By Chelsea Edgar
If you ask Annika Lescott about her job, she probably won't tell you much — and no, she doesn't work for the CIA. As a presidential management fellow in the Executive Office of the President of the United States, she spends her days doing non-partisan housing policy analysis and putting together the commander-in-chief's budget. But she can't talk about any specifics — like which policies she's researched, or is researching, or might research — because she'd be violating the law.
Without breaking her chipper tone, she launches into a disclaimer outlining all the things she can't discuss before she even begins to talk about her work: "I can't talk about anything that is not public, first and foremost. I cannot give an endorsement of the federal government, or any non-federal entities or people in my official role. And anything I say is my own personal view and not necessarily the view or position of the current administration or the government."
Lescott's position isn't a political appointment. No matter which president is in the White House, she has to put aside her own views and work with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to carry out the priorities of the administration. When she evaluates a policy, she gathers all the facts she can find on that issue, then offers recommendations based on the evidence, "independent of whatever party likes [the policy] or dislikes it," she says.
This empirical approach requires her to compartmentalize her own political beliefs. "I often have to divorce my personal views from what I do at work," Lescott says. "I can't make decisions based on 'values' — my own personal values or feelings about the President."
"I think that's the hardest part of my job," she adds.
Because of the federal government's strict ethics rules, Lescott doesn't have the luxury of chatting with her friends about work — "I'd be giving away state secrets," she jokes — but she takes pride in knowing that her work has an impact on people's lives.
Since her Hotchkiss days, Lescott has been drawn to a career in public service. The daughter of Trinidadian immigrants, she grew up in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, a neighborhood of Orthodox Jewish and Caribbean families. Lescott came to Hotchkiss through Prep for Prep, a program that prepares low-income students in the inner city for private boarding and day schools. After graduating from Hotchkiss, she earned her bachelor's at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a master's in public administration from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. She was then selected as a presidential management fellow, a highly competitive program that provides training and development within D.C.'s federal agencies. In her role in the Office of Management and Budget, she's had the opportunity to rotate in different policy areas; before she worked on housing policy, she helped to implement landmark legislation to strengthen workforce development programs. In each position she's held, Lescott has focused on what she can do to improve public services for those who depend on them.
"Often, the people most impacted by policies — at a school level, a local community level, or a national level — are not the ones whose perspectives are taken into account."
"I think it's important to be that voice for people who can't sit at the table. That's what I'm driven by," she says.
And she believes that she wouldn't be where she is today without the people who have advocated for her and bolstered her confidence along the way: "I owe a lot to my mentors from Hotchkiss, like the Haikos, who were always supportive, and Mrs. [Carolyn] Demaray, who made me feel welcomed and like I could do anything."
At Hotchkiss, Lescott says, she was "manager extraordinaire:" at various points in her four years at the School, she managed the varsity girls and boys track teams, the varsity boys basketball team, and the thirds girls basketball team. "I've never been much into sports, but I pay attention to detail," she says. She also worked as an athletic trainer and studied photography with Bob and Sandy Haiko ("I don't do that anymore," she says wistfully).
From a young age, Lescott has been ambitious: in her prep year, she was class president, and she set her sights on becoming a Hotchkiss trustee. "I felt like people who looked like me weren't given a seat at the table to make decisions," she says. "Often, the people most impacted by policies — at a school level, a local community level, or a national level — are not the ones whose perspectives are taken into account."
Currently, Lescott is a member of the Hotchkiss Alumni Association Board of Governors, which keeps her engaged with the alumni community and the School. She remembers how she felt when Phil Pillsbury '53, a trustee during Lescott's time at Hotchkiss, would ask her what she thought of things that were happening at the School. That experience of being heard has stayed with her.
"Part of being a public servant, I think, is paying that forward," she says.
This story originally appeared in the Winter/Spring 2017 issue of Hotchkiss Magazine.