In The Arena
In The Arena
Cathilea Robinett and GOVERNING Magazine
Taken from a famous Theodore Roosevelt speech regarding his own time “In the Arena,” this podcast features government officials who are truly making a difference and challenging the status quo. Governing President, Cathilea Robinett, tours you through the halls of cities, counties and states to bring you a slice of what is best in American leadership today.
Book Recommendations from Officials Who’ve Been “In the Arena”
As 2020 comes to a close, we take a moment to reflect on the numerous books that government officials from across the nation have recommended over the past several years. In the Arena’s podcast interviews have included many good book recommendations, often more than one, from government officials all over the country. The officials have suggested books for all kinds of reasons; some have enchanted them as a child, others have inspired them to pursue their current career of public service. Sometimes all the officials can manage is to list the three most recent books they have enjoyed because, as Blair Milo, Indiana’s secretary for Career Connections and Talent, explained, “I could no sooner pick a favorite star in the heavens,” than pick a single best book to read. Books often become favorites if they provide some sense of nostalgia or wonder. They can be an escape into an alternate reality or a world that satiates the present moment’s wanderlust. During the coronavirus pandemic, this can also act as a form of stress relief, an escape from the confines of the shelter-in-place orders. Los Angeles, Calif., Mayor Eric Garcetti turns to Jorge Luis Borges’ Ficciones, a book of short stories “and many of them are these beautiful fantastical metaphors for the universe.” But he also turns to books for hope, which can act as an escape from the fear and uncertainty of this global pandemic. He discusses how Marge Pearcy’s book of poetry, Stone, Paper, Knife, which gets its title from a poem that is “all about how, in the midst of struggle, do we still stay idealistic and hang on to hope, and hope rests in each one of us.” For others, a favorite book can be a connection to a cherished moment in time. For Kristen Cox, executive director of the Utah Governor’s Office of Management and Budget, it also happens to be a moment of triumph. “Because I had some vision growing up, they didn’t teach me braille. But then as I went more and more blind, I had no way to read,” Cox explains. After having her first son, she taught herself to read braille, learning a letter a day, so that she could read to her son. Eventually, she was proficient enough to read her first book in braille: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. “I love The Hobbit anyway, but to read that in braille was a huge accomplishment for me.” Other times, a favorite book can create a cherished moment and connection between two people despite physical separation. For In the Arena host, Cathilea Robinett, and senior advisor to the California Office of Emergency Services, Karen Baker, this unity was fostered over a mutual favorite children’s book: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. “I just don’t know what secret garden is around the corner for me,” Baker explains. “The good is about to happen.” Books can offer us many things during these unprecedented times, whether that is escaping to a different land or building connection between two people and the public officials who have spoken with us “In the Arena” have read it all. Learn more and subscribe for free to In The Arena at
Dec 7, 2020
23 min
Service Before Self: Karen Baker’s Career in Public Service
The career public servant has served a president and in the cabinets of three governors, and is not afraid of tackling big, complicated jobs that help the disenfranchised while building better communities. Karen Baker was raised in Ohio with seven siblings where there was not much opportunity to be selfish. Her upbringing taught her the value of selflessness and service, which has helped shape her decades-long career in public service. Whether it was volunteering with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps while attending UCLA, working for a congressmember in Washington, D.C. or being appointed by President Clinton to help create AmeriCorps, Karen Baker has always been inspired by creativity and problem solving within communities. “I'm particularly interested in that because I feel like one of the biggest things that people miss as a leader is just the ability to really listen very hard and then create,” Baker explains. “And part of how community is created by being there for each other and serving, and I think that's the glue of our culture.” Karen Baker has held cabinet positions under three California governors, and currently leads Gov. Newsom’s Listos California, a multi-million-dollar initiative to educate disabled, non-English speaking, and other vulnerable populations across the state about disaster preparedness, including COVID-19. Its mission is guided by the principle of letting the community decide how best to reach its members. Baker admits it is a big and complicated job, but it is the kind of problem-solving that she knows will have a significant impact on the lives of others. “I think the only thing that you have to be aware of when you need to be inspired is: What are you giving?” she asks. “You have to keep doing those acts of service. Cause that's what makes you feel connected in my view. And that's where the joy comes.” Listen to the full interview with Karen Baker to hear more about her tremendous career of helping others, an inspiring drive-thru event in Mendota, Calif., and a special bond created over a shared favorite book. Learn more and subscribe for free to In The Arena at
Nov 9, 2020
30 min
The Many Chapters of Jabari Simama’s Life
Humble beginnings and a kind demeanor have made him a great public servant, including work as an elected county official and college president. It also has led him to foster a deep friendship with legendary John Lewis. Jabari Simama’s story has many different chapters. He grew up in Columbia, Mo., and attended Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., through a football scholarship. During a college Christian fellowship, Simama travelled to Connecticut, where he found kinship and a job the following summer. The experience led him to transfer to the University of Bridgeport, where Simama earned his bachelor’s degree. Afterwards, he found his way down to Atlanta, Ga., where he eventually earned two graduate degrees, a master’s from Atlanta University and his Ph.D. from Emory University. At this point in his life, Simama entered public service and served two terms on the Atlanta City Council, then worked as deputy chief operating officer and chief of staff for DeKalb County and later became the president of Georgia Piedmont Technical College. Despite the challenges, he has always found inspiration through his own childhood and his family’s humble beginnings. “All of my life, I felt this tremendous kinship and commitment with lifting up ‘the least of these.’ And it's probably because at one point I was part of ‘the least of these,’” he explains. Jabari Simama’s commitment to helping others has also come from the great support he has received from others throughout his life. A friend from the Christian fellowship organization Young Life, helped Simama travel outside of Missouri for the first time. That same friend introduced him to Jack Carpenter who headed Young Life in Connecticut and offered him the summer job. After college, a woman named Lillian introduced him to his first job in Atlanta and to her husband, the late Congressman John Lewis. Jabari Simama and John Lewis met in 1973 and maintained a close friendship. Simama recounts how it was good to know the human side of John Lewis and to see his loving and humble nature  even when their wives were conspiring on the phone about the lunches at their children’s shared preschool. “I could hear John in the background saying ‘Lillian, remember we're non-violent, we don't talk like that, we're not violent,’” Simama says. “So even in his personal life, something that didn't exactly have anything to do with civil rights, the spirit of non-violence was the way he lived.” Listen to the latest “In The Arena” episode to hear more about Jabari Simama’s friendship with the late John Lewis, the tenderness of his heart and the racial discrimination of hand dryers. Learn more and subscribe for free to In The Arena at
Oct 26, 2020
37 min
How Sheila Oliver Made a Career of Breaking Glass Ceilings
Inspired by trailblazer Shirley Chisholm, New Jersey’s Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver has become a powerful and inspirational leader in her own right and has already left a mark that will last for generations. Sheila Oliver has always been inspired by the late Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress. She was particularly motivated by a simple but memorable remark that Congresswoman Chisholm made in one of her speeches: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, then bring a folding chair.” Sheila Oliver has brought several folding chairs during her long and successful career in public service. She started her career as the director of a private nonprofit in Newark, became the president of her local board of education and then was elected a county commissioner. Later, she was the first woman to launch a competitive campaign for mayor of East Orange, N.J., but ended up losing by just 51 votes. “I began to connect the dots about how important it was to encourage people to vote because many people in my town said, ‘Oh, I just knew that was a slam dunk for you. I didn't even vote yesterday,’” Oliver said. She went on to successfully serve in the state Legislature for 16 years. When Oliver was unanimously elected to be the 169th speaker of the New Jersey State Assembly in 2009, she was the first Black woman to hold the position in the state's history. Her election also made her the second Black woman in the nation to lead a state legislative house. Several years later when she served as the lieutenant governor for New Jersey, she became the fourth Black woman in the nation to do so, the first as a Democrat. But her time in public service has not always been easy, especially during the coronavirus pandemic as New Jersey ranked No. 2 among states with COVID-19 cases for many months. Even as the numbers appear to be decreasing, the state still must be cautious about its reopening guidelines for the health and safety of its residents. “We're still on guard,” explained Oliver. “We don't feel quite comfortable that we're beyond it yet. And all of the epidemiologists that we consult with tell us that we are probably going to experience a surge in November.” Listen to the “In The Arena” episode with Sheila Oliver to hear more about her inspirations and achievements, her aspiration to laugh every day and New Jersey’s response to the death of George Floyd. Learn more and subscribe for free to In The Arena at
Oct 12, 2020
37 min
Finding Common Ground in an America That Will Not Agree
In a time of an extremely divided America, Bruce Bond works with his team to develop common ground and inspire others to create positive change. Bruce Bond has always had a love of politics; he studied it in college and has found great value in political engagement. But over the past several years, American politics has morphed into a new beast, something very different from what he had studied and admired. “It had come to the point where there was a lot of demonizing going on, where if you disagree with me politically, then there’s something wrong with your character,” Bruce explains. “We just felt that was a really dangerous thing.” He and his childhood friend, Erik Olsen, developed an idea of putting people from opposing viewpoints on stage together and then asking them to find points of agreement. The Common Ground Committee was first a side job, something Bruce and Erik would do when they had some spare time. But after two extremely successful events — one in the wake of the 2018 Charlottesville protests and another with John Kerry and Condoleezza Rice — the side job started to gain traction. Not long afterwards, Bruce quit his decades-long IT career to develop Common Ground into a full-time nonprofit. As the country grows more divided over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans, the national response to the coronavirus pandemic and the upcoming presidential election, Bruce hopes that the public uses these meetings of the minds as the foundation for difficult but civil conversations. “When people are awakened to the seriousness of a problem or what is possible either way, they start to move differently and they start to think and act differently and speak differently than what they've done in the past,” he says. “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Listen to the complete episode with Bruce Bond to hear more about Common Ground Committee’s “grass-tops” approach, the exhausted majority and Bruce’s high school experience with the notion of try, try, try again. Learn more and subscribe for free to In The Arena at
Sep 28, 2020
39 min
From Literature to Water: Heather Repenning on Impacting Change
She didn’t grow up dreaming of working in a position of power in a big city like Los Angeles, but her strong desire to help people and make the world a better place rerouted her into a career of public service. Heather Repenning moved to California from small-town Kentucky with the intention of earning a Ph.D. in comparative literature, but soon began to wonder if it was truly her correct path. She worried that the highly academic language of her work was not accessible to people of all backgrounds. “About three years into my Ph.D., I started to feel like the work I was doing was maybe not as relevant as I wanted it to be in terms of having an impact on the world,” she explains. After that realization, Repenning soon found herself doing field research for several political campaigns, one of which was for a young Eric Garcetti. She talked with voters and constituents about the changes they wanted to see in their communities and immediately felt that her work could have a direct effect on people’s lives. Now, working for Los Angeles County’s public transportation agency and serving as the vice chair of the board of directors for the region’s Metropolitan Water District, Repenning’s work impacts millions of people across Southern California. “I love to help people and I consider it a gift that I can wake up every day and get paid to make the world a better place,” Repenning says. “And right now, the needs are great.” Between the pandemic, the resulting economic crisis and the devastating wildfires now raging in the West, Repenning sees countless opportunities to address issues that affect people’s everyday lives, such as economic inequality, workplace diversity and climate change.   Repenning acknowledges that this is a uniquely difficult period and that people need to look out for themselves and their families, but she also urges people to get involved whenever possible. “Democracy will only be healthy to the degree that everyday people are active and actively participating in it,” she says. “Whether it's speaking out against something that you disagree with, whether it's voting, in whatever way you can, please get into the arena.” Listen to the episode with Heather Repenning to hear more about working closely with Eric Garcetti for 20 years, the timely values of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and learning about the world through the availability of water. Learn more and subscribe for free to In The Arena at
Sep 14, 2020
25 min
America "In The Arena" — How We Can Overcome
Life is an unpredictable collision of people and events that set our lives' trajectory and shape who we become. In this special episode of "In The Arena," host Cathilea Robinett talks intimately of the collision of people and events that have helped define the woman she is today. Cathilea Robinett grew up in California's Humboldt County — rural, predominantly white, and a place she admired growing up. Helen Thomas Cook lived next to Cathilea's grandmother. The two women were best friends, and Helen would come to Cathilea's family's house each Sunday. Helen was warm, kind, and considered part of the family. Helen was also Black. Cathilea's stepfather was an "Archie Bunker" of his time, close-minded to things he did not know. Cathilea always had a tense relationship with him because of this, which only worsened as she went on to experience the vast, diverse world that existed beyond Humboldt County. However, it eventually got to a point where Cathilea could no longer accept the dissonance between them. The day she brought home her fiancé Henry, a Black jazz musician.  Cathilea pulled her stepfather aside that day and explained that just as they loved Helen and welcomed her into the family, despite her skin color, they could also do the same for her new fiancé. Her stepfather never again mentioned the color of Henry's skin. In that moment, Cathilea learned that familiarity, understanding, and acceptance are deeply intertwined. Unfortunately, that was not the last time that Cathilea saw or experienced racism. As our country struggles with racial injustice and equality, Cathilea leans on the lesson she learned years ago. She reminds herself that, "Racism isn't a political issue. It is a human issue." She reminds herself of the amazing people that have shown kindness and compassion, despite how others may treat them. Listen to this special episode of "In The Arena" to discover more about Cathilea's travels across the nation, her time in The American Conservatory Theater's Young Actors Program, and her understanding that we all want to be respected, admired, and loved. Learn more and subscribe for free to In The Arena at
Aug 31, 2020
18 min
College’s First Black President on Digital Equity, Systemic Change in COVID
Dr. Miles Davis wants to use his platform as first Black president of Linfield college to affect systemic change. Even as COVID-19 drastically changes the face of education, Dr. Davis is determined to create the next generation of leaders. Miles K. Davis’ path to becoming the first Black president of Linfield College was not a straight line. While raised in poverty, his parents instilled in Davis a strong belief in the transformational power of education, which led him to go to college. Afterwards, he served time in the U.S. Navy, earned an MBA and worked several jobs in the corporate world. It was not until a friend mentioned The PhD Project to him in 1994 that Davis begin to consider returning to academia. Davis was drawn to the program’s mission of increasing the number of underrepresented minorities with PhDs in business to affect systemic change. He went through his entire undergraduate career without a single Black professor. The PhD Project gave him the possibility that he could become a professor with a vision of doing something more meaningful with his life. “It was being a part of The PhD Project where I saw the possibility of becoming a professor and doing something more than making another deal in corporate America,” he says. "It would nurture my spirit and soul and my commitment to helping others grow and make a difference in the lives of people.” Davis went on to become the Project's first college dean and president. Dr. Miles Davis is now the first Black president of Linfield College and, as president, he must navigate the complexities of COVID-19. While thousands of schools across the nation have transitioned into remote learning, It is not as simple as making sure everyone has the necessary technology, he explains. Switching to distance learning relies on several underlying assumptions, according to Davis. Students have a home in which they can do online education, and they have and can afford Internet connection or a cellular data plan that can supplement it. Distance learning also takes away the variety of other opportunities that colleges and universities offer, like a reliable source of the next meal or the diverse social interaction that feeds intellectual interest and engagement. But David acknowledges that the issues are bigger than just Linfield College. “Our republic cannot stand if it doesn’t have educated citizens," he says. "We need people who can think, we need people to engage, and that’s part of my calling: I want to fight the battles. It gets me up every morning.” Listen to the full episode to hear the inspirational conversation with Dr. Miles Davis on making systemic change, taking responsibility for your decisions and exploring the scientific world with quantum physics.  Learn more and subscribe for free to In The Arena at
Aug 17, 2020
39 min
Sharon Greenberger Fights for New York as YMCA President, CEO
As president and CEO of the New York YMCA, Sharon Greenberger is constantly working to make New York a healthier, happier community. Now she uses her decades of experience to transform The Y into a place of hope amid COVID-19. The New York YMCA has been focusing on the trifecta of mind, body and spirit for nearly 170 years, and Sharon Greenberger aims to further that focus despite the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic. With a background in urban planning and experience in economic development, education, health care and government, Greenberger is guided by the notion of community. Serving as the New York YMCA president and CEO is no different. “We're very focused on empowering you to improving health and strengthening community,” Greenberger explains. “I think that we try to help New Yorkers find two things that everyone needs: a sense of belonging and a sense of achievement. People think of the Y as their second home.” This strong sense of connection is something that drove Greenberger and her staff to create new methods of community in a socially distanced way after COVID-19 forced them to stop their normal operations on March 16. Since then, the Y has completely transformed itself. Now, the YMCA is providing housing for homeless, offering to house non-COVID patients to free up bed space for COVID patients in local hospitals, providing child care for health-care workers, creating online platforms with fitness classes as resources to its members and establishing a call network to connect with isolated seniors. All this change and resilience reflects Greenberger’s own strength, fortitude and experiences. When she was battling cancer, she realized the importance of using the life force of others to succeed and survive. When she was running the New York City School Construction Authority she helped to design and build 100 new school buildings across the city and complete 2,000 construction projects within four years. When she joined the Bloomberg administration just after 9/11, she saw the fortitude of New Yorkers and their unwavering ability to support one another. Greenberger knows it is this resiliency that propels New York through this unprecedented crisis. I know we will get to the other side and it will require an enormous amount of resilience and strength, but I would just say, especially in New York, we are tough,” Greenberg says. “We've been to the other side many times before and we will get there now, just please stay strong.” Listen to the full episode to hear more from Sharon Greenberger about focusing on continuous improvement, her passion for water skiing and her self-guiding rules of participation. Learn more and subscribe for free to In The Arena at
Aug 3, 2020
22 min
Toni Carter, Minnesota’s First Black County Commissioner, Speaks Out
Ramsey County’s commissioner has fought for change in the state for the past three decades through vigorous community engagement. She has marked history with her achievements and now watches her son do the same as mayor of St. Paul. Toni Carter has constantly aspired for more. Born in rural Alabama, Carter moved with her parents to Cleveland to escape the Jim Crow treatment they had received in the South. Eventually she left Cleveland to go to school in Northfield, Minn., where she found a vibrancy in life and an education that she had been yearning for. After college Toni Carter moved to St. Paul, married, had a good job, had the “picket fence with a dog and kids” lifestyle that she thought would be the perfect life, but still something was missing. “I know that it was my ability to have more of a direct impact on what I felt was a community yearning to blossom,” she says. “I found that there were people here in this land of milk and honey who looked like me, who weren’t doing so well.” Toni Carter has public service in her blood. She began fulfilling her desire to help the community first by running for the local school board. Then she realized that there were more underlying concerns than just student achievement, so she ran for, and won, a position on the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners, where she has served four terms across 15 years. When she was first elected in 2005, she was the first Black American to serve on a county board in the state.  She has created a legacy of community development, not only through her own achievements and actions but also through her children. Her son, Melvin Carter III, has been mayor of St. Paul, Minn., since 2018, the first city’s African-American mayor. While proud of the achievements that her community has achieved, Carter continues to push for progressive change, especially in the wake of George Floyd’s death. “There are so many things that we have been able to change, but there are also so many things that we still need to do, as is observed from the George Floyd killing here in the Twin Cities area,” she explains. Carter sees there are reforms that need to be made within the system of law enforcement, but also through larger social systems that allow everyone to not just survive, but to thrive. “I felt compelled in working with my community, on behalf of my community, to help those voices be heard and to help those changes that are required to be made. And I still do,” she says. Listen to the episode as Toni Carter discusses the future of Ramsey County, the community support that has blossomed in the wake of George Floyd’s death and her new adventures with the upright bass.  Learn more and subscribe for free to In The Arena at
Jul 20, 2020
34 min
Load more