Almost every little girl wants to be a princess when she grows up. My dream came true in Washington, D.C.. when I became Maryland's 2018 Cherry Blossom Princess.
The Cherry Blossom Princess Program, celebrating its 70th anniversary, is a multicultural, educational and professional development program for young women held during the National Cherry Blossom Festival and sponsored by individual state societies. Women are chosen based on their leadership skills, academic achievements and interest in civic and world affairs. Instead of competing on who can twirl a baton, princesses spend their time meeting with leaders and to discussing policy issues and cultural insights — empowering them to make a difference in their communities.
During the jam-packed week of events and activities, the princesses and I bonded, chatting about our home states and complaining about uncomfortable shoes. Even though we each represented our home states, most of the women were D.C. transplants living in the area, and about a third worked on the Hill for congressmen and women. It sounds crazy, but I was too caught up in the excitement of the week to remember that working on the Hill isn't just for Democrats. Halfway through the week, I realized that many of my new best friends were — gasp — Republicans.
As a black woman who grew up in diverse urban centers and attended the Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, one of the most prestigious high schools in the D.C. area, I am very grounded in my liberal beliefs. In this divisive political climate, it's easy to tune in to your bubble. Our news feeds are self-selected to support our points of view. It's hard to step outside and meet people from different regions and different opinions. Each night during the festival, before I passed out from exhaustion, I found myself silently fearing that I was somehow betraying my morals.
On Wednesday of last week, as part of the annual program, we were scheduled to meet and take a photo with the speaker of the House. This was the morning that Congressman Paul Ryan announced he would not seek re-election — a twist that made me feel like I was in a real-life episode of "Scandal."
We waited in our heavily-practiced group picture pose in the middle of the Senate floor, awkwardly getting photographed by tourists and politicians, until Congressman Ryan rushed down the hallway. Flanked by his handlers and Secret Service, he immediately welcomed us while apologizing for being late. I was shocked. He was so polite, warm and genuine. That's when I realized how warped my lens had become. Paul Ryan is not a hate-fueled monster who doesn't care about others suffering. He's just a guy named Paul, a dad from Wisconsin who happens to have some different ideas about how our country should be run.
The modern news cycle churn of 15-second sound bites separates our ability to be empathetic and open minded. According to Pew Research Center, 37 percent of Republicans and 36 percent of Democrats say a major reason they identify with their own party is that they have little in common with members of the other party. Not only have we grown further apart, the partisan divide is locked in an ugly stalemate.
I experienced amazing opportunities through the princess program. I witnessed the new Japanese ambassador conduct the Stone Lighting Ceremony at the Tidal Basin. I toured the White House, standing in the China Room that used to be slave quarters. I gazed out onto the Mall like so many of our presidents. I was welcomed at receptions by the Japanese, Lithuanian and Russian embassies, before being formally introduced at the Grand Ball in the historic Omni Shoreham Hotel. I had my fairy tale moment, riding down Pennsylvania Avenue on a parade float in a long white dress and sash. I shared these incredible experiences with my 55 sisters — women from around the U.S., our territories and abroad — from both sides of the aisle. My favorite part of a week as a "royal" wasn't the VIP treatment or pseudo-celebrity status. It was the unexpected lesson about breaking down preconceptions and finding the common threads that connect us all.
So the next time you have an opportunity to break out of your comfort zone, do it — have a conversation with someone from the other side of the aisle or spend time with someone from a different culture. Those experiences will enrich your life, and they might just reunite America.