“Many Members of Congress write a book; instead, I have chosen to teach…”
Barbara B. Kennelly, President of the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress (FMC), represented Connecticut’s 1st Congressional District from 1982 to 1999. During her years of service she was a pioneer in the advancement of women in politics. She was the first woman to be appointed as a Chief Deputy Majority Whip and the first woman to become Vice Chair of the Democratic Caucus, which at the time made her the highest-ranking woman in Democratic Party leadership. Congresswoman Kennelly was also the first woman in history to serve on the House Intelligence Committee and the third woman to be elected to the House Ways and Means Committee. Today, founder and President of her own lobbying firm and a professor at Trinity Washington University, she is a firm proponent of ‘women mentoring women.’ Mrs. Kennelly is proud to be teaching tomorrow’s leaders and sees it as her way of passing on her experiences and knowledge to the next generation.
“Many Members of Congress write a book. Instead I have chosen to teach because I want to encourage young people to go into public service. Our democracy is built on the foundation of public participation, especially that of the younger generations. We need their energy and ideas to help keep our nation strong. I hope that my teaching will help inspire young people to learn about our government, to vote, and to keep our elected officials accountable. And if I can convince just one of my students to run for office, I will feel I have made a real difference.”
Congresswoman Kennelly believes Members of Congress, both current and former, should work together in a bipartisan fashion to empower young leaders, especially women. She also believes women need to step forward themselves and take control of their own futures. “As women, we’ve come a long way but we only have won part of the battle. The only way we’re going to continue making progress is to focus on our goals and do our best to achieve them,” said Mrs. Kennelly. “You have to push yourself, and it’s not always easy, but the satisfaction you get from reaching your goal makes it well worth the effort!”
Congresswoman Kennelly comes from an active political family, as her father and husband were both prominent Connecticut politicians. But her career was also strongly influenced by her mother-in-law, who was a teacher, active church member, and town committee member. “My mother-in-law taught me by her example to be active in the community, and to build the relationships that are essential if you want to run for office. She taught me basic politics, the essentials of how to win an election,” said Mrs. Kennelly. “The most important thing in a democracy is that people vote, and getting out that vote is essential to a successful election campaign. I learned from my mother-in-law how to canvass a neighborhood and not to ease up until the election was over. Those lessons served me well throughout my career.”
Congresswoman Kennelly also strongly believes in the importance of the U.S. Constitution to the functioning of democracy in the United States. “The checks and balances that were written into the Constitution make it imperative that both bodies of Congress and the President be willing to work together, find middle ground, and compromise in order to pass legislation important to the American people. Unfortunately, I worry that some Members [of Congress] may have forgotten that,” said Mrs. Kennelly. She also laments the state of civic education in this country. “Our schools are not teaching the Constitution the way they should,” she said. “Increasingly I find that students don’t understand their own government, and this leads to a lack of engagement in the political process.”
Of course, as president of the US Association of Former Members of Congress, Mrs. Kennelly is passionate about FMC programs like Congress to Campus, which brings together former Members of Congress and college students to increase civic literacy and participation through student engagement. Kennelly, who has often participated in the Congress to Campus program, says that students love it. “They really want to know about Congress and how it works from people who have experienced it first hand,” she said.
Ms. Kennelly is also especially proud of FMC’s Congressional Study Groups — independent, non-partisan international legislative exchanges committed to increasing bilateral and multilateral dialogue with the United States’ strategic allies. In addition to Capitol Hill roundtables, The Congressional Study Groups organize study tours abroad for Members of Congress and senior congressional staff. “Congress doesn’t travel like they used to,” said Mrs. Kennelly. “But with the Study Groups there’s no lobbying involved and the Members feel very comfortable going on the trip. There’s nothing more important in understanding the world than going out and seeing it firsthand, and going with members of the opposing party can help bridge the partisan divide and promote collaboration back home.”