Related: Education, Living, Politics, Sisters of Notre Dame, Social Issues, Social Justice Issues, Trinity, Trinity Alumnae, Uncategorized

Cathie Black: Close to the Flame


What is it about these Trinity Women so eagerly, so constantly, flying close to the flame?  What is it about this remarkable place of learning that produces unwavering leaders like new New York City Schools Chancellor Cathleen Black ’66, leaving the chairman’s post at Hearst to take on the many challenges of the nation’s largest public school system — at a time when she might otherwise contemplate a comfortable retirement, but instead she now takes on an entirely new career?  Or Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi ’62, undaunted by the political losses of the Democrats last week, determined to stay in leadership because her agenda is unfinished — Nancy also being at a place where she might otherwise contemplate a less stressful life, but no, she will not relent?  Or Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius ’70, stepping out of her position as Governor of Kansas two years ago to step into the largest cabinet agency at a time when fears over swine flu were rampant, and then the tsunami of Health Care Reform came along overtaking the political and social agenda — she could have stayed in Kansas, but no, she flew directly at the flame.

Or what about so many other Trinity Women who have willingly taken on some of the hardest, most controversial, most intractable problems of our society?

I think of Jane Dammen McAuliffe ’68, president of Bryn Mawr College, an Islamic Scholar who is leading the occasion of Bryn Mawr’s 125th anniversary to instigate a discussion of how that venerable college and other women’s colleges can be of greater service to women worldwide, especially in places of great oppression.   I think of Trinity leaders like Peggy O’Brien ’69 who left the private sector to become the chief of family and community engagement for the D.C. Public Schools with Michelle Rhee, and Peggy continues her commitment to education reform in this troubled school system during the change in leadership.  I think of Philonda Johnson, Class of 2005, who is the youngest principal in the KIPP charter school system, starting the Discover Academy for pre-K children here in DC.  I think of Renee Wolforth, Class of 1998, refugee advocate who has lived and worked in the most forgotten places in Africa while providing legal aid to refugees from political wars there.   I think of Sue Widmayer ’68 who created the nation’s largest private pediatric intervention center for children with HIV/AIDS and other critical medical needs in Ft. Lauderdale.

I think of so many other brave, indefatigable Trinity Women like these who could be living much more comfortable, quieter, simpler lives —- but, no, they fly ever closer to the white hot center of human need, social and political controversy in our nation and world.   They could easily turn away and walk into the shadows, but instead, they dare to risk everything to fly directly into the heart of the problems they confront.   They will use every last ounce of their energy, smarts, conviction and passion to make the changes they believe are possible to improve the lives of others.

We used to sing a traditional song around here, “Where, oh where, are the staid alumnae?”  There is no such thing in the Trinity experience.   Another line, sung by students in anticipation of meeting up with alums some day, went like this:  “By and by we’ll go out to meet them” but we always substituted the word “beat” meaning that we’d surpass the achievements of the older generations.   Cathie, Nancy, Kathleen and others are raising the bar!  The gauntlet is thrown, we’ll all have to work a bit harder to beat them!

Cathleen P. Black has been at the center of the flame in the last 48 hours, ever since New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced her selection as the successor to outgoing NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.  The announcement lit up the blog-o-sphere with a white-hot intensity that only K-12 education can generate.  In the mixmaster of public comments on all stories today, the trend has been sharply negative with many bloggers and pundits questioning the wisdom of choosing a well-known leader in the publishing industry to tackle the challenges of the largest public school system in the nation.  Some of the critics are fair and balanced, but many of the comments are ugly rants.

Clearly, the critics don’t understand the power of Trinity Women!  We are staunch believers in the vitality of the liberal arts as the basis for lifelong learning — meaning that we can learn new things and create new careers even after we appear to have mastered our life’s work.  There’s always another piece of our life’s work to pursue after we have exhausted our first, second and third careers.   For Trinity graduates, there is no retirement, only the next field of endeavor.   I think we learned that from the Sisters of Notre Dame who are quite famous for continuing their ministries, defying age and status and life conditions to advance their mission a little more each day.

The furor over Cathie’s appointment — welcome to the wonderful world of school politics! — is a small taste of the raging conflagrations that seem to follow Nancy Pelosi’s every step.  Michael Steele and the GOP even created an illustration of this raging fire in their ugly “Fire Pelosi!” campaign banners.   Nancy, Trinity Woman that she is, fired right back, undaunted by the wretched excesses of today’s public discourse.  Her resilience and determination is quite remarkable, considering the intensity of the opposition, but that very fortitude is another example of the ways in which Trinity Women have advanced the cause of women’s leadership everywhere.

In the 19th Century, when women’s colleges were still a radical idea, some of the opposition to this form of education claimed that women would go mad under the pressure of advanced study.  The same opponents created the cultural biases that said that women were too delicate to play sports, go to work, supervise others, get elected to public office, earn equal pay for equal work, maybe even become the boss.   We’re still laboring against those biases.   The attacks on Speaker Pelosi seem especially vituperative because a strong woman leader is still subject to outrageous demonization.

There are still too many places in this world that want to treat women as, somehow, too frail, too tentative, too weak to be able to handle the rough-and-tumble of contemporary political and public life — and as a bitter fulfillment of that stereotype, women who fly too close to the flame get treated outrageously, as if to try to break their spirits.   But Trinity Women have been tried, tested and proven to be stronger than the opposition.   They have claimed the high ground, refused to be driven out, and demonstrated that women can be tough-minded and unafraid even in the face of outrageous rhetoric.  We Trinity Women do this because we believe in the cause of justice and the need to stick to our guns to improve the corners of society we inhabit.

Good for Cathie Black for taking on the New York Public Schools!  She is opening a new chapter in her long and distinguished life of achievement.

See:  New York Post, Cathie Black:  A Fearless Straight Shooter

See:  NY Daily News, Cathie Black Hits the Ground Running

See:  NY Times Room for Debate

See:  Wall Street Journal, Black Isn’t Blank Slate

And this from Kevin Carey’s blog in the Chronicle of Higher Education, November 9, 2010:

Trinity Washington University Rules the World

November 9, 2010, 10:18 pm

By Kevin Carey

Before it became a university that has been justly praised for educating low- and middle-income African American women from D.C., Trinity Washington University was Trinity College, a small Catholic liberal-arts college for women, a number of whom came from political families on the East Coast. Famous alumnae include Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, former Kansas Governor and current Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sibelius…and Cathleen Black, the newly appointed chancellor of New York City Public Schools. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence that the same institution that sent such a disproportionate number of graduates into the halls of power also made the unusual transition to pursuing a socially responsible educational mission rather than grabbing for the brass ring of exclusivity, but it’s interesting in any case.

This entry was posted in Education, Living, Politics, Sisters of Notre Dame, Social Issues, Social Justice Issues, Trinity, Trinity Alumnae, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: