02/19/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Pearls, Politics, and the Power of Public Service

What an historic day to speak to a group of eighth and ninth grade girls about getting involved in politics. I've decided to make my contribution to community service by sharing my experiences with students -- ranging from my ten year old granddaughter's class, to college students.

Today was special. I could barely contain my own excitement about the convergence of Martin Luther King Jr's birthday and Barack Obama's inauguration.

They sensed the importance of the moment. One-eighth grader said she had never thought that politics was interesting or important until this election. The entire school, like schools all over the country, is going to watch the inauguration ceremony tomorrow.

My assignment was to talk about women and politics because the students had read excerpts from my book, Pearls, Politics and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead.

I pointed out how few women are elected to public office in the United States compared to other countries (17 percent in the Congress, compared to 25 percent in Iraq and 27.5 percent in Afghanistan). They understood how women make a difference because they bring different experiences into the political debate, using sexual harassment as an example. One student asked, "What advice would you give to us if we want to get involved?"

My first response was to tell them to know what is going on in the world, read the newspapers or follow the news online. "You have to be informed, and information is power."

I explained that I had majored in history in college and got a master's degree in English literature and journalism. "You use everything you ever learned," I told them. There are also non-academic skills, like curiosity, a liking for people, the ability to listen, and to empathize with people who are very different from you.

I explained that they had a choice in life. They could either live it on a very narrow level with blinkers on, or they could expand their horizons to include the world.

"It's like the difference between eating a peanut butter sandwich every day, or going to a banquet, getting a taste of everything," They seemed to understand.

I urged them to hold on to their dreams, to speak out, to not be afraid of disagreement, and most of all, to speak up for their beliefs.

I told them how Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech was a memorable moment for me. Tomorrow, Barack Obama's inauguration speech will have the same place in history for them. The two are intrinsically linked, because Obama would not have been able to take the oath of office, if King had not illuminated the way.

This was originally posted at Chelsea Green.

Madeleine M. Kunin is the former Governor of Vermont and was the state's first woman governor. She served as Ambassador to Switzerland for President Clinton, and was on the three-person panel that chose Al Gore to be Clinton's VP. She is the author of Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead from Chelsea Green Publishing.

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