive.

  • Think about the extent to which your problem is systemic, and to what extent it makes to seek a systemic solution, rather than a more localized, case-based solution, and adjust your strategy accordingly.