In her President’s Forum Series lecture, “The Kennedy Legacy: Volunteerism and Service,” Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, told the crowd in the Vandervort Room that “it’s advocacy that changes the system.”
As President Mark D. Gearan said in his introduction, Townsend’s personal and professional background makes her “uniquely poised to talk about the questions of community, service and volunteerism.”
Blending tales from her political and social work with humorous anecdotes from her childhood, Townsend, the daughter of Robert F. Kennedy and Ethel Skakel, emphasized that “the experiences each of you have when you’re young affect you profoundly, and have a lasting impact.”
Townsend, reflecting on her early life, joked that while other children were taken to playgrounds, “My mother took me to the Senate Racket Committee hearings. Some of my first words were, ‘I refuse to answer that question.'”
But through early experiences like that; through seeing as a young woman her father’s work with underprivileged and impoverished people; and through the high expectations set by her family, Townsend said she and her siblings learned at an early age that “we were lucky, and we had a responsibility.”
Townsend said that while campaigning for Congress in the 1980s, she visited local high schools, where she put problems to students and asked them what they thought they could do about them.
“One young woman asked, ‘Why should I care? That’s doesn’t affect me. I’ve got mine,’ and that’s the challenge we face,” said Townsend, who founded the Maryland Student Service Alliance, making Maryland the first, and still only, state that requires young people to engage in community service as a condition of high school graduation. “When you have a country based on rugged individualism, how do you integrate and deal with idealism, community and service? That’s why I fought for the community service requirement. I wanted to revive in young people the sense that there is something more than money in our lives.”
Tim Hollinger ’11 said he was “very impressed with Mrs. Townsend’s talk. The way she spoke and engaged with the audience, the content of the talk, her obvious seriousness about service-it was all really inspiring.”
Before she answered the audience’s questions, which, along with the talk, were broadcast on WEOS, Townsend reminded the rapt crowd that “our values are formed when we’re young, so the more we can get young people to see that they can do good, we’ll be that much better off.”
As Maryland’s first female lieutenant governor, Townsend instituted the Office of Character Education to provide a focal point for the teaching of responsibility and respect.
Townsend serves on a number of non-profit boards. She is the chair of the Institute for Human Virology at the University of Maryland and serves on the board of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, the Points of Light Foundation, National Catholic Reporter and the Character Education Partnership, among others. While serving as the chair of the board of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, she created the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. Townsend is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Before being elected lieutenant governor, Townsend served as Deputy Assistant Attorney General of the United States. She helped design and launch the nationally acclaimed Police Corps, a program that gives college scholarships to young people who pledge to work as police officers for four years after graduating.
Townsend has been appointed an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University’s School of Public Policy and has been a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government where she focused her efforts on faith and public life. Townsend is an honors graduate of Harvard University and holds a law degree from the University of New Mexico where she was a member of the law review. She has received 10 honorary degrees and has published several articles in the New York Times, Washington Post and Washington Monthly, among others.
She lives outside Baltimore, Md., with her husband, David, a professor at St. John’s College in Annapolis, and their four daughters.
The next President’s Forum speaker is Paul Begala, CNN’s political consultant and commentator, and former adviser to President Bill Clinton. Begala will deliver a talk titled “American Politics: Too Important to be Left to the Politicians” at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 2 in Albright Auditorium as part of the President’s Forum Series.
The President’s Forum Series, established in the winter of 2000 by President Mark D. Gearan, is designed to bring a variety of speakers to campus to share their knowledge and ideas with students, faculty, staff of the Colleges, as well as with interested community members. Many speakers draw audience members from the surrounding cities of Rochester, Syracuse and Ithaca.