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Who’s Sitting with the First Lady During State of the Union?

First Lady Michelle Obama arrives in the Capitol's House chamber for the president's 2015 State of the Union address. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
First lady Michelle Obama arrives in the Capitol’s House chamber for the president’s 2015 State of the Union address. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The White House on Sunday released the list of guests who will be seated with First Lady Michelle Obama, Dr. Jill Biden and Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to the president, during President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address Tuesday evening.

“The guests personify President Obama’s time in office and most importantly, they represent who we are as Americans: inclusive and compassionate, innovative and courageous,” the administration said in a release.

Here are the descriptions of each guest provided by the White House.

Vacant seat: One seat in the first lady’s box will be left empty to represent victims of gun violence “who no longer have a voice – because they need the rest of us to speak for them.”

Criminal justice reform: Sue Ellen Allen’s organization, Gina’s Team, supports women in Arizona prisons and upon release, gives them the resources they need and teaches them how give back to the community. Named for her cellmate in prison who died in incarceration, Allen, of Scottsdale, Ariz., started Gina’s Team with Gina’s parents in an effort to provide women a path out of prison.

Letter writer: Gloria Balenski and her husband Norb faced real economic struggles: Gloria lost her job after 34 years, the money they invested for their son’s college dried up when the stock market dived, and Norb’s job at Chevrolet was threatened when the auto industry cratered. The Balenskis, of Schaumberg, Ill., wrote the president a letter last year thanking him for the economic priorities he pursued, which Gloria credits with helping her family to bounce back.

Community college student: Jennifer Bragdon, 42, and her husband, George, work full time to pay for bills and provide child care for their one-year-old daughter. Even though she can take only one class at a time, Bragdon, of Austin, Texas, plans to complete her degree and become a middle school teacher. She enrolled in a new developmental math course after being out of a traditional classroom for more than 20 years, and has now successfully completed her college algebra requirements.

County councilmember: When then-Senator Obama visited a June 2007 campaign stop in Greenwood, South Carolina, Greenwood County, S.C., Councilmember Edith Childs energized the crowd with the chant, “Fired up! Ready to go!” It became the unofficial slogan of the 2008 and 2012 campaigns.

Veteran, veterans homelessness advocate: After settling in Las Vegas after her Navy service as a registered nurse during the Vietnam War, Cynthia “Cindy” K. Dias was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress and lost her job and then her home. She’s now helping homeless veterans find homes through Veterans Village, the same non-profit that helped her. In November 2015, Las Vegas announced it had housed every homeless veteran as part of the Administration’s Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness.

Small business owner: A former basketball player in Washington, D.C., Mark Davis was inspired by the president’s focus on climate change. He took classes, got certified, and started a small business that trains low-income individuals to install solar panels and prepares community members for local green tech jobs. Mark’s company, WDC Solar, is growing, profitable, and giving back.

Mother, opioid reform advocate: In October, Cary Dixon joined the president at a community forum in Charleston, West Virginia, on the opioid epidemic and spoke candidly about the struggles of having an adult child with a substance use disorder. “For too long, we’ve been silent,” she told the panel. “And I think that is holding us back. We need to open our voices so that people don’t feel ashamed. This is a disease. It is a sickness.”

College student, STEM advocate: Originally from Anchorage, Lydia Doza’s upbringing in three Alaskan tribes – Inupiaq, Tsimshian, and Haida – as well as her grandmother Joanne’s influence taught her the value of an education and the importance of mentorship. Through her involvement with the Administration’s Generation Indigenous initiative to support Native American youth, she’s engaging with rural youth in disciplines across the STEM fields to apply their skills and education. Doza, 24, is currently pursuing a degree in software engineering technology at Oregon Tech.

Syrian refugee: After Syrian government anti-personnel missile killed seven members of Refaai Hamo’s family, he fled to Turkey, where he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He eventually received refugee status to move to Troy, Michigan, and his story was featured on the website Humans of New York, where he received an outpouring of support and sympathy – including from the president.

Army reservist, Ranger School graduate: Maj. Lisa Jaster, of Houston, became the first female Army Reserve officer to graduate from the Ranger School, the elite leadership course of the Army. The 37-year-old engineer and mother of two is only the third woman to graduate from Ranger School, which began including female soldiers last year following an Administration directive to lift the ban on women in combat.

Mayor: Mark Luttrell, the Republican mayor of Shelby County, Tennessee, has helped create specialty courts for drug, mental health, and veterans’ cases to provide resources for effective rehabilitation instead of ineffectual incarceration.

Governor: Currently in his second term, Gov. Dannell P. Malloy pursued many of the progressive priorities that the president laid out to make America stronger. He pushed criminal justice reforms and common-sense gun safety laws following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. Connecticut led America as the first state in the country to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 and pass legislation guaranteeing paid sick leave.

Taking up Let’s Move! challenge: After attending the White House Kids’ “State Dinner” as part of Let’s Move! and hearing the president and first lady’s challenge for kids to make a difference in their own communities, Braeden Mannering, 12, of Bear, Del., started his own nonprofit, Brae’s Brown Bags (3B), which provides healthy food to homeless and low-income individuals in his community. To date, Braeden has activated more than 2,600 volunteers, provided more than 4,500 “brown bags” of healthy food, and raised more than $52,000 for hunger relief.

Microsoft CEO: Satya Nadella is chief executive officer of Microsoft, a position he’s held since February 2014 at the company he joined in 1992. In October 2015, underNadella’s leadership, Microsoft increased its paid leave benefits by eight weeks and now includes 20 weeks of paid leave for new mothers and 12 weeks for non-birth parents.

Marriage equality activist: Jim Obergefell of Cincinnati was the named plaintiff in the landmark marriage equality case Obergefell v. Hodges , which ruled same-sex couples nationwide have the Constitutional right to marry.

Police chief, community policing: Since 2014, Chief Kathleen O’Toole has led the Seattle Police Department in developing its approach to community policing, and her focus on improving officer morale, implementing new policies and optimizing department resources has received national attention.

Tolerance activist: Ryan Reyes’s partner Larry “Daniel” Kaufman was one of the 14 victims of the Dec. 2 terrorist attack at Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, Calif. Since Daniel’s death, Ryan, 32, has been vocal about the need for tolerance of all and rejection of the radicalized.

Small business owner: Ronna Rice is CEO of a Rice’s Lucky Clover Honey, a five-generation, family-operated company since 1924 in Greeley, Colo., that specializes in American raw and unfiltered honey for export globally.

ACA navigator: Cedric Rowland is the lead navigator for Near North Health Service Corporation in Chicago. Working with people to find the best plans available at a price they can afford, Affordable Care Act navigators help people across the country take advantage of the benefits of the Affordable Care Act, and are part of the success of the law.

Army veteran: Naveed Shah, originally from Saudi Arabia, grew up in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Springfield, Va., after immigrating to the U.S. with his Pakistani parents. Enlisting in the Army in 2006, he served four years and deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Naveed returned to his hometown in 2010 for college and to work with veterans groups assisting in the transition between military and civilian life.

Vietnam veteran: Earl Smith first met then-Sen. Barack Obama in February 2008 on the campaign trail at the Austin Hyatt Regency where he worked as the director of security. Earl gave the senator a military patch he had worn serving with an artillery brigade in Vietnam. Then-Senator Obama carried the patch in his pocket for the rest of the campaign, and the patch will be archived in the Obama Library – a reminder of the people who made up the movement that led Obama to the White House.

Train attack hero: While on a Paris-bound train with his childhood friends Anthony Sadler and U.S. Army Spec. Alek Skarlatos, Spencer Stone made headlines worldwide in August when the three Americans and a fourth British passenger prevented a potentially catastrophic act of terrorism. Upon return to the U.S., Stone, of Sacramento, received a Purple Heart, the Airman’s Medal, and a promotion to staff sergeant.

Veteran, DREAMer, STEM leader: Like many DREAMers, Oscar Vazquez, of Fort Worth, came to the U.S. as a child in search of a better life. He earned a B.S.E. in mechanical engineering from Arizona State University, but without legal status, he couldn’t secure a job to provide for his new wife and newborn child. He returned to Mexico to apply for a visa, and with help from Sen. Dick Durbin, who spoke from the Senate floor about Vazquez’s case, he was granted a green card in August 2010. He served one tour in Afghanistan and is now a proud U.S. citizen.


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