Inspiration was on parade at the Sammies

Awardees show how a few people can affect thousands, even millions, in a positive way.

Occasionally, in the hum-drum of the daily grind, you might feel like a drone, working away unnoticed. Then comes a piece of information, like this, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: Right now, at this moment, some 20 quadrillion ants are crawling around, doing whatever ants do. If ants were dollars, even Congress couldn’t spend them all.

By contrast, being one of around 7.7 billion humans makes you and me and every individual positively stand out! No one can say if an ant knows it’s an ant, nor if it has any consciousness that quadrillions like it are out there.

As people, though, we are aware of that individual uniqueness. And sometimes we make a point of calling out those who made a positive difference. One example: last night’s Service to America Medal awards ceremonies. Check our compendium to hear the Federal Drive interviews I did with 19 of the finalists this year. Find the full list here.

The Sammies awards are always one of my favorite events. I get to see in person many of the finalists I have interviewed throughout the months leading to the awards event. It refreshes my own enthusiasm for covering federal activities.

In a time when people seemed to be shamed by ants in the ways we find to hurt one other, these public servants inspire by how they actively helped other people, sometimes in great numbers, in pursuing their agencies’ missions.

Fewer kids smoke cigarettes thanks to former Food and Drug Administration executive Mitchell Zeller. HIV/AIDs may not be cured, but it’s largely manageable for many thanks to Dr. Cliff Lane of National Institutes of Health infectious diseases unit. Jonathan Dworken of the U.S. Agency for International Development helped make a terrible civil war in Ethiopia a little more bearable. David Rader of the Defense Department helps keep U.S. intellectual property safe from foreign adversaries. HiIlary Ingraham, Holly Herrera and Kiera Berdinner of the State Department helped tens of thousands of Afghans escape the depredations of the Taliban. Yolanda Lopez made the professional lives of Voice of America employees a lot better.

Such people definitely don’t exhibit ant-like behavior. They work in teams with other people, to be sure, but they think creatively and independently. The most often-used word last night was “incredible.” More accurate, and used only slightly less frequently: innovative. Medals recipients and finalists worked in scores of different domains, but they brought innovative thinking to whatever the problem.

During a rafting trip in desert of the Grand Canyon last spring, the guides would sink a small, plastic bowl up to its rim into the sand near the kitchen setup each evening. Within minutes, the bowl would nearly fill with a living blob of red ants that followed one another into the bowl. They couldn’t get out because the bowl was too smooth  and steep. No ants were harmed in this practice. The guides would empty the ant trap after dinner, because as the sun sets, red ants go back into their colonies for the night and don’t bother we humans sleeping on the ground (The scorpions and rattlesnakes were another matter).

Imbued with hive-like intelligence though they are, the ants couldn’t get out of that bowl. We’re human because of the gray matter between our ears. We figure out such things.

Another case in point: NASA’s James Webb telescope project was mired in delays and spiraling costs. Greg Robinson — who received the Federal Employee of the Year medal — reluctantly took the job of program manager. Finally NASA launched the Webb launched into space last December. It not only works, it promises to advance people’s fundamental understanding of the universe. Robinson didn’t figure it all out personally. In fact, he said, “We’re still learning how to use this thing.” Rather, he motivated others — the team of scientists and engineers toiling away on the foil-bedecked contraption — that they could finish it successfully.



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