Collective traumas and the weight of collective grief is real and rampant.
There have been so many moments in just the last two years that we have all watched together that activate vicarious trauma and collective grief.
The horrific milestones of COVID and COVID-related deaths, hate speech, successful attacks on our democracy, relationship ending debates about masks and vaccines, attacks on protestors, and waking up to being complacent and complicit to systemic racism.
And in January, the world watched an armed insurrection in Washington DC, and the relentless gaslighting and attempts to retell that day in ways the deflect accountability and culpability followed.
It’s no wonder many of us began to feel helpless.
But unaddressed, helplessness can quickly lead to hopelessness.
Grief comes with working through vicarious and collective traumas. And grief begs to be witnessed or it turns malignant.
And it is important to not rush through what we have experienced in our own lives and collectively as a culture.
There is no timeline with this work but make sure you are taking the time to notice how unaddressed vicarious trauma and grief may be showing up in your life, so it doesn’t drain your courage, confidence, and calm.
My guest on today’s show is an incredible example of long-game resilience while riding the ups and downs of staying engaged in the political process while taking care of her well-being.
Julie Tagen is the Chief of Staff to Congressman Jamie Raskin, (MD-08). She is a veteran leader in DC politics and campaigns, committed to leaving a legacy to the next generation of leaders who will continue the work she has cared so much about for over two decades.
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Julie Tagen: And I thought, you know, if I was on the outside, I would really want to know what was actually happening on the inside that day, and I felt so strongly that people needed to know. It was cathartic for me, as well, to just write my story down because it was just so shocking.
Rebecca Ching: Unaddressed, helplessness can quickly lead to hopelessness. Now, if you know me, I fight hopelessness head on because I know the impact it can have on both my wellbeing and my meaningful work, but the collective traumas and the weight of the collective grief is real and rampant and has been taking a toll on all of us, including me. There's so much we experienced over the last couple of years, and it's important not to rush through what we've experienced in our own lives and collectively as a culture.
Now, for me, the January 6th insurrection on the United States' Capitol was the tipping point that did not hit me until a few months later but continued to linger and drain my courage, confidence, and calm, and when I finally connected the dots with the burdens that lingered from my story combined with the horror of January 6th, it brought forth a new level of healing that needed attention. Today's show became an unintentional therapeutic experience and unburdening catalyst for me while also furthering my desire to share a lived experience to counter the many attempts to reauthor what really happened that day.
I'm Rebecca Ching, and you're listening to The Unburdened Leader, the show that goes deep with leaders whose burdens have inspired their life's work. Our goal is to learn how they’ve addressed these burdens, how they rise from them and become better and more impactful leaders of themselves and others.
On January 6th, I watched, along with the world, what happened in Washington, DC with both horror and anguish. What I did not realize until recently is the echoes I still feel from that day are because of vicarious trauma. Vicarious trauma is a term that was initially coined by McCann and Pearlman back in the early 1990s as a kind of trauma that trauma therapists were vulnerable to developing from working with their traumatized clients. Now, they identified three components of vicarious trauma. One is empathetic engagement and exposure to graphic and traumatizing material (okay, check), exposure to human cruelty (check, check), and reenactment of trauma within the therapy process. Now, while this was not a therapeutic setting, watching the insurrection in real time and subsequent stories from that day checked component three, so check, check, check.
McCann and Pearlman have further expanded the vicarious trauma phenomenon to include the cultural and social trauma we can all experience outside of a clinical setting which I both appreciate and feel is absolutely fitting. The relentless gaslighting after the January 6th insurrection and the continued attempts to retell that day in ways that deflect accountability and culpability for all that led up to that day directly tapped into my own traumas around gaslighting I experienced as a kid and young adult. So yeah, it makes sense that this day continues to linger in my system and why I felt so strongly about telling a story of someone who experienced and survived that day.
Now, parts of me feel like it was our story and my system wanted, maybe even needed, to connect with someone who was there that day, for my own healing and connection. Now, I realize this after reflections from one of my producers for this podcast and see, now, my motivation for today's Unburdened Leader conversation is twofold.
First, it was to share a story from someone who was actually there. I wanted to do my small part in sharing a firsthand account of someone who worked on The Hill and who was there that day to help counter the revisionist history happening while highlighting the Unburdened Leader experience of a powerful and accomplished leader on Capitol Hill. Second, I wanted to work through my own vicarious trauma from that day.
Now, full confession, I did not know overtly and consciously that was part of my intent, but my producer shared with me, after listening to the raw audio of this show, that he was struck by how hard it must be for me to only be a spectator of January 6th, and noticed how I was processing my own experiences through my guests' experience. Boom! [Laughs] That landed, and I had no clue I was working through my own vicarious trauma from that day until he shared his insightful reflections.
Now, as someone who lived on Capitol Hill and worked in congress and my first love was politics, but I also fell in love there for the first time, made dear friends that are still a part of my life, gosh, that whole season of that time in my life is both foundational, formative, and really, really treasured to me. I also know that grief comes with working through vicarious and collective traumas. Grief begs to be witnessed or it turns malignant, and there's so much vicarious trauma we're all working through right now which means there's a lot of grief that is calling to be witnessed. I suspect you may be holding more than you know as you continue to show up, work hard, and care for those around you. There's no timeline for this work, contrary to some people who talk about this stuff, but make sure you're taking the time to notice how unaddressed vicarious trauma and grief may be showing up in your life.
I know, for me, it took me almost a year to realize all I'd been holding.
My guest on today's show is an incredible example of long-game resilience while riding the ups and downs of staying engaged in the political process while taking care of her wellbeing. Julie Tagen is defined by so much more than her experience on January 6th. While her story is powerful and needs to be shared on repeat, it's important to note that she is the Chief of Staff of Congressman Jamie Raskin, who's a congressman from Maryland, and is also on the committee investigating the January 6th insurrection. She's a veteran leader in DC politics and campaigns and is committed to leaving a legacy to the next generation of leaders who will continue the work she's cared so much about for two-and-a-half decades.
Now, listen for Julie's firsthand account of what she experienced on January 6th, and what she learned about herself. Notice Julie's response to how she's kept cynicism at bay while working in politics for over 25 years and pay attention to Julie's reflections on responding to discrimination while owning all parts of her identity. Now, please welcome Julie Tagen to The Unburdened Leader podcast!
Julie Tagen: Thank you. I'm so happy to be here, Rebecca.
Rebecca Ching: Well, Julie, in typical Unburdened Leader fashion, we drop in right away. I want to go back to January 6th, 2021. You are the Chief of Staff for Congressman Jamie Raskin who holds the seat for Maryland's 8th Congressional District. Two days after the January 6th insurrection on The United States' capitol, you wrote this detailed account of your experience of events that day, and I want you to read an excerpt from it, but let me tee it up, because you talked about in this except how it was just a normal day.
You and your boss drove together. You could see the Trump folks, the QAnon, the Confederate flags that were milling around outside. Your boss was gonna have a big speech that day because of his background as a legal scholar. He also had experienced a horrible family tragedy just days before, so he got this incredible access to this room that majority leader Steny Hoyer had given you all so he could work on his speech but also have some space to convalesce and prepare before. This office, from majority leader Hoyer, is just steps from the House floor. He had a couple of his family members, Tabitha and Hank were with you, noticing things were getting unruly outside and that at some point, you could see them taking people away in handcuffs. There was smoke, probably tear gas, and the crowd was growing. I'd love for you to read the excerpt that we talked about. Can you share in your own words and read the rest of what you wrote?
Julie Tagen: Sure, happy to do it. "Suddenly, we started getting alerts on the computer and our phones. Calls and texts from team members came pouring in. The Capitol had been breached. The House floor was quickly adjourned. The alerts told us to turn off all sounds in our offices and to take cover. Tabitha and Hank crammed under Steny Hoyer's desk, and I took the chairs in the room and barricaded the door. I was looking out of the side window at the chaos. I began to panic inside at the thought of the Raskin kids being traumatized again and what was happening to them after everything they'd been through. Outwardly, I was calm. I told Tabitha and Hank that we would be okay. Inwardly, I wanted to crawl up in a ball and hide. I was scared.
Perhaps, it was the adrenaline or the reality of the moment, but I had an epiphany, for lack of a better word. I was trapped in a room with a giant photograph of John Lewis on the wall and a bust of Abraham Lincoln on the fireplace mantle. I said to myself, and perhaps out loud, 'These people are terrorists. They cannot win.'
Some who know me might say, at that moment, I got my Philly on. I gathered anything in the room that I could use as a weapon and put them by the door. A fireplace stoker, a busk, a bronze award of a buck with large and pointy horns. By then, the terrorists had made their way into The Capitol. We could hear their heavy footsteps outside our door as they tried to breach the House floor. We could hear them chanting, 'USA! USA!' and 'We want Trump!' and 'Stop the steal!' We could hear them trying to ram the door of the House chamber just a few feet away. There were bangs all over the place. Someone jangled our door handle. I picked up the heaviest item I could find, not sure why the bronze buck bust, and stood in front of the door waiting for them to arrive. I started receiving texts from Jamie, who had been evacuated from the House floor, asking if we were okay. I lied and told him we were fine because I didn’t want to worry him too. I also started getting calls from Pelosi's floor staff who were trying to locate and evacuate us. Texts started arriving from friends all around the country asking if I was okay. I only told a few close buddies how terrified I was. I talked to my wife, Dee, very quickly, and told her that we were safe and fine. I asked Hank if it was convincing enough.
After what felt like 30 minutes, the chants began to die down. I could hear police in the hallway. They knocked on the door and told us they were there to help. Tabitha and Hank got out from under the desk. We all looked at each other and said nothing. There was a delay to get us out as a result of being locked in, and I hadn't remembered I had locked the three inside locks too. Five capitol police officers opened the door. It was clear they were amped up. They said, 'Let's roll,' and whisked us through the tight stairwells of The Capitol, and we finally made it to the secure location where we were joyously joined by a super relieved and grateful Jamie.
In this secure location, everyone was exhausted, and there was little food or water. Little by little, small food items were handed out. Goldfish crackers, berry gummies, skittles. After four hours, pizzas and drinks arrived. I pretty much survived that night on candy and diet coke.
At around 9:15, I was able to get Tabitha and Hank a ride home to Maryland. I stayed with Jamie until the end, until 4:00 AM. It was an honor and a privilege to be in The Capitol when Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were declared winners and the next President and Vice President of The United States. I arrived back home a little past four in the morning. I am still processing all of this, but could never imagine this happening to The United States Congress."
Rebecca Ching: [Deep breath] What does it feel like to read these words right now?
Julie Tagen: Well, [Deep breath out] it's often painful, because reliving it is really painful. I don’t relive it that much. I've re-lived it for my friends and my family.
I wrote that because that day I was being bombarded by people wanting to know what was going on and I posted on Facebook that afternoon that I was safe, but I had a story for the ages. People were just like, "Tell your story! Tell your story!" I thought, you know, if I was on the outside, I would really want to know what was actually happening on the inside that day, and I felt so strongly that people needed to know. It was cathartic for me, as well, to just write my story down because it was just so shocking.
Rebecca Ching: What stands out to you as you reflect on that day right now?
Julie Tagen: I think back to how I really was terrified.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah.
Julie Tagen: I really, really thought that people were gonna come into the room where we were, and that was really just terrifying to me. I think that's what stands out. Sometimes it's relief, sometimes it's this could have been so much worse, and I think a little bit of relief, maybe, that we're all okay now.
Rebecca Ching: As you revisit that story, you could even see that in you reading these words, but even with everything going on, you know, it's sometimes hard to step back into that relief. There was something that you wrote earlier in that excerpt about how your boss had texted you and asked if you were okay, and you said you lied to him and said, "We're fine," but you were steps from the House floor which was breached, and, as a former Senate staffer, I really identified with that protective nature, that like, "We're good. We're good." There's almost this weird reflexive response that we're the buffer from all the hard stuff and we want to just protect.
And so, I just really resonated with that and identified with that, but I was also stuck with these were extenuating circumstances. So I wonder if you could share what was fueling your desire to not worry your boss at that moment?
Julie Tagen: Well, the family had just been through a tragedy like no other. The Congressman's son, Tommy, took his life on the 31st of December, and then on January 5th, was his funeral, and they buried him. January 6th was the very next day, and it was just -- I think back to it, and I think it was so real. I think what happened to me is I was very scared, and then I turned really angry. That was the switch for me. I went from being really scared that something was gonna happen to me, to being really angry that they were doing this to us, because one thing, Rebecca, I really felt strongly about is -- we were, Hank and Tabitha and I, along with the Congressman, we were in that room. We got to the room around noon, and we could start seeing some of it, but it never once entered my mind that we weren't gonna be protected. I've worked on The Hill for a long time. Hank and Tabitha were really worried. They were looking out the window early in the process, and I kept saying to them, "It's fine." I really believed it. "It's fine. We're in the safest place possible."
Rebecca Ching: Mm-hmm.
Julie Tagen: I actually was kind of more worried about my friends and my staff that were in other buildings because I thought I bet you they could get into the other buildings, but there's no possible way these people can get into the US capitol.
Then, over time, it just broke down, and I realized they were in.
Rebecca Ching: But it all happened so quickly, and I just want to speak to that fear turning to anger. I really value that. A lot of times, especially for women, we judge our anger. Anger is so powerful and mighty, and it's deeply protective. A lot of times people say it's a secondary emotion, but this is a classic example of, really, almost it was rage. It's so primary. It's so protective. It was almost this righteous anger like I am not gonna succumb to being afraid and to being bullied. No, and you stood your ground, and that shift is really powerful. I think a lot of people can relate to that.
Julie Tagen: Yeah. I also had this moment, and I never thought I would really have this, but I did have a moment -- you know, you never know what you're gonna do in a situation like this.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Julie Tagen: Really, my first instinct was to roll up into a ball and hide away [Laughs], but I did have a moment where I did say -- I thought, honestly, that I was gonna die that day, and I thought --
Rebecca Ching: Oof.
Julie Tagen: -- and I thought I don’t want to die scared. If I have to go, I just -- and I had no idea that was inside of me. I just don’t want to die scared. I want to go out fighting, and I used some choice words. I say I got my Philly on, but I really used some choice words, and Hank wrote his story as well, and he actually used the words that I used. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] He knew it!
Julie Tagen: I just was really angry.
Rebecca Ching: You bring me back to a memory I had in DC when I lived right on Capitol Hill right off of Constitution on the Senate side. I was mugged, and what happened is the muggers, they passed me and grabbed my friend, Allison, and I watched one of them buckle down.
I remember there was this moment, there's two guys behind me, and I'm only 5'2", and these guys were just giant -- everyone's giant to me -- and there was this moment, just like you said, where I thought well, I'm not gonna watch her get hurt. So if I'm gonna go, I'm gonna go try to help her, and I just jumped on the guy, then I got pulled back and got all scrappy. They just wanted our backpacks. Thank god, that was all they wanted, but that moment where it's like -- when you're faced with that moment where your life feels threatened, and thinking how do I want to end? I don’t want to end taking it. I want to fight. I just think that it taught me a lot. It was a horrible way to learn about that strength.
Julie Tagen: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: What are the echoes of that rage that you tapped into? How are they showing up in your life?
Julie Tagen: Well, in some ways, when I look back on it, I just did instinctively what I would do. I'm a mom. I just was protective. It was very hard to take the incident, what happened to us, and process it because it was just a very psychologically terrifying thing, but it ended. I didn’t get hurt, and no one around me was hurt, that I knew at the time. I mean, I ended up knowing a lot of police officers who went through so much, and I feel for them tremendously. That's a little part of it. I'm like well, I survived, and I'm okay, but there were all these officers who were trying to protect me, who went through hours of battle with these people. I mean, just hours of Medieval battle with spears and crutches and American flags they were trying to beat the police with.
Rebecca Ching: Weaponizing. Yeah.
Julie Tagen: Yeah, and so, it was a little weird in that I couldn’t figure out how to process it so much. I also didn’t have a lot of time to process it, because immediately after that we went into Impeachment. I was involved in the Impeachment, so I really didn’t end up processing any of it, probably, until March or so. It seems really far away, that it happened a really long time ago in my mind, but it's the anniversary. It's amazing that it's been in this year. I look back, and it's actually been this year that it happened.
Rebecca Ching: We've lived a lot of life in a short amount of time.
Julie Tagen: We sure did.
Rebecca Ching: What support have you gotten to help you with the trauma of that day?
Julie Tagen: Well, the good thing is, the House of Representatives, they knew that a lot of people were traumatized. I mean, a lot of staff were traumatized. The police officers, number one, staff, and then members who were on the floor were completely traumatized too. They did a lot of support services for all of us, and I got counseling and spiritual help as well. I had a Rabbi who was looking out for me, I always say. When I was at my lowest points, my Rabbi friend would call me and say, "What are you doing? You need to deal with this." So it was very nice. So I feel like I came through it this summer. It was very, very heavy for a very long time, and then I had a really good summer and things started getting a little bit back to normal.
I'm sure on the anniversary I'm gonna relive a lot of it again, and it's gonna be really painful, but I'm gonna look at the positive sides of what happened, and the improvements, the things that are happening, so that this can never happen again. That's what's really important to me. Two things -- that this never happen again, and that the people who did this are held accountable, that we cannot whitewash this, we cannot -- and on Capitol Hill now, there's a feeling of denial on the side of the Republicans. I mean, not all. Not all, but there is a good chunk of people who are still saying it wasn’t that bad. I just really want to make sure that we don't do that, that more stories even come out. There are so many people who have incredible stories from that day, and that we shine a light on what happened that day so that this can never happen again.
Rebecca Ching: Absolutely. Absolutely, but I'm curious, if you could go back in time, go back to yourself on that day, January 6th, you standing by the door ready to fight and protect yourself and your boss's family, what would you say to yourself?
Julie Tagen: I would just say you're stronger than you know. You have it in you. You can do this. They won't define you. That I would be hoping to give myself the strength to get through it. That time when I actually was holding the object to the door, in my mind, I was trying to figure out what to do when they came in, because there's no doubt in my mind they were coming in because they were right outside the door.
It was very loud. One thing that you know but your listeners may not know is that everything is marble right around there, so the sounds reverberate unbelievably. The reality is, I probably was hearing a lot more before they even got close. If I remember anything that is as terrifying as that day, it was the sounds because everything was amplified so we really could hear them trying to get in the House floor because we were right by the entrance that they were trying to bang down in the back of the House. You know, the jangling of our doorknob and everything just reverberated, and it's the sounds that I will never forget. I think what we all probably felt from the sounds, the loudness, the intensity of the noise from that day, I will never forget.
Rebecca Ching: I suspect in the future -- you maybe have already experienced it -- noises might still startle you. You might still have that strong kind of a trauma response because our bodies hold that. I have this picture, on the anniversary coming up on January 6th, 2022, of a place where everyone can come and really remember together. There's something so powerful when there's a traumatic experience that's shared by many to come together and to give witness. That'll be healing. It'll be painful, but it'll be cathartic and, really, an important part in all of your healing journey. I know how busy things are right now, but I hope that there's time for you all to be able to remember and witness together as the anniversary comes up.
I'm curious, what do you want people to know about that day that they're not seeing on the news?
Julie Tagen: It was a lot of people like me. That it wasn't just the members of Congress, it was a lot of people like me. It was a lot of people that work in the services of the House, our janitors, our food service individuals, a lot of support staff, and it affected everyone. It also affected -- I was in The Capitol. I was a few feet from the floor. I was in the thick of it, but I also had a lot of colleagues who were just right across the street in their office buildings, and they were traumatized because their bosses were over here, their friends are over here, they don’t know what's going on. We were in a lot of remote work, too, because of COVID, so there were a lot of staff that were working from home, that were working remotely. They have survivor's guilt kind of that they weren’t there that day. I even have a friend who retired a couple years ago, and this has just deeply affected her because she's like it's a violation.
Rebecca Ching: Yes.
Julie Tagen: It’s a real violation of your home, your heart. This is what we do.
Rebecca Ching: Yes.
Julie Tagen: This is what we've devoted our life to, and they violated it. I think everyone who works on Capitol Hill feels that way.
Rebecca Ching: You know, it's interesting. I watched a documentary a few weeks ago, an HBO Plus documentary, Four Hours on January 6th. Have you seen it?
Julie Tagen: I don’t think I've seen that one.
Rebecca Ching: I don’t know. I'm not sure how your nervous system would feel about it, but there was some interesting footage I hadn't seen, and one thing that stood out to me in light of what you just said about that violation -- and I think that's a big part of what was affecting in me as a former staffer watching this.
It was a violation, and it's hard to put to words, but then I heard people chanting, "This is our house! This is our house!" What does that bring up in you when you heard the chanting and heard people saying, "This is our house! Take back our house!"
Julie Tagen: Yeah, I mean, that just is revolting to me because it's the people's house, but not the insurrectionists' house. That's the difference.
Rebecca Ching: Wow.
Julie Tagen: That's the difference. It is the people's house, but they were there to -- I mean, in my heart, I think they were there to overthrow the government, and who'd have ever thought that this could happen in The United States? It wasn't their house. That's why it was really important, that day, that they go back in and certify the electors.
Rebecca Ching: Yes.
Julie Tagen: There was a moment when we were all together. They put us in this, I'm just gonna call it the secure location, but there were hundreds of us in there that had been over in The Capitol, and Speaker Pelosi came in the room and she said, "It doesn’t matter how late we have to, we will go back in tonight." The place erupted in applause, and then Liz Cheney came out because, at that point, she was the chair of their caucus, and it was very bipartisan. This feeling like we can't let these people win, and we're gonna make sure that we certify these electors. That part felt good.
Rebecca Ching: Thank you for sharing this. I want to talk more about what's happening right now with the committee investing in that day, but first, I had you on because I wanted you sharing what happened that day, but there's so much more to you than January 6th, and I want to share a little bit of that.
You're a veteran staffer of, I read, 25 years, and you’ve seen a lot. I'd love for you to share what inspired your decision to start working in politics.
Julie Tagen: I was born and raised in Philadelphia, and when I was there, when I was in my formative years, we had a really, really kooky mayor, Frank Rizzo. I think people remember Mayor Frank Rizzo, and just from a really early time I loved to read the newspaper. That was just my thing. I loved to read. I really wanted to know what was going on, and I loved politics. When I was at The University of Maryland, in an internship in The Maryland General Assembly, that's an Assembly that actually follows an order where every bill that gets introduced has a hearing, and the public and anyone in the public can testify at the hearing, and I just fell in love with the process, and I knew, really, I have to work on Capitol Hill. That was what got me there, and then throughout my career I have wanted to do different things. I wanted to try campaigns, and I did try campaigns. I've been really, really fortunate in life and with my career. I've pretty much just loved everything that I've done, and not everyone gets that in life. It's not for everyone [Laughs], what I do. It can be really intense, but I have loved campaigns. I've loved working on Capitol Hill. I worked at the Democratic National Committee, Presidential campaigns, Congressional campaigns, and I really do feel so fortunate to be a person who loves what they do and has always felt that way.
Rebecca Ching: That is a gift.
Julie Tagen: Yeah, it is.
Rebecca Ching: That's a gift to have that meaningful work. Many people, they burn out or they get cynical or they kind of take the high-paying corporate job, which isn’t bad, but it's a stepping stone to something else. Is this what you thought you'd be doing with your life?
Julie Tagen: Yeah, in some ways. I mean, growing up in Philadelphia, one thing I just knew was I knew I was gonna stay there, in some respects, because you could be a lawyer or go into banking or insurance, but that just wasn't for me. I knew that, so once I got the political bug I just thought that's what I'm gonna do. I've moved around a lot. I mean, that's the nature of this kind of work, that you move around a lot, but that's work for me. It fits in with my personality. I've enjoyed it tremendously. What keeps me going now, because I'm really, in reality, let's just say I'm at the bottom of my career, where I think more about retiring than my next step, to be honest. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Julie Tagen: Yes, but I do feel a great responsibility, now, to nurture young people. I really do. I've thought it through, and I've realized -- I have two daughters. One's 21 and one's 19. They're not interested in politics at all. They're both creative girls, but the young people on Capitol Hill, I really want to try to help them find their way and love what they do also. It's very trite, but they're the future, and they're the ones who are really gonna make a difference.
So my goal, now, is I sort of think about how the end of my career is to make sure that there's people there, young people there, who keep the flame lit and do the good work, because you're right, you can really burn out in these jobs. You can get really cynical too, but I think if you have an environment, if you create an environment and give people opportunities, they won't be as cynical. It's very easy in politics to become cynical.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah.
Julie Tagen: I mean, we see these things and, you know, you could easily become cynical, and I have. I mean, I don’t want to portray myself as someone who has never -- I've gone through periods of, like -- I've seen a lot of things, some that I haven’t liked a lot, but on the whole, I mean, most of the people who are in this work are in it for the right reasons. I really do believe that.
Rebecca Ching: I do too.
Julie Tagen: Yeah, they're really in it for the right reasons. I mean, with politicians, there's definitely ego going on there.
Rebecca Ching: Just a little. [Laughs]
Julie Tagen: Yeah. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: You need it though. I think it protective, honestly. I mean, it's brutal to put yourself out there.
Julie Tagen: Yeah, that's a good point. Yeah, it is, and right, they have to really put themselves out there. So there is ego, but I do think most that enter it, enter it because they want to do good things for people.
Rebecca Ching: I'm listening to you even acknowledge kind of dancing with cynicism, but I'm not getting that from you at all right now. That you genuinely still care, you believe that -- this is what I'm sensing -- what you're doing is making a difference, that there's still hope for change. Am I reading this right?
Julie Tagen: I think you're reading it right, but I'm also realistic. I mean, my first Hill job was 1989.
Rebecca Ching: Oh. That was before me, even.
Julie Tagen: Yeah, and there was a sense of campus. It didn’t matter if you were Democrats or Republicans --
Rebecca Ching: Yes!
Julie Tagen: -- there was a community --
Rebecca Ching: Yes!
Julie Tagen: -- and we were all in it together. It's nothing like that now.
Rebecca Ching: I know.
Julie Tagen: You know, I think I could really get caught up -- I think we all could get really caught up in this idea that we can't get anything done, but I wouldn’t be able to work on The Hill if I really believed that nothing can happen.
Rebecca Ching: I also think in DC there is a little bit of this, like, group think, and it's infectious, and to really not be idealistic without your feet on the ground -- like you said, you're a realist -- to kind of just look at it and say, yeah, things are tenuous, we've got work to do. Sometimes I think when they like to forecast, people can check out and tap out. Even on that note, success in DC, at least in my experience, has a different flavor than it does in other jobs. It's not always, like, the salary or the title maybe, but it's more in who you know and the access to power or wins around legislation or elections. I'd love for you to share how your definition of success has changed over the years of you working in DC.
Julie Tagen: Well, it's really hard to quantify success in politics --
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Julie Tagen: -- because, you know --
Rebecca Ching: Very true.
Julie Tagen: -- it's so different for different people. For some people, success would mean passing a bill or an amendment when you get into Congress. Others, like you said, it's winning campaigns. I've never thought that much about -- I love winning. Don’t get me wrong, I really love winning, but I'm a progressive Democrat.
We generally lose more than we win. So you come to terms with that, and I just laugh like yep, I usually support the losing candidate, but I think sometimes longevity is just success.
Rebecca Ching: Ooh.
Julie Tagen: Being able to stick around and continue to do the work, for me, you know, I feel good about it. When I leave, I want to leave and feel good about my career and what I've done. For me, a lot of it is about trying to make things better for people, and I think that's, certainly, what drives Jamie Raskin. He's a very positive person. He finds hope in everything. As you can imagine he does after, what, he lost his son and then did the whole impeachment, so he's infectious. His positivity is infectious, and I've found that that's the only way you'll survive. You have to find the good in even the bad.
Rebecca Ching: Let me pick on this word positivity because, for me, I feel like it's even deeper. I feel like it's courage. I feel like it's hope. I feel like it's grounded values. It's long-game look. It's not expedient. So tell me if that lands with you.
Julie Tagen: Yeah, I mean, it can't be expediency in politics.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Julie Tagen: Sometimes I have to talk to my friends through my wife, my friends through this process. The senate, the founders wanted it to be a deliberative body.
Rebecca Ching: Stop. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Julie Tagen: So, you know, nothing happens quickly on either side of the house.
We just saw the sausage making of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, I mean, it was really horribly ugly. It's almost magical that it passed. There was a lot -- as you can imagine because, Rebecca, you know the atmosphere -- what was going on was just torturous, and everyone on The Hill, no one could figure anything out, and it was just torturous, and the fact that it passed again is, really, almost magical. Then, we're gonna probably experience that again with Build Back Better. My hope is that these things are transformative for people and that they'll see that and, hopefully, vote that way in the next election. I don’t think that we have figured out why some people vote against their best interest.
Rebecca Ching: Why do you think that happens?
Julie Tagen: I do think that people in DC don’t have a good grasp of what's really going on out in the world. I mean, we are a bubble, and I think that, you know, you would think people would vote for their economic interest, but in a lot of ways the cultural things that bother people, that's gonna be the driver. So there's the one-issue people, but then I do think we're missing out on the understanding of the cultural issues of what's going on out there. I mean, you can see it.
I just have a lot of concerns about how we appear to not be addressing the cultural issues of certain communities, and we're trying to deal with a lot of the economic issues because we need to, because we're in an economic situation due to the pandemic, and we've ignored infrastructure for so many years that we were in kind of a desperate situation. So we need to address these issues, but we're also not understanding some of the underlying psychology of people and their need for freedom. You see it right now with these board of education meetings and parental rights and it's just tough. I think we just have to really take a good look at all of it. We have to take a good look at what people are thinking and what's important to them. We are going to fix a lot of those economic problems -- we're gonna try. I mean, these bills address a lot of it, and it's gonna pull people out of poverty, and it's going to help a lot of people. It's gonna create jobs, but we also need to find out what motivates them to vote for a person and a party.
Rebecca Ching: It's the messaging. It's definitely in the messaging of that too and in connection to that. Yeah, you're right about the DC bubble. I remember when I moved out there I was interning at The League of Municipalities in Iowa, and they said, "Don’t get swamp fever." I'm like what are you talking about? We're gonna change the world! After a couple of years, I'm like I know what he's talking about!
Julie Tagen: Yeah, you lose touch.
Rebecca Ching: Burst that bubble.
Julie Tagen: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, I appreciate you sharing that. I do want to shift a little bit about something you wrote a couple years ago that was so moving.
You wrote an op-ed in June of 2019 for The Washington Blade about the importance -- and I just love this -- of expressing all parts of our identity openly and without fear. That just really caused me to pause. This particular excerpt was so powerful. You wrote, "I'm an LGBTQ American. I'm also Jewish-American. I don’t agree with the policies of the current Israeli government just like I don’t agree with the policies of the current American government," which, at the time, then, President Trump was still in power. "But my Jewish faith and my LGBTQ identity are essential parts of who I am as a human being." This is just powerful. You said, "To discriminate against one part of my identity is to discriminate against all of me." Now, this was in response to an LGBTQ gathering that was wanting to prohibit the wearing of the Star of David and carrying the flag of Israel.
Tell me a little bit about who or what has helped you on your journey to owning all parts of your story and your identity.
Julie Tagen: Well, I'm gay, I'm a mother, I'm a wife, I'm Jewish. Those are all really important things to me, and I've tried to stay grounded in that. One thing, when I was really young, I was married to a man, and that had a lot -- I saw the difference between how you were treated when you're in a heterosexual relationship versus when you're in a same-sex relationship, and I also realize -- because I came out in the early '90s -- it was a lot easier than a lot of people, but it was still kind of not as easy as it is today, let's just say. It was just very profound for me because it changed my life dramatically, not only in terms of happiness, but also that I've really no longer cared what people thought of me because I knew everyone was talking about me.
That's the thing. I knew people that I grew up with who'd learned this -- you know, it was the '90s, I knew everyone was talking about me because I thought gosh, if I knew somebody like that and that happened, I'd probably be talking about it as well. From that point on, I was like this is who I am and they're gonna talk about me and I can't help anything like that. I also felt like, when we go back to this issue of being all these different things, and it is really painful if one part of you is discriminated against, you know. For a long time, it was the LGBT part of me, and it's definitely changed so much for the better. I still live in a little bubble here right outside of DC, so I'm sure if I lived in the heartland maybe it'd be a little different. But, also, as a Jewish person, I grew up in a very Jewish area. I like to say, growing up in Philadelphia, I literally thought everyone was either Jewish or Catholic.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Julie Tagen: It does hurt when someone doesn't like one part of you. Well, how do you dissect that? How do you dissect that? Can you compartmentalize? I can't in that way. When one part of you gets picked at, you can't do anything but feel that it's all about you, and it's sad.
Rebecca Ching: It's dehumanizing too. What has been the biggest challenge navigating discrimination and bigotry on Capitol Hill?
Julie Tagen: Well, my first job on The Hill was in 1989. It was a completely different place, and there weren't that many women in leadership roles. I was very young so I didn’t expect to be in a leadership role, but we've really come a long way, and I can't say that I've been discriminated against for being gay, for being Jewish, or for being a woman in the last 10 to 15 years. In politics, like the campaign world it's a man's world. It's been that way for a long time, and that probably was the hardest on me. Now, when I look up and I see all these really powerful women that are staff directors on all the major committees, they're making all these decisions, it brings joy to me to see so many women in charge because it just wasn’t like that when I first got there, and it was hard navigating. You know, it really was. I had a Me Too moment when I was young on The Hill, and almost every single person I knew had that, right?
Rebecca Ching: Oh, at least one.
Julie Tagen: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: More than one, usually. Yeah, it was normal.
Julie Tagen: Mine didn’t come from a member; it was from another staff person, but still, we all had it. It really has come so far. It's just great to see that because it was hard to see in the beginning.
Rebecca Ching: You've given me so much hope. I do want to wrap up with kind of bringing things full circle back to where we started in our conversation. Right now, in Congress, your office is working on a lot of pressing legislative issues but, for me, most importantly, you're serving on the select committee to investigate the January 6th attack on The Capitol. So given the immense pressure to rewrite what happened on that day on January 6th, to me, and I know to many, the work on this committee feels deeply connected to preserving democracy. I'd love for you to be just so clear about what is at stake right now with this investigation and why should we all be paying more attention to what is happening with this investigation?
Julie Tagen: Well, it's really crucial that we make sure, like I said earlier, that this never happens again. So I think the committee is really trying to dissect all the components of what happened so that it will never happen again. I think there is a great desire to hold people accountable for this because, like you said, this is our democracy. There's never been an attack on The Capitol prior to the Civil War, but this was an attack on The Capitol. To even say that, a modern attack on The Capitol is mind boggling, and we can't forget it. We cannot forget what happened, and we cannot let it happen again. So I think the committee is dissecting everything and really wants to get to pull all the pieces together and find out who did what so you can prevent it.
They're getting a lot of cooperation. I mean, a lot of what's reported in the news are the people who are not cooperating, but there's been a lot of cooperation, and I think the committee -- it's not a legislative committee, but it'll make some recommendations like the 9/11 committee. Some of the things that I think they'll recommend have to do with safety and securing The Capitol and things like that, but also, I mean, I think there's a great desire to make sure that within the institution and outside of the institution, that we can't just allow -- I'm trying to think of the right way to say this. We just can't allow people who want to tear down our democracy to even go as far as they have, but I think there's a sense that it was much more complex than what meets the eye.
Rebecca Ching: To bring that to light, and you mentioned to make sure this never happens again. You also said to have accountability.
Julie Tagen: I think that's key.
Rebecca Ching: Tell me more.
Julie Tagen: Accountability, to make sure that the people who planned it, who cooperated with it at all levels, are held accountable. There were planners. There were funders. There were, potentially, members of Congress who helped. Everyone needs to be held accountable. I think we will look back on that day in awe of what happened, and we will always say it could have been much worse. In my heart, this could have been really bad, and it ended up being terrible, but more people could have died, and they didn’t, but we can never get this close.
We can't allow leaders to get into a position -- like, it's scary. I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole, but we can't allow leaders to get into place who could either do these things or look the other way. I think that's a lot of what's happening now on Capitol Hill, on the other side. The Republicans, they don’t want to admit that this happened, and they want to look the other way. They don’t want to take it seriously. They hide behind this idea that this commission is partisan. It is not. It is clearly bipartisan. We could have even had a 9/11 -style commission. That's actually what Pelosi wanted, and the Republicans would not take yes for an answer. We gave them every single thing they wanted, and from that day, I think everyone knew that when they said they're not going to do this that they don’t want to know. They really don’t want to know the truth, because the truth is ugly. You know, what's happened to their party, it's ugly, and they don’t want to know. They just want to have people vote for them, and they'll do anything.
Rebecca Ching: It's scary to tell the truth because accountability is always inevitable, and here, accountability would mean losing power.
Julie Tagen: Yeah, exactly.
Rebecca Ching: The stakes are high for power.
Julie Tagen: The stakes are really high for power.
Rebecca Ching: What message do you have for those who would say they're not political? I've got a lot of those people in life.
Julie Tagen: Yeah, so do I. So do I.
Rebecca Ching: They've tapped out of the process because they don’t feel like it matters to them. What message do you have for them?
Julie Tagen: Well, I want to say that you have to have hope, and that you shouldn’t just disappear, really, because that is not gonna help anything. Disappearing into your own life and your own things are not going to make things better. So, really, if you want to make big things better, you have to stay involved. You have to pay attention. It's going to get you down. It will get you down at times, but you have to recognize that, and what I try to tell people is there are definitely times that it's going to feel terrible and you will get down, but it will get better and you'll have to pick yourself up, unless you disappear, right? Then, maybe it won't get better for you, but just paying attention, not getting so into it that it destroys your life. That's a problem for a lot of people.
Rebecca Ching: Absolutely.
Julie Tagen: They've said they don’t want to watch TV anymore because it just gets them. I think learning how to look at it objectively and taking a reality check on yourself but staying involved, writing letters, calling members of Congress, getting involved in grassroots organizations. I highly recommend people getting involved in grassroots organizations.
Rebecca Ching: And voting.
Julie Tagen: Right, and voting. The main thing, I would hope, is that people won't give up on voting because that's where it all makes a difference, and not just for President. You can't just come every four years. I am very concerned about what's happening on these school boards, because now, rational people aren’t sure they want to run because of everything that’s going on in these school boards, so paying attention at all levels and voting and going to your candidate forms.
Next year is gonna be interesting. You know, it's an election year. Try to go to some of them. Ask questions. To me, it's very fascinating. You know, you can support interesting people who are trying to do good in the world, and don’t disappear. That's all I would say, please don’t disappear. Make sure you vote and try to stay involved.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, thank you for that word, Julie. Thank you so much for this time, for sharing your story from January 6th, but also for sharing your broader story and your vision. You are a rare one out of DC with your level of hope grounded in realism. There's a scrappy hope. [Laughs]
Julie Tagen: [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: It's grounded. You fight the cynicism, and it's refreshing so thank you for sharing your story. I am so glad that January 6th did not get worse for you or the Congressman's family.
Julie Tagen: Thank you so much.
Rebecca Ching: I just am so glad that people get to hear a snippet of a story of one of the many big hearts that are working day in and day out to truly make this country better, and how you're leading yourself, we can all take a page from to hold onto what really matters and to stay engaged with meaningful work. So thank you for your time, and thank you for your service. I'm so grateful.
Julie Tagen: Oh, my pleasure, Rebecca. It's been great speaking with you. I really enjoyed it.
Rebecca Ching: If you're alive in 2022 and in The United States, I feel like it is safe to say you have experienced vicarious trauma in the last couple of years at minimum. There have been many, too many, moments where we've all watched together that have activated vicarious trauma and collective grief.
Now, I hesitate even listing these things because I don’t want them to sound trite, but I think it's important to name the horrific milestones of COVID and COVID-related deaths, the witnessing of hate speech and violence and life taken, successful attacks on our democracy, relationship-ending debates about masks and vaccines, attacks on protestors and waking up to being complacent and complicit to systemic racism, and if you're a helping professional or a service professional, no doubt you have not escaped the last couple of years unscathed. As you get curious and begin to really look at the vicarious trauma you've experienced and the grief that is demanding to be witnessed, consider following these ABC's, as they call it, from the book Transforming the Pain.
Start with an awareness (that's the "A"). Start with an awareness of your needs, your emotions, and your limits. So many I work with, including myself, betray their own boundaries and push through their own capacities. This is foundational work for leaders that is, often, overlooked or breezed through. We have got to get clear in our capacities and respect them like our life depended on it, truly.
The "B" is the next one. Look at how you can balance between your work, leisure time, and rest. Now, I'm not a big fan of the word balance, as many of you who know me may know, and I like to talk more about integration. This requires, again, awareness of your capacities, honoring your boundaries, and redefining how you value rest and leisure time. The burdens of grind culture really shame rest and play, and it's essential that we reauthor this lens.
Now, lastly, here's the "C." Connection to yourself, to others, and to something greater than you is an important part of recovering from vicarious trauma. Whether you call it faith or spirituality or higher power or the ocean, deepening your connectedness with your own story and your inner-system, with people in your life who make you feel both brave and safe, and being connected to something bigger than you, also, is important and essential in healing vicarious trauma.
I am so grateful for Julie sharing her story with me, and I was surprised by how much it helped me heal my own vicarious trauma from that day. She modeled the power of sharing your story as a means to move through trauma, the power of finding connection, and the permission to allow the losses and grief to be witnessed. All qualities of an Unburdened Leader.
Leading is hard. Leading is also controversial as you navigate staying aligned to your values, your mission, and your boundaries. Navigating the inevitable controversy or vicarious trauma can challenge your confidence, clarity, and calm. I know you don’t mind making the hard decisions, but sometimes the stakes seem higher and can bring up echoes of old doubts and insecurities during times when you need to feel rock solid on your plan and action. Finding a coach who gets the nuances of your business and leading in our complex and polarized world can help you identify the blocks that keep you playing at safe and small.
Leading, today, is not a fancy title or fluffy bragging rights, but it is brave and bold work to stay the course when the future is so unknown and the doubts and pains from the past keep showing up to shake things up. Internal emotional practices and systemic strategies are needed to keep the protector of cynicism at bay and foster a hope that is both actionable and aligned. When the stakes are high and you don’t want to lose focus, when you want to navigate the inevitable conflict both between your ears and with those you lead, when time is of the essence and you want to make hard decisions with confidence and clarity, then Unburdened Leader Coaching is for you and where you deepen the capacity to tolerate the vulnerability of change, innovation, and doing things differently than the status quo.
To start your Unburdened Leader Coaching process with me, go to www.rebeccaching.com and book a free connection call. I can't wait to hear from you!
Thank you so much for joining this episode of The Unburdened Leader. You can sign up for my weekly email, find this episode, show notes, and free Unburdened Leader resources along with ways to work with me at www.rebeccaching.com.