Leesburg’s ‘Brown Bag’ Think Tank at the Marshall Center

The George C. Marshall International Center’s Brown Bag Lunch speaker series draws experts from around the world to address topics of national and global relevance. But just as impressive as the speakers selected are the audience members who make the monthly presentations can’t-miss events.

Former intelligence officers, government officials, journalists and more fill out the table in the second floor of the Marshall House, posing questions to that month’s speaker and offering up topics of interest for future months. In October, the focus was on Iran, given the ever-increasing hostilities regarding its nuclear agreement, and the two speakers were an Iranian citizen who recently authored a book on Iranian-Pakistani relations, as well as the U.S. government employee responsible for getting documents concerning Iran’s 1953 government overthrow republished.

The speaker series has been going on for a couple of years, and is just another way to invite community members into the Marshall House, said Les Janka, a member of the George C. Marshall International Center board of directors.

“After I retired here, I got to know some of the former national security professionals who had retired here in the area,” said Janka, a former political appointee in the Pentagon who served on the National Security Council staff. “We enjoyed getting together, and thought we should formalize this a little bit. At the same time, I had just joined the Marshall board and I thought the Marshall House would be a very inspiring place for regular discussions.”

The decision was made to begin meeting monthly to discuss current events and “current outrages,” Janka said. Sometimes a speaker is invited based on the topic being discussed. Other months there is no speaker and just an informal discussion of what is going on in the world.

“It just took off and bloomed,” he said. “What grew out of it was that it brought a lot of new people into the Marshall House on an informal basis, and it also kind of revealed how much experience and expertise there is in the Leesburg community.”

Phil Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is one example. The Philomont resident regularly makes it to the Brown Bag discussions, but was especially interested in October’s topic focusing on Iran. Leesburg resident Karen Jones was also in attendance in October. It was her first Brown Bag.

Jones said the topic piqued her interest. She had learned about the Brown Bag series from a friend and was interested in learning more about the activities going on inside the four walls of the Marshall House after taking a tour there. Other attendees in October included a science journalist and a moderator for the Great Discussions program of the Foreign Policy Association. The talks draw 20 to 30 attendees each month. October’s event drew more than two dozen.

“There are so many people here that are top military, top diplomats, top CIA … it’s a way for them to discover each other and draw on that expertise,” he said. “A number of speakers have remarked ‘we rarely get an audience with that much experience and expertise.’ In a way, with the Washington policy community, it’s really put Leesburg and the Marshall House on the map with them.”

Just as importantly, “half the group here has nothing to do with foreign policy. They’re just interested citizens and to us that’s the best kind,” Janka said.

In addition to drawing the community together, the series has been a great way to turn local residents onto other events going on at the Marshall House. The center also sponsors a regular evening lecture series, as well as a foreign policy book club, the latter of which is supported by Rust Library. The events also help the Marshall House gain more regular supporters, Janka said.

But the Marshall board is not content to grow comfortable anytime soon. Janka urges residents to reach out to let them know other things the Marshall Center could do to get them to leave the comfort of their homes.

“All of us would like to hear more from the Leesburg community about what would they like to hear—book and author discussions, foreign policy discussions. We’d like to know more are we addressing what’s interesting in the community and how can we hear more from the community on what they’d like to do,” Janka said.

The next Foreign Policy Brown Bag is set for Thursday, Nov. 16, from noon to 1:30 p.m., at the Marshall House, at 312 East Market St. in Leesburg. A $5 donation to defray the costs of putting on the event is suggested. Drinks are provided, and attendees are asked to bring a bag lunch.

For more information, go to georgecmarshall.org.


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