A Call to Service
Calling for civic engagement, public service, and finding common cause, Sen. Barbara Mikulski and news analyst Cokie Roberts pack the house for the inaugural event of Washington College’s Women’s Centennial Series.
Former Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski and news analyst and author Cokie Roberts conducted a lively discussion about the challenges and rewards of public service, and the necessity for action as well as cooperation, during the inaugural event for the College’s Women’s Centennial Series.
Speaking to an audience that packed Decker Theatre and overflowed into Hotchkiss where the talk was simulcast, the two women, both iconic figures in Washington, D.C., with a wealth of knowledge and experience on Capitol Hill, focused their conversation on Mikulski’s extraordinary career and on how young people today can learn from it.
“Particularly for the young people, I really want them to think about civic engagement. I want them to pick something, whether it’s Habitat for Humanity, whether it’s helping the homeless, whatever,” Mikulski said. “Because it’s in civic engagement, everybody is welcome to make a difference. It’ll bring you great joy to be of service.”
Mikulski, who has served in the U.S. Congress longer than any other woman in American history, also noted that one of the reasons she declined to run for another term in the Senate is because she believes it’s time for “the people who are going to live the rest of the new century to shape the rest of the century.”
Although the speakers steered generally clear of the current political climate, and there was little direct mention of the tumultuous presidential election, Mikulski did acknowledge that as we go through “tremendous change in our county, and there are a lot of testy environments,” people can get tired of politics. But there are other ways of becoming involved that can effect great change outside of the political realm, she said.
She encouraged people to get involved in their communities at all levels, pointing to grassroots campaigns like the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, which raises awareness of breast cancer and funding for research, as an example of a non-legislative, non-political way to make an enormous, national difference.
“It’s not judging, ‘Are you a Democrat? Are you a Republican?’ It’s ‘Are we going to find a cure? You bet,’ ” she said. “You’ve got to be involved. Everybody can make a difference, and when we work together we can make change.”
If young people do want to be politically active, she encouraged them to consider starting at the local level as she did, famously bridging Baltimore’s Harbor and its cultural divides to bring together a coalition of ethnic and African-American neighborhoods to fight a six-lane highway that was proposed to cross the harbor and plow through those neighborhoods. That fight, which was ultimately successful, taught her the power of coalition-building—a hallmark of her congressional career—and launched her career as a Baltimore City Councilwoman.
Local politics doesn’t cost as much money as state-level races, she said, noting that “sweat equity counts more than money.” What “makes democracy viable” she said, is people who “want to be involved, you think you have something to contribute, you want to make a difference and you’re ready to work hard.”
At the close of the event, College President Sheila Bair presented both Roberts and Mikulski with citations, and she presented Mikulski with the inaugural Women’s Centennial Citation—a framed portrait of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who received an honorary degree from Washington College in May 1942.
The event, sponsored by the Harwood Series in American Journalism and the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, led off a new series at Washington College, the Women’s Centennial. The series looks ahead to the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave American women the right to vote. Over the next four years, leading up to the 2020 anniversary itself, the Women’s Centennial will bring outstanding American women to campus, honoring and chronicling the achievements of women in leadership and public life from 1920 to the present day.
With its distinctive connection to the history of American freedom and its tradition of educating women and men as citizen leaders—and now under the leadership of its first female president, Sheila Bair—Washington College is uniquely suited to host the Women’s Centennial. The College has deep traditions of gender inclusivity: in 1783, it hired the first recorded female faculty member in American higher education, the art instructor Elizabeth Callister Peale.