Our third and penultimate neighbor interview for On My Block Films is with Jen Samawat, non-profit superstar, former Obama campaign national advance team member, and superb quinoa-salad-maker. Not only does Jen totally know the President of the United States (hereafter referred to as POTUS cuz it sounds cool), she also now works for one of our favorite non-profits, has some kick-ass tattoos, and is a skilled painter. Also, she and Adam (both above) totally rocked out the final scene to the short movie we made. Solid landing!
Read on to to hear about what it’s like to work for one of the most powerful people in the world, why Planned Parenthood is awesome, and to find out about the inevitable Broadway hit, Revenge of the Snerd.
Kindness of Ravens: So, word on the street is that you worked for this guy named Barack Obama back in 2008. What did you do for the campaign, exactly, and how’d you land that gig?
Jen Samawat: True story. I joined the campaign around June 2007 as a member of the national advance team—it was basically event planning for everything the President did. Once something made it onto POTUS’s schedule, a team of us would puddle jump across the country, arriving anywhere from three to seven days ahead of the scheduled event(s)—and go to work scouting out and locking in venues, contracting vendors, liaising with local and national staff to build crowds, media coverage and visual messaging. We were logistical machines. Then POTUS would roll in, we’d get him through the day, and it was on to the next one.
I still have no idea how I got the gig. I had been working for the governor of Wisconsin at the time, some guy my colleague knew was doing something in New Hampshire, who gave my resume to someone and they gave it to someone, and then all of a sudden I was in Dubuque, IA. After one trip, I was hooked. I came home, put in my two-weeks notice to the governor’s office and then “casually” let the Obama folks know that I was conveniently available. I didn’t hear a peep until my very last day of work (you can imagine my stress level), when I finally received an email—also very casual—telling me to pack my bags for TBD time and come to Des Moines. The next time I saw my apartment was six months later.
KoR: Man. Was it insane? Wait, let me rephrase that—It was insane, did you all actually get a chance to sleep or eat at all in 2008? I bet you seriously saw like no movies that year. You should really check out The Dark Knight—super-good.
JS: It was insane in ways you can’t even imagine. Besides the grueling schedule and lifestyle on the road—I literally lived in various Hampton Inns and dined at Applebee’s for 18 months—it was just such a weird bubble that no one could understand unless you were in it. I mean, my peers for that duration were other campaign staff, members of the national press corps, and Secret Service agents. And if my colleagues or I messed up, it was totally on display via cable new shows or next-day newspaper pics. So the pressure and stakes were pretty intense. It was also the most incredible experience of my life—I made the most incredible friends, visited almost every state in the Union plus Puerto Rico and Germany, and got to witness history be made right in front of my face. It was amazing insane.
KoR: And we won! High-five! BUT…four years later, seems like the reality of exactly how slowly and heavily the mechanics of our government turn over has become apparent and there are a lot of disillusioned voters out there now. Honestly, I’m kinda scared for November. Besides the obvious (not having Romney in the White House), why should we still vote for Obama?
JS: I’m pretty tired of hearing conservatives rail on for the last four years about “taking their country back.” When I look at what President Obama has done since taking office, I finally feel like OUR country is living up to the ideal of “exceptionalism” and potential that conservative politicians love to bring up. Look at the monumental things he’s achieved his first term—we’ve had 29 straight months of job growth in the private sector, passed health care reform, ended the war in Iraq, repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, came out in support of same-sex marriage, passed the stimulus, passed Wall Street Reform, turned around the US auto industry, it goes on… He deserves real credit for moving us forward.
Even putting those things aside, the real reason I will vote for Obama again is because I am a woman; because he believes women can make up our own minds; that being a woman is not a “pre-existing condition” when it comes to health care coverage, and that we have the right to birth control and life-saving preventive care; that we have the right to equal pay for equal work, and education and economic opportunities. This is a president who has made issues important to women a priority. And therefore it’s my priority to see him re-elected. It will be a close race—we all should be working hard from now until November. But I think the gender gap may be what tips it.
KoR: If there were an emoticon for standing up and clapping in a very earnest way, that would go here. Very, very well-said. So, now you’ve moved on from the Obama crüe to working for another group we hold in super-high-regard, Planned Parenthood. Real quick, can you tell us what you do there and why Planned Parenthood’s work is important to you?
JS: I work for Cecile Richards now, the President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. I do a lot of admin work and interdepartmental liaising. It’s pretty amazing and humbling to be part of an organization that makes a real difference in every day lives—it’s one thing to work in politics and campaign for affordable health care access, it’s another thing to actually deliver it to the women and families who need it most, every single day.
KoR: Did you actually leave the White House to work for Planned Parenthood?
JS: I actually left politics for a much more impulsive, unforeseen reason—love! After we won the election, I moved to DC to work on the inauguration. When that wrapped up, but before official administration jobs were sorted out, I went to Munich for the Vice President for two weeks. Little did I know that the handsome German-Persian driver/interpreter contracted by the embassy and assigned to my boss on that trip, would now be my husband. I was fortunate that the first few months of the administration involved so much European travel and that I could make side-trips to Berlin in-between, but when push came to shove, I packed up and moved to Berlin full time. I was even more fortunate to be able to keep one foot in after moving there and do most of the international trip planning for POTUS, FLOTUS, and VPOTUS on a contract/volunteer basis. After almost two years, I convinced my husband to move to the States, and with absolutely fortuitous timing, I was working at PPFA two weeks later.
KoR: I like all this POTUS/FLOTUS/VPOTUS stuff. From now on, I’m TOTUS. Dibs. Planned Parenthood is definitely a group that has its fair share of critics out there. What would you say is the biggest or most problematic misconception out there about the organization?
JS: That all we do is provide abortions. In reality, more than 90% of what we do nationally is lifesaving cancer screenings, birth control, prevention, testing and treatment for STD’s, breast health services, Pap tests, sexual health education, information and health counseling. We work every single day to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and keep women healthy. For many women, Planned Parenthood ends up being the only source of health care—one in five women in America has turned to us at some point for professional, nonjudgmental, and confidential care.
KoR: We can totally share you appreciation for working for an organization that’s doing real, tangible good out in the world. On to other subjects—you paint too, right? Are you trained?
JS: I do paint and draw, and, though I wish I was trained—unless you count my high school art classes with Mr. Jo back in central Wisconsin—sadly I am not. I have sold some stuff and done some contracting, but I really do it for my own selfish, personal satisfaction. I’d probably be much better with training…
KoR: No, we loved what we saw of your stuff. It looks like you’ve trained. So, with the On My Block project, did you go into with any hopes as to your role or what you’d get out of it, or were just looking for something new to do? You know. Since it seems like you have so much free time.
JS: Ha! No, I had no hopes nor sense of what this would entail. All I know is that after having a brief explanatory conversation with Ryan (neighbor and co-founder of OMB), my creative juices were flowing after having been blocked for all too long.
KoR: He’s an inspiring kinda guy. Have you ever acted before? You came off like a pro in that final scene.
JS: You’re speaking to the lead of my sixth grade school play—Marybelle Moosenheimer, the cheerleader who fell in love with Smedly Snerd, school nerd.
KoR: Um…okay. What was the…play?
JS: The play was Revenge of the Snerd and thanks to Google, the synopsis I just found brought back all kinds of memories (and lines I still know!).
KoS: That was a Beckett play, right? Final pre-lightning-round-question—WHERE do you get your nails done?
JS: Hahaha. I don’t want to say, because it already a pain in the ass to get an appointment there!
KoS: Fair enough, but those were pretty badass shoot nails. Okay, lightning round time—Totem animal?
JS: Tie—my pitbull, Ella Bella, and/or an owl.
KoS: Got it—owl-dog. Best thing about Carroll Gardens?
JS: The atmosphere—it is so relaxing to get out of the subway after a long day and just feel a weight lift from your shoulders. It’s active, it’s hip, it’s developed, but it’s so damn chill and easy-going.
KoS: SHHHHHHHH! Don’t tell EVERYONE! Coolest place that isn’t New York? …don’t say ‘New Jersey.’
KoS: Berlin, NJ? Questionable fashion choice you’ve made in the past?
JS: Are you referring to the polka dot skinny jeans I wore the day of our shoot??
KoS: Um…I…uh…. Nickname growing up?
JS: Arnie. My maiden name is Arnold. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape was big then, you get the picture.
KoS: “I wanna go up there, Gilbert!” Favorite spot in Carroll Gardens?
JS: I base all my neighborhood activities on food, and we have so many options! Would have to say Lucali’s pizza though.
KoS: Stilll. Have not. Been. I wonder how they’d be on the no cheese thing. Favorite tattoo, either real or theoretical?
JS: I have several, so I’ll pick one of mine—the half-finished upper arm sleeve with a life/death cycle theme.
KoS: Nice. Finally, most rewarding thing about being involved with On My Block Films so far?
JS: Making 10 new friends. I would totally fire old existing friends for these new ones. Seriously—after living on this block for a year and a half, I had absolutely no idea that so many creative, smart, and kind people lived right next to me. I am so incredibly grateful for this.
KoS: I mean, we ARE pretty cool….
Find out more about Planned Parenthood and find out how you can get involved on their site. And don’t forget to vote in a couple months (ohmygod the election’s in a couple months). Finally, check out Jen’s modern theatrical revival of the part of Marybelle Moosenheimer in our short film here or over at the On My Block Films site.