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Hill Climbers: Activism Led Staffer to Capitol Hill

Michelle Mittler has never been a fan of the sidelines, whether it’s in her job as a Congressional staffer and part-time graduate student or her role as a LGBT rights activist.

‘I first got involved for simply not wanting to feel alone. From there, it felt like a snowball effect of increasingly responsible roles,’ she said. ‘The older I got, the more I felt like I didn’t want to stand on the sidelines of history.’

The Queens, N.Y., native started working for Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) this summer as an executive assistant and scheduler while starting a master’s degree program at George Washington University. But her history with activism dates back to her sophomore year of high school.

‘I ran the largest [gay-straight alliance] in the area, so I was going to other schools and telling them what I did,’ the 22-year-old said. ‘We had a room full of 80 kids fighting just to get a seat. I was also interning at the LGBT center in Manhattan, so I took a lot of things I learned there and brought it back to them. And they loved it.’

Her passion for lesbian and gay rights carried into her collegiate days at the State University of New York at Albany, where she majored in political science ‘like everyone else on Hill,’ she joked.

Mittler interned for the Human Rights Campaign, an organization that lobbies for equal-rights legislation. During her stint with the HRC, Mittler logged hate crimes into its database and contributed work on the Matthew Shepard Act. [IMGCAP(1)]

In January, she started working for the New York Senate as an assistant to Sen. Tom Duane (D). The position not only honed her ability to perform administrative and scheduling duties, but it also fostered an admiration for her boss, the only openly gay Senator in the state.

‘I’ve always loved working on LGBT legislation because it directly affects me, but working with the HRC and Tom Duane really cemented that,’ Mittler said.

Although Mittler had already made a commitment to attend graduate school in D.C., she knew she wanted to continue playing in the political arena and began hunting for Hill jobs.

She was like many other job-seekers, ‘waking up at 9 a.m. and applying for every job I possibly could until I passed out,’ Mittler said with a laugh. ‘But when I saw this one, I got that application out in 20 minutes because I wanted it so bad.’

Her precision paid off: Two weeks after moving to Washington, Mittler scored the job with Tonko. Since starting in June, she has taken on a slew of responsibilities ranging from schedules to legislation, although she does not work on gay and lesbian rights issues for the lawmaker.

In addition to adjusting to a new job, the staffer has also had to adapt to a new city, which can be difficult for someone who was born and raised in the Big Apple, which she said ‘ only half-jokingly ‘ is the best city in the world.

‘I’ve noticed that in New York, when you meet people they always ask, ‘Where are you from?” Mittler said. ‘But here, it’s always, ‘Where do you work?’ D.C. is all about the networking, but I’m adjusting.’

Mittler thrives when she stays busy. She has been taking night classes for a master’s degree in legislative affairs. And although waking up early on the weekends and studying on the train might seem exhausting, it could have been worse.

‘Originally, I thought I was going to be Superwoman and take three classes and still make myself dinner every night,’ she said. ‘But my friend told me I was crazy and that I should only take two classes, so I did.’

In the future, Mittler sees herself becoming a lobbyist for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, or even a professor on civil rights and politics. And while her heart may be in New York and her life may be in D.C., her mind is on activism.

‘It’s always been a huge part of my life. It’s the first piece of news I want to read, I can explain it to anyone, and my eyes light up when I talk about it,’ she said. ‘The fight isn’t going away anytime soon, and I plan to be a part of it.’

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