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How to make a White House Summit more than a photo op

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Attendees pose with signs during the White House Youth Summit on the White House grounds in Washington, DC. 

More than a dozen business school deans gathered at the White House today to talk about how to make the workplace work better for women and people with families. The meeting was part of the lead-up to  a bigger Working Families summit coming up in June.

The White House holds a lot of these sorts of gatherings. There have been summits on everything from job creation to food marketing to diversity in the tech industry. So what actually gets done?

“Everybody likes to come to the White House, come to Washington, have their picture taken,” says Bob Guttman, who teaches media and politics at Johns Hopkins University. “ In terms of policy, I think it’s less important.”

One way to make the events more than a photo-op is for organizers to ask for specific commitments, as the White House did last year when college presidents gathered to talk about expanding opportunity for low-income students. 

“So just that one project alone – clearly there’s been some great momentum from the convening in January,” says Daniel Porterfield, president of Franklin & Marshall College, one of 10 schools that pledged scholarships after the summit.


 

The sometimes strange world of White House summits

by Marc Sollinger 

Summit on Food Marketing: Michelle Obama is concerned with childhood obesity. So much so that last year her office convened a summit to get food companies and the media to push healthier food to America’s kids. Speaking to a group of parents, scientists, and representatives from the food industry, the First Lady urged everyone to make children’s health a priority.

Beer Summit: One of the most recognizable White House Summits wasn’t actually an official summit at all. But after a national uproar over the 2009 arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Gates, Obama met with both Gates and his arresting officer at what came to be known as the “Beer Summit.”

SelectUSA Investment Summit: As part of Obama’s push to bring jobs and investment money to the US, the White House convened a 1,300-person summit last fall that let global investors mingle with government officials and representatives from U.S. Companies.

Tech Inclusion Summit: This January summit was the highlight of an initiative to encourage diversity in the tech industry. Over 200 people participated and discussed ways to achieve President Obama’s goal of producing one million additional STEM graduates over the next decade.

Summit on Black Male Success: More a series of summits than a single event, this was an effort by EBONY magazine and the White House to host discussions throughout the country about the issues that face African American males. This series is a follow up to Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” campaign.

White House Summit on Working Families: Part of the reason business college deans are traveling to the White House, this summit will focus efforts on creating a more workable and equitable workplace. Taking place this June, it will convene business leaders and experts to talk about the issues. 

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.

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