honoring Dorothy Height

(Washington, DC) Today, at the National Press Club, CIRCLE is leading a significant conference on federal policy and civic skills. Some 70 federal officials, academics, and nonprofit leaders will participate, including 25 who have speaking roles as part of an elaborate program. We will also release a detailed new study of civic skills, showing who has skills, who lacks them, how they are changing, and why they matter.

I think that Dorothy Height’s funeral will be exactly simultaneous with our conference. The President and other luminaries will eulogize her across town while we are in the National Press Club. I am sorry that we have lost Height, yet it seems appropriate to discuss civic skills on a day devoted to celebrating her life. No one among the great leaders of the Civil Rights Movement–and perhaps no one in American history–better understood the importance of our topic.

As early as 1952, when Height was invited to teach in India, she described her expertise as “the philosophy and skills of working with people in groups.” A decade later, she led mixed groups of white and African American women in Mississippi who deliberated and worked together to address injustice. This is only one example in a lifetime of such difficult and successful work.

Height knew that the main purpose of activism and service was not to benefit those served, but to strengthen the capacity of the servers for democratic self-governance. As she said, “Without community service, we would not have a strong quality of life. It’s important to the person who serves as well as the recipient. It’s the way in which we ourselves grow and develop.”

She also understood that opportunities to develop civic skills are highly unequal (a form of injustice that we describe in today’s release). She said, “We have to improve life, not just for those who have the most skills and those who know how to manipulate the system. But also for and with those who often have so much to give but never get the opportunity.”

Height’s lifelong institutional home was The National Council of Negro Women. In her words, its “great strength is that it builds leadership skills in women.” She launched the Dorothy Height Leadership Institute as part of the Council, and today it keeps her light aflame by developing the civic skills of young people.

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