Beltway bound: Two Naples community leaders tapped for White House visit

It’s not every day you get an email inviting you to the White House, but that’s exactly what two Naples residents recently found in their inboxes.

“It is a great honor any time one is asked to come to the White House to talk with the president’s top officials,” Steve Hart said of receiving his invitation.

As part of the White House Community Leaders Briefing Series, an 11-week program designed to give grassroots community leaders the chance to meet with key policy officials, Naples community leaders Steve Hart and Linda McDonald will be welcomed at the most famous address in Washington, D.C.

Offering a unique opportunity to network with activists from other communities, the daylong summit is an Obama administration initiative aimed at fostering conversation between grassroots leaders and the White House.

Hart and McDonald both earned their respective invitations through a competitive application process, which specifically sought out applicants with long histories of community building and political advocacy.

For McDonald, who has been active in politics since she was a girl, the invitation was especially exciting — though it won’t be the first time she’s met a president.

“When I was in the eighth grade I won a debate, and the prize was the chance to leave school early to see John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon as they came through Peoria,” she said.

At the time, the two men were campaigning for the 1960 election. Many years later, McDonald still views this event as the catalyst for what would become a lifelong commitment to politics. Since that fateful meet-and-greet, she’s been politically active, from writing letters to presidents and congressmen to working on a slew of campaigns. She was even a candidate herself, running for House District 101 in 2007.

McDonald, who recently retired after 40 years of teaching special education students, may have a bit more to say this time around than she did as an 8-year-old. In fact, she hopes her trip to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will afford her the opportunity to exert a bit of influence on President Barack Obama’s education priorities.

“I would like Obama to look very closely at his education reform package,” she said, adding that if she can’t speak directly to the president, “hopefully I can speak to people in the education department who have some influence over him.”

And while participants at the summit were asked to select one of four briefings to attend during their visit, for McDonald choosing just one was tough.

“I’m attending the education briefing, but I also wanted to attend the briefing on health and healthcare and the briefing on energy and the environment. They all effect the lives of children, and the future of children is my main concern,” said McDonald.

For award winning journalist and former Naples Daily News senior writer Steve Hart, the invitation comes at an ideal time.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to talk with policy makers and carry to them the views and concerns of Southwest Florida residents,” he said.

His selection for the briefing series was likely a result of his rich résumé, which, beyond his journalism career, includes working with state Rep. Dudley Goodlette and U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart. Also on his résumé is serving the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce as the senior vice president for public policy, working extensively as a leader for the PaceCollier program and his newest business venture, social media marketing agency Relevanza.

As a founding partner of Relevanza, what Hart believes is Florida’s first social media agency of its kind, Hart hopes he can contribute to the White House’s discussion on using new technology to engage the public.

“By using social media, community-building becomes more integrated. We can reach people where they are, where they are most comfortable. This has tremendous applications for government; can make government more transparent and more efficient.”

Hart envisions using proprietary social media platforms to turn government into a participant sport, with 24-hour town hall meetings encouraging anytime, anywhere citizen participation.

Of the four briefings being offered, he’s elected to attend the healthcare reform briefing, stating that social media applications have the potential to majorly alter the landscape of healthcare in the future.

“Our business, Relevanza, has real applications that are pertinent to healthcare,” said Hart, adding “healthcare has to be a priority, it is in such a miserable state of affairs. It will be a big priority for our business in the future.”

By building an internal platform for doctors to network, Hart envisions a time when, “Using crowd sourcing, doctors can interact and communicate in real time.” He also predicts a day when healthcare providers will interact with their clients through social media, offering up-to-the minute news on health and wellness research.

And when it comes to giving Obama advice on how to use social media as a tool for engaging with the public, Hart offers these words of wisdom: “We are limited only by our imaginations when it comes to communicating with others, given today’s technology.”

It’s unclear whether Hart or McDonald will actually get to meet the president. Both were told that Obama’s attendance was not guaranteed, but that he would try and make an appearance as his schedule allowed.

“He’s a busy guy, I can understand why we might only meet top advisers,” said Hart.

And, if you’re curious to see whether the two get to meet the man himself, Hart will be live tweeting the entire briefing on July 15 from his @Relevanza Twitter account.

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