By Valerie Kazarian, Staff Writer

Maria Echaveste, former advisor and Deputy White House Chief of Staff in the Clinton administrations and one of the highest-ranking Latinas to have served in a presidential administration, spoke on Sept. 27 at the 2018 Betta Ehrenfeld Public Policy Forum in Wishcamper Hall. The talk was co-hosted by the Frances Perkins Center and the Muskie School of Public Service.

In addition to speaking, Echaveste was presented with the 2018 Frances Perkins Steadfast Award which is given annually to a young person who works in social justice and economic security but does not receive public recognition. She is also the co-founder of Nueva Vista Group and is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

In her presentation, Echaveste compared the social, economic and political context of the creation of the 1938 Labor Standards Act (FLSA) which established the federal minimum wage. She said the social climate of the 1930’s was very similar to today’s with its underlying political tensions, changing economy, issues like workers’ rights and minimum wage, and social issues including child labor and immigration.

Echaveste’s question was, “What should we be brainstorming as we move into the future?” Her position was even with the divisions in the country today, saying that we have common needs and common interests that should override those divisions. She mentioned that issues like making a decent wage and having access to reasonable health care should be bringing us together rather than splitting us apart.   

When asked what makes her optimistic, Echasveste said that the generation of thirty-somethings that are creating an abundance of non-profits to serve people and the community. However, she did say that she has a concern that there is not what she termed “intellectual capital.” She said organizations like the Federalist Society were formed forty years ago to “train and develop in the legal field the whole underpinnings for state’s rights.” She said there was no comparable organization on the opposite side of the spectrum until the American Constitution Society was organized in 2001.

“I feel there is a lack of intellectual capital that support the thinking of how do we get to that common understanding of matters like ‘what does it mean to have a living wage, or why we need to think of made the pendulum be all about this as a communal response to these challenges.’  Those forty years, she said, “made the pendulum be all about the individual.”

Echaveste is a first generation American and had experiences common to many first generation students. According to the Portland Press Herald, more than half of each entering class is the first in their family to attend college.

Echaveste said she experienced some of the challenges that others experience but it was through self-confidence and support from the community that she was able to succeed. Some of the challenges are that the first generation students do not have the family network that is able to help them navigate college life so things that seem simple to some, like seeking advice, may be more difficult for them. She said that she had been an avid reader and that has helped her have a wider view of the world than her experience actually gave her and that gave her courage.

For women thinking of going into public policy roles Echaveste said, “We need more women as elected officials; we need more women running agencies.” What helped her, she felt, was that she went to law school at a time when few women were in courtrooms.  

“The experience of very often being the only woman who looked like me,” she said, “help me to understand or become accustomed to the idea that some people are going to think of you in a certain way but you’re here to do a job. Just do it and eventually people understand that you are just as capable as they are.”

Echaveste said what she felt was of most importance to USM students in terms of her presentation was that unless they are born wealthy, they will be working and they need to be concerned with not just their wage but also with their working terms and conditions.

“When people are not earning enough to make a decent lifestyle for themselves,” she said, “it cost us all,” in terms of draining funds from education, health care, social services, crime. “This really ought to matter to us all.”


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