By: Carolyn Lukensmeyer
Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer ('96): is Founding Executive Director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse
Q: Who in your life has been an influential mentor or inspiration for you?
A: Like most NAPA fellows I have been blessed to have several people in my life who have had significant influence on how I see the world, how I see myself in it and how to accomplish what I want to accomplish. Most important to me during my nearly 30 years in Washington, DC is Alice Rivlin. Alice was truly a national treasure and throughout her career, whether as the first Director of the Congressional Budget Office, first Woman Director of OMB, Chairman of the DC Financial Oversight Committee or as an author of dozens of books (one soon to be published posthumously); Alice was the consummate public servant. She was an optimist, a pragmatist and knew that the issues facing the country were complex with no easy solutions. She was a model of values-based leadership and always understood the importance of both vision and making things happen. I was fortunate that Alice served on my Board at both AmericaSpeaks and the National Institute for Civil Discourse and I am proud and humbled to call her my friend. I still often ask myself 'what would Alice say and ask' regarding this knotty problem.
Q: If you could have dinner with 3 people, who would they be and why?
A: I can think of many trios of people that I would love to have dinner with — people from different eras, different homes around the globe and different gifts and talents. But just now the three people that popped in immediately were Billie Jean King, Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins. You may think I have stacked the cards on Billie Jean, but, no worries, she has shown us many times that she can deal with any context and/or obstacle.
All three of these women have been the leaders of significant transformative systemic change and are an inspiration to me in that regard. In different contexts, with different strengths and weaknesses, each of them created several new systems, policies, etc. which at the time most people thought could not be done and certainly were not supported by the powers that be.
Q: Who or what inspired you to choose a career in government work and civil discourse?
A: I spent the first thirteen years of my career running my own organization and management consultancy. My projects ranged from large multinational corporations to hospitals and educational institutions to government agencies to small nonprofits. One of those contracts was working on a statewide strategic plan (rather than the traditional agency-by-agency strategic plans) with the State of Ohio when Richard F. Celeste was the Governor. To make a long story short, Governor Celeste asked me to be his Chief of Staff for his second term. I knew the players and I understood the state bureaucracy but I had not ever worked with media or with a state legislature. It was an extraordinary on-the-job training experience, to say the least. I am delighted to say that it worked for me, for the governor, and for the State of Ohio.
That experience made it clear to me that what I found most compelling were the issues surrounding the health of our democracy and that is the way I expressed it 1991. Having said that, you can imagine how heartbroken and concerned I am at the current state of our democracy. I have been working in that arena ever since then. What inspired me to make democracy my life’s work was the importance of making real the founders’ aspiration of a government of the people, for the people, and by the people.
Civil Discourse became the center of my work after polarization moved from our politics to our families and communities. In my work on democracy, I had the opportunity to work with people in communities all over this country. What inspired me to become a leader in designing spaces and processes to support respectful and civil conversation was meeting Americans from every walk of life and the whole spectrum of ideology all of whom were hungry to help the country get back on track — to be able to live and work together respecting our differences rather than demonizing and weaponizing them.
Q: What is your favorite hobby or activity that you enjoy doing in your free time?
A: The love of the outdoors is what is most important to me. I find it rejuvenating; it always lifts my spirit and connects me to earth and the energies that are so important to our health and well-being. I love to hike —all kinds of trails; a sweet, gentle trail through a New England forest, the Annapurna circuit in Nepal, the Chiricahua Mountains in SE Arizona, the Cloud Forests in Ecuador, etc. Yes, I also like to see other parts of the world. Bird-watching is also a favorite activity — I guess now they are calling it a sport, since it is the fastest-growing leisure activity in the US. And, you might have guessed from my answer to an earlier question, Tennis is an old friend.
Q: What is your favorite class you have ever taught or taken and why?
A: My favorite class ever was English Lit in high school taught by Mrs. Uhlenhopp. She had a deep love of literature and a unique ability to teach in a way that enticed us all to join her in that love and appreciation. For me that cemented an already deep love of reading and an understanding that the more broadly you read the more open your mind becomes to taking in new ideas, images, etc. Still today I have 8 or 10 books at hand that I am reading and one or two that I am inhaling.
Q: What advice would you give those interested in pursuing a public service career today?
A: Fasten your seat belt! We are in territory that we have not seen before and it will be turbulent, exciting, and challenging and offer you everything you could possibly imagine in terms of calling you to dig deep, be creative, and take risks. Commit to learning and growing throughout your career. Become the best possible human being you can be. It is an honor to be of service to people and to help attain a more inclusive and just society. You will look back on your life and career with deep satisfaction.