Entering the grounds of Val-Kill, one realizes its historic potency. The Hyde Park, NY home of the legendary and much admired “first lady of the world,” Val-Kill seems to resound with Eleanor Roosevelt’s nature . . . staunch, quiet, stately . . . a formidable presence.
The Eleanor Roosevelt Center, located on the site, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to Eleanor’s ideals, preserving and fostering her tenets of compassionate leadership dedicated to social change, justice and human dignity. Kathleen Durham, Executive Director, is its current guardian, making certain that Eleanor’s voice remains heard and her vision active.
Kathleen herself has walked her own evolutionary road which finally led to her current position at the center. She grew up in Richmond, Virginia and attended Howard University. “In my time, many women went to college to find a husband who was a doctor or a lawyer . . . and I didn’t find one. So I kind of took a circuitous route which eventually evolved into actually becoming a lawyer and having a family. I say that because I went to law school after I’d been out of college for twenty years . . . and the other interesting part of it is when I left Howard University, I still needed fifteen hours to complete my degree.”
But as it turned out, life provided Kathleen with the experiences that would literally bring her full circle.
“I was working as Director of Labor Relations for the U.S. Customs Service. People kept saying, ‘You should be a lawyer, you should be a lawyer.’ Because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself, I thought, ‘Well, okay, let me just try this.’ I was in my late thirties. I got into all the law schools I applied to and wound up going to Pepperdine in California. I was able to get in by making up the fifteen hours I never completed in college by writing this essay about using my life experiences. When I was graduating, someone said, ‘Come see me, and I’ll help you to become a producer.’ But there were others who told me, ‘Now you’ve got your license, so now you’ve got to go practice.’ The truth of it is my life’s passion would have been producing, but when you look at it, all of life is about producing something, just like I’m doing here at the Eleanor Roosevelt Center. Here I have the opportunity to do that constantly.”
Although after moving to the Hudson Valley in 1988 Kathleen learned more about Eleanor Roosevelt, her intrigue with the former First Lady really began to grow in 1995. “I started reading about Eleanor and I thought ‘I have a lot in common with this woman’. I just kept reading and reading and fell in love with her ideals. Eventually I got involved in doing talks here at ERVK for organizations and various trainings. In time, I moved away to Savanna but eventually came back to the area in 2006. In 2008, someone asked me to be on the ERVK Board. Shortly after, I became Interim Director of the center and then Director. So what really drew me here? Well this may sound crazy, but it’s kind of like the universe leads you. You don’ quite know why things are leading in a certain direction. You just kind of move along and sometimes you listen and sometimes you don’t, but when you really do, you may wind up where you’re supposed to be, and that’s what kind of happened to me.”
Inspired by her work and ERVK’s mission, Kathleen feels that the center can really make a difference. “I believe we are Eleanor Roosevelt’s voice and are channeling her ideals so to speak.”
And so it appears. Immersed in Eleanor’s vision and working at ERVK on a daily basis, Kathleen has seen a change in herself—in how she relates to people, how she listens to people, and how she’s more willing to shift her thinking. She takes note that Eleanor’s manner in handling life and work has definitely influenced her.
“When I’m really passionate about something, I go ahead and speak about it and let it be out there. Another important aspect for me is just the fact that Eleanor was able to overcome so many of the obstacles she faced. If I can’t do something like that, then what? She had much bigger obstacles during her time.”
Nonetheless, women today are still facing their hurdles. It’s programs like ERVK’s Girls’ Leadership Workshop that are providing young women with the support and nurturance they need to become leaders. “We’re developing little Eleanor’s,” Kathleen states. “The reason why we even have the workshop is because of Eleanor Roosevelt herself. Everybody talks about what Franklin accomplished, but behind Franklin was Eleanor. Had Eleanor not been there, honestly, I don’t believe Franklin would have done all that he did. Not to denigrate what he did do, but I think her consciousness, her thinking, was powerful. We want to give young people that type of strength to take out into society so they don’t just become consumers of what’s in the world, but they actually contribute to its well-being. And we see that occurring through the eight hundred girls we’ve brought through the program. We hear from them about what’s happening in their lives. One example is this fifteen-year old girl who started her own non-profit called Kids for Causes, where they’re passionate about helping the children of Haiti. At fifteen, was I thinking of anything like that?”
Nourishing and awakening ideas that may have otherwise remained dormant, the Girls’ Leadership Workshop provides not only the training and foundation for the girls to use in their personal growth, but a framework for how to use their confidence to move out into the world. “It’s a personal learning time that evolves into action based on Eleanor Roosevelt’s principles of leadership,” Kathleen explains. “And now we’re even expanding the idea of responsible leadership to include boys. The program is reaching out further.”
Yet, Kathleen agrees, it’s still important to support women’s leadership roles in particular, whether those are in government, politics, business, education or religion—in all walks of life. “We have more of a history to overcome. Women were not traditionally looked upon as leaders. Even today, I don’t think we’re quite there, even though we have managed to make our way very close to that glass ceiling. Therefore, it’s important that women see themselves as leaders. So whatever can be done to help nurture that, to build their confidence, matters. Women need to be able to say to each other, ‘Yes, you can be a leader.’ And by leadership it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a CEO of a company. Women can provide that leadership in their families as well. As wives and mothers, they’re influencing all the time, and that influence extends to the men and boys in their lives.”
Recently, the achievements of influential women throughout history were honored during the International Women’s Day luncheon (March 8th) at the White House. Praising the extraordinary accomplishments of those such as Dorothy Height [a leader in the African-American and women’s rights movements who passed away the day following this interview at the age of 98], President Obama extolled the great achievements of the many admirable women who offered their gifts to create political, social and economic reform. As an attendee, Kathleen recalls what she learned and how she was moved by the experience.
“I heard a woman from Afghanistan tell a story about how the women in her village were really horribly abused and that out of the experience, she wrote this song which conveyed their determination. Some of the words were something like ‘we will never give up’ and she sang it for us. I could really feel the power of it. Also, in that room there were three hundred women—thirty of them were young women in high school who had gotten the wonderful opportunity to sit down with Michelle Obama. It was just the thirty of them and Michelle. To see these women together from different countries and from all over the U.S. was amazing. During that luncheon, we learned that what might be considered a major issue regarding women’s leadership here in this country may be looked upon quite differently in Afghanistan. So how we as women could learn from each other’s experiences was important. It reminds me of a young woman who came to the Girls’ Workshop whose family had fled from Iraq to Jordan. While here in America, she was learning for the first time that people have human rights. Keeping this in mind, special days like the International Women’s Day are definitely a good thing.”
Although it’s certainly important that we’ve designated a day—International Women’s Day—as a mark of global appreciation for women and their achievements, there is still a long way to go in creating a more balanced paradigm where women are able to offer their talents. Following this current of thought, Kathleen takes a look at how and why more female leadership can strengthen our chances of really achieving and securing human rights.
“I think women are better mediators. Women, in general, are more willing to lay down the ego and look for solutions. They’re caregivers. Great multitaskers. More sensitive to people’s needs. I think they come more from a place where they can step into someone else’s shoes and see what’s going on for them and give up that sort of it’s gotta be this way kind of mentality,” she says, pounding on the table sternly. “I think women can see conciliation. They can be more conciliatory without thinking they’re giving up their you know what.”
And the proof of that exists globally as we connect that conciliation from human rights to the economic field. As more women become financed all over the world with micro loans to start their own businesses, they become assets in the creation and stabilization of peace and security throughout their native countries.
“Women who are developing their micro-businesses are actually strengthening their households,” Kathleen asserts. “They’re earning money. They’re learning how to take care of themselves. It may not necessarily be that they are becoming the head of that household, but because they are able to offer their skills, they are actually contributing to their households. They are empowering themselves and the more they do that, they are bringing a different kind of feeling into the home. At least that’s what people who work on these projects say. As the women become stronger in starting their businesses, they’ve noticed the men being more supportive of them.”
Kathleen believes this phenomenon is actually helping to create more stabilization and security. “If you think about it, people are the meanest or most hostile when they are faced with needs that they think will never be filled, or that someone else is going to get something that they need as a matter of life and death.”
Throughout all the delicate balancing, and as the dynamics of gender equality swings the pendulum toward more fair and just-minded resolutions, Kathleen indicates women are maturing toward a new level in the process. Once women have built their own confidence more and have brought their voices forward, they’ve got to become inclusive, encourage men to actually enter into the picture. Otherwise it becomes a man vs. woman phenomenon. “And it shouldn’t be that way because what does that do? That’s not a peaceful resolution for anything. If you have great peace in a women’s group and great peace in a men’s group, but you aren’t really getting them together, then where’s the peace in that?”
In short, growth and confidence begin the process but the goal is inclusion and unity. “You’ve got to have that personal awareness first before you can reach out there to make any difference,” Kathleen explain, “and it’s that kind of foundation which many women haven’t had. So what needs to be developed is the personal awareness that you can do anything. You can. You really, really can. The more that’s inside of you, the stronger you become and then you can take that out into the world. That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what we do with our girls. To create it in here,” Kathleen says, pointing to her heart. “Because if you got it in here and you channel it in the right direction, you can do the right thing out there.”
Building that strong foundation in women is the key. Then once they are fortified, then it’s back to inclusion. “It should always be about the inclusion thing,” Kathleen exhorts. “Men and women—everyone working together. It’s not just a me thing. The me thing doesn’t get you very far.”
That reflection underscores Eleanor Roosevelt’s core message. Wisdom, vision, leadership. Men and women working toward a peaceful world. Deeply underlying Eleanor’s achievements was a powerful spiritual foundation that fueled her practical applications. As chairperson for the Human Rights Commission, she helped foster the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which sets the highest standard for human dignity and freedom. A political document, the Declaration has a profound spiritual basis. “I guess that spiritual foundation comes from just the basic premise, at least from Eleanor’s perspective, that you don’t have to earn human rights,” Kathleen explains. “They are inherently yours by the nature of your being born. So if you think of yourself being born into this universe, that is the spiritual connection right there—just by the fact that you are a child of God, you inherently have these human rights. And God, or whatever you wish to call [the divine], doesn’t withhold anything from anyone. It’s a giving presence, not a holding back presence. Now, man may give these rights to you in the form of a document, but if you could wake up in the morning and understand: I was born and I’m here. I’m a human being here as a gift from the universe, then that’s the spiritual foundation that I see behind the document.”
It is that very premise which historically always reasserts itself. After years and years of political or military solutions offered and put into practice, human consciousness often makes a leap. Spiritual movements such as those initiated by Gandhi and Martin Luther King invested in a vision that actually propelled humankind forward. Kathleen remarks that “while we’re certainly concerned about all the wars that are occurring, there may be growth that could eventually come out of all of it—there could be some forward movement. Perhaps we’ll get to a point where we will say, ‘Well, I don’t like the war, but what can come out of it now?’ As for the political aspect, you don’t have to view politics as a bad thing, even though it’s come to be seen that way these days. There may be good reason for that, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Eleanor Roosevelt was an amazingly astute political person. These days we’ve come to make political mean something bad. But if we think that being political could be a good thing, then that might move us to the place where we want to be. I can envision that happening.”
That’s what Eleanor was doing—taking the political and infusing it more with the spiritual, taking a look at how we govern and integrating it with humane values, not with a particular religious view, but with a spiritual one. “Somehow we’ve made spiritual and religious the same and they’re not,” Kathleen comments, “so there’s the fight about well there’s religion and state. But it’s not like that. There’s really the spirituality of it which is how you relate in this universe to another human being. If that could be the basis for your political statement, what a beautiful world that would be.”
It’s just that kind of statement that makes Eleanor’s message relevant to all of us—men and women alike.
“Take a look around you,” Kathleen states “The same things that Eleanor talked about so many years ago are still right here. So sometimes I say, ‘Well, let me go back and look at what Eleanor was thinking about this.’ Let’s say health care for example. What was she thinking about that? What was she thinking about unemployment? What was she thinking about women? How was she dealing with those issues and how are we dealing with them now? What can we learn from her about it all? She still stands out as being very much a relevant figure even though so many years have passed. She was a transformative person, and I think when you’re transformative, then your ideas have no relationship to time.”
Eleanor’s quotes seem timeless as well. In an era where fear-based dialogue jabbers its way through our political venues, both in government and in our society at large, Kathleen offers one of Eleanor’s quotes that seems especially pertinent:
He who builds with alarm never builds anything.
“If you think about things right now,” Kathleen enumerates, “the conversation in the world is all about, ‘Oh my God, this is happening. That’s happening. We can’t do this. We don’t have that.’ Well, if that’s your conversation and you’re scared of what’s going on around you, then how are you going to build anything. How are you going to do it?”
Kathleen indicates the foundation is already faulty. “When you’re starting from fear to build anything, it’s going to crumble. You’re not really putting courage or persistence or persuasiveness into it. You’re not fueling the situation properly.”
Some sage counsel, but there’s more to come. Kathleen offers yet another of Eleanor’s quotes she holds dear.
Do one thing everyday that scares you.
“That one has a lot of power for me,” Kathleen divulges. “Do one thing everyday that scares you.”
A little sound guidance coming through the ages from the steward of Eleanor Roosevelt’s legacy .
“It kind of gives me some joy to just think about it,” Kathleen says with a smile. “Okay, what’s one thing I can do today that scares me?”
Perhaps it’s time for all of us to ask.
The Eleanor Roosevelt Center at Val-Kill is a nonprofit organization that fully embraces Eleanor Roosevelt’s call to build a better world through far-reaching programs that touch people worldwide – to be her heart, hand, and voice in realizing that better world.
Visit the ERVK site to find out more about their programs and upcoming events.
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