The new White House social secretary is a Philly home girl

Deesha-Dyer
White House social secretary Deesha Dyer relies on street smarts, not big-time academic degrees. (JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)

DEESHA DYER has come a long way from her days of handing out free condoms at Fluid and other local nightclubs.

These days, instead of trying to persuade partygoers to get themselves tested for HIV, she's in charge of all of the social functions at the White House.

Yeah, you read that right.

The White House as in 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

As the new White House social secretary, her job is to work closely with first lady Michelle Obama to compile guest lists for opulent dinners honoring visiting dignitaries such as Chinese President Xi Jinping, who's coming in September.

Saturday night she was spotted at the star-studded White House Correspondents' Association dinner, which - depending on your perspective - is known as Washington's Super Bowl or the Nerd Prom. But whatever you think of it, it's heady stuff for anyone - much less a hip-hop-loving Philly homegirl with an associate's degree from Community College of Philadelphia.

Not all that long ago, Dyer was writing freelance pieces about Beyonce for the City Paper and working for free for a website called 215hiphop.com.

White House social secretaries generally call to mind images of genteel, pearl-wearing, Ivy League grads and women from wealthy, politically connected families.

The first African-American woman to hold the post - Desiree Rogers - had a master's degree from Harvard; had an impressive resume of high-level, management jobs in corporate America; and was friends with the Obamas well before they came to Washington. In other words, she was connected.

Dyer, though, comes from a world about as far removed from that as you can imagine, which makes her appointment all the more high-five worthy.

 

Dancing in the basement

Born at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital on Jan. 15, 1978, Dyer shares a birthday with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Her parents were high-school sweethearts who married shortly after her older brother Isaac was conceived. Their union, though, was short-lived. The young couple divorced while Dyer was still in elementary school. She and her brother lived with her mother, Dianna, who held a series of administrative jobs.

At age 8 or 9, her parents enrolled her and her brother in the Milton Hershey School, a boarding school in Hershey, Pa., geared toward lower-income families.

"We lived poor. We really lived poor," Dianna Dyer said last week. "I was not able to provide for them the way I wanted to provide for them."

Julie Mladenoff, Dyer's house mom from the fifth through the eighth grades, remembers little Deesha as a hardworking girl who performed her chores well and enjoyed making up dance routines in their basement.

"She just always gave 100 percent in everything she did, no matter what," recalled Sharon Henry, who taught Dyer several math classes and coached her in softball.

After graduating from Milton Hershey in 1995, Dyer enrolled at the University of Cincinnati, where she studied psychology and sex education and was a member of the school's color guard. She got a job at a local mall and saved money so she could travel.

"Next thing I knew, she was going overseas," her mother told me.

 

Coming back to Philly

By 2001, Dyer was living in Philly, where she worked as an assistant at the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust. She wrote occasional newspaper articles including a 2003 newspaper op-ed timed with the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade in which she described terminating an unplanned pregnancy.

"Babies are the ultimate gift to the world, but providing for one at that moment was impossible," Dyer wrote. "It took every ounce of faith and strength I had to make a choice. I opted to have an abortion."

Later that month, then-Daily News reporter Damon Williams wrote about a program she'd created called Cover Your Lover, which raised awareness about sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS. Back then, Dyer was taking her safe-sex message to late-night parties, where she would pass out condoms.

"Whenever you saw Deesha, she had condoms on her or she was telling you . . . to go get tested," recalled filmmaker John L. Delancey Jr. "That was her life for a minute."

About that time, Docta Shock was hosting the Philly Urban Legend Awards at the old Brave New World nightclub and throwing seminars for aspiring hip-hop artists. He said he always relied on Dyer not only to collect admission fees but to keep an eye on things.

"You could just trust her to take care of things you didn't even think about," Shock recalled.

Along the way, Dyer found time to volunteer as a board member for Action AIDS and the Youth Health Empowerment Project, which helps people with HIV/AIDS and those at risk of acquiring it. By age 29, she re-enrolled in college, this time at CCP.

Mayoral candidate Doug Oliver, who attended school with Dyer, credits her "salt-of-the-earth" family background as well as her Hershey experience with nurturing her altruism.

"I'm not surprised at all that she is where she is," he told me last week. "She's the one who would have been in the yearbook as most likely to have been social secretary for President Obama."

 

Path to White House

According to government officials, Dyer started as a White House intern in 2009 in the Office of Scheduling and Advance. (The White House declined my requests to interview Dyer.)

The following year, she was hired full time as associate director for scheduling correspondence. Dyer later was promoted to deputy director and hotel program director.

By 2013, she was deputy director and deputy social secretary. The White House announced her appointment as special assistant to the president and social secretary on April 16.

"Deesha shares our commitment to a White House that reflects America's history, highlights our culture and celebrates all Americans," President Obama said.

Dyer is now the point woman for ensuring that White House events run smoothly, something the glamorous Desiree Rogers stumbled at, most glaringly in 2009 after reality-TV stars Michaele and Tareq Salahi crashed a state dinner for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. That fateful night, Rogers, who was wearing an attention-grabbing gown by Comme des Garcons, was criticized for socializing instead of adequately supervising arrivals.

"I think Deesha is the polar opposite of that," said Trymaine Lee, a national reporter for MSNBC, who has known Dyer since they were in middle school.

"She's not going to put herself out there like that," he added. "I can't imagine her consuming too much [limelight] at all."

 


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