Most of you know the Rodel Foundation for our work in public education in Delaware and Arizona. Yet Bill Budinger, the founding chair of the Rodel Foundations, also started the Aspen-Rodel Fellowship, among many of his charitable and civic endeavors. This fellowship, launched six years ago, is designed to "… explore the responsibilities of public leadership; advance thoughtful, civil, bipartisan dialogue; and help America’s young leaders achieve their fullest potential in public service."
These fellows work on domestic projects, such as helping in the aftermath of Katrina; they visit with leaders in Asia and the Middle East to gain a greater global awareness; and they read the Classics and work on ways to make this country stronger. About 125 young leaders have gone through the two-year fellowship, including local leaders Delaware Governor Jack Markell and U. S. Senator Chris Coons. Incoming New Castle County president and former Delaware State Representative Tom Kovach is starting his fellowship this year. Classes of fellows are intentionally balanced between Republicans and Democrats.
U. S. Representative Gabby Gifford was in the first class of fellows, and what follows is a brief note from Bill Budinger and an op-ed by her classmates. I found it to be a powerful message and want to share it with others.
“As many of you know, Gabby Giffords was in our first class of Rodel Fellows. She is one of those rare human beings who genuinely cares for others and her country. She's one of the finest people I've ever met. Her classmates have written a beautiful Op Ed that I'd like to share with all who are associated with Rodel.” William D. Budinger
On the Front Porch with Gabby: And How You Can Join Us
We're all Gabby Giffords.
Six years ago, the Aspen Institute invited 16 of us to take part in a new program. The Rodel Fellowship was created to explore the responsibilities of public leadership; advance thoughtful, civil, bipartisan dialogue; and help America’s young leaders achieve their fullest potential in public service.
Gabby became our beloved friend—our sister. Her political skills are undeniable. But what distinguished her from the first time we met, and ever since, is her passion for civic engagement. At our very first session, Gabby lamented the advent of the automatic garage door: how our new practice of shutting ourselves into our homes and insular lives has denied us—and society—the simple pleasures and communal benefits of the front porch. “We don’t spend enough time talking to our neighbors,” Gabby remarked in our first class. “We need more front porches—more open conversation.”
We returned to that theme over and over again in the years that followed. Each of these meetings renewed our faith in public service. For Gabby and the rest of us, these discussions provided not only a welcome respite from the harsh political climate but a chance to change the climate itself.
That is our challenge now.
We don’t know precisely what motivated a gunman to open fire in Tucson last week, wounding and killing so many innocent people. But we do know that no good can come from the fear and anger that have poisoned our political system on both sides of the ideological divide. We know that democracy demands vigorous and honest debate. And we know that neither violence nor the threat of violence has any place in that debate.
As Gabby wrote to one of our classmates on the eve of the assassination attempt against her, “We need to figure out how to tone our rhetoric and partisanship down.”
Our democratic discourse has been derailed. Political opponents become enemies. Cries of tyranny and treason, once reserved for revolutions, are now a commonplace call to arms. Civility in American politics is not dead; it simply is being drowned out by the louder, angrier shouting in the arena.
That's why we plan to reconvene, and broaden our mission: to design and develop concrete programs that will promote a more civil democracy. Moving from talk to action will be challenging, given the current state of affairs. But with five new classes of Rodel Fellows, we are now more than 125 strong, representing a broad cross-section of government and a new generation of Americans who are demanding more responsible leadership.
We ask you to do your part as well. As a tribute to Gabby, attend the next political town hall meeting in your community. Communicate with your elected officials. Ask your school board to include more civic education. Stand up to those who stoke division for their own selfish ends. Participate in our magnificent, pluralistic society—without fear.
And the next time you get home from work, school, or errands, take Gabby’s advice: spend some quality time on your front porch. Bring out the whole family, and engage your neighbors. Only when we each take steps to truly honor the universally shared moral principle, to love your neighbor as yourself, will we have the kind of civil society to which we all aspire.
Aspen Rodel Fellowship, Inaugural Class
Hon. Jason Atkinson
Oregon State Senator
Hon. Scott Avedisian
Mayor, City of Warwick
Hon. Jon Bruning
Attorney General of Nebraska
Hon. Robin Carnahan
Missouri Secretary of State
Hon. Karen Carter Peterson
Louisiana State Senate
Hon. Trey Grayson
Former Kentucky Secretary of State
Director, Harvard University Institute of Politics
Hon. Lynn Jenkins
US House of Representatives (KS)
Hon. Tom Kean, Jr.
New Jersey State Senator
Hon. Jonathan Miller
Former Kentucky State Treasurer
Secretary of Finance & Administration, Kentucky
Former New York City Councilwoman
Executive Director, Harlem Success Academy
Hon. Erik Paulsen
US House of Representatives (MN)
Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division
Hon. Andrew Romanoff
Former House Speaker, Colorado House of Representatives
Hon. Michael Steele
Chairman, Republican National Committee