Schakowsky talks leadership at Frances Willard birthday celebration


Claire Pak/The Daily Northwestern

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) speaks at a celebration Sunday for Frances Willard’s 178th birthday. Schakowsky won re-election Tuesday.

Amelia Langas, Assistant City Editor

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) shared her experience with leadership at a storytelling event Sunday honoring controversial suffragette Frances Willard’s 178th birthday.

Nearly 150 people gathered at the Frances Willard House Museum for the event. Attendees were encouraged to interview one another with an app designed by StoryCorps — a nonprofit created to help users share personal anecdotes — to stick with the event’s storytelling theme.

Schakowsky, the event’s featured speaker, said before her political career began, she was involved with National Consumers United — a group she started with six other women to get grocery stores to label food with expiration dates. She said the group helped her gain confidence to voice her opinions and overcome a fear of public speaking.

“I was transformed from an ordinary housewife to an ordinary housewife that could make a difference in the world,” Schakowsky said. “That is a very addictive feeling, that feeling of empowerment, and it can come in all different ways.”

Schakowsky was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1999, where she represents Illinois’ 9th congressional district.

Lori Osborne, incoming director of the Frances Willard Museum, spearheaded the planning committee for the event. She said Willard believed leadership stemmed from doing everything possible — like lobbying and educating — to promote change.

At the same time, Willard has a controversial past as it relates to civil rights — one not mentioned at Sunday’s celebration. In 1890, civil rights activist Ida B. Wells said Willard did not take a concrete stance on race issues, which she believed resulted from alcohol use.

Willard was an advocate for prohibition, working as a member of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. She was elected president of Chicago’s union in 1879 and promoted women’s suffrage, the eight-hour work day and prison reform among other movements.

“We’re honoring (Willard’s) ‘do everything’ brand of leadership,” Osborne said. “This really came from her sense that leadership on any issue comes from a personal connection and a passion for change.”

The board and staff of the museum have been working on the event since June, manager of museum operations Kate Johnson told The Daily. She said the goal of the event was to promote Willard’s story and remind people that there are many different forms of leadership.

Johnson said she put together the StoryCorps aspect of the event to provide a way for people to reflect on the leadership experiences in their own lives.

McCormick and Bienen freshman Aurora Greane, who attended the celebration, said the storytelling theme reminded her of a dialogue during Wildcat Welcome.

Greane — who came to the event after receiving an email from Willard Residential College encouraging students to learn more about Willard — said using StoryCorps was a good way to understand people’s different backgrounds.

Leslie Brown, executive director of Piven Theatre Workshop, said she went to the event to celebrate the evolution of the museum into an organization that promotes women in leadership roles.

“The way in which people humanize action in our community is to hear the stories of other people that inspire and I think it brings us together as a community,” Brown said. “If we all feel like we’ve got common struggles, common threads and to hear other people’s stories, it keeps us more engaged.”

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