Sr. Kathleen O’Brien, OSF

“I Saw Women Who Made a Difference”

Interviewed by Mary-Ann Lupa, VFA Board, December 2018

KO: My name is Kathleen O’Brien. I was born in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1944 – June 25th. I was born with a sibling – a twin sister. We talk about each other as wombmates. We’re the oldest of six.

MAL: So the family background? What was your ethnic background?

KO:  Irish – American. Although like many people, we have lots of other heritages in both my mother and father. English, Norwegian – that kind of mix. We were born in Springfield, Massachusetts because though my father is from Milwaukee and my mother is from St. Paul, Minnesota – they met in Milwaukee. My father had joined the Army Air Corps just before World War II. He got sent to New Guinea and in the war was a bomber pilot for about nine months and then got sent back to the States to train other pilots. We were at Springfield, Massachusetts Air Force Base or Army Air Corps at the time right outside. That’s why we ended up being born there. My father was still in the Army Air Corps until 1946 I think. We lived in Massachusetts, in South Carolina – none of these things I remember of course.  And then eventually moved back to Milwaukee when my father left the Army Air Corps in 1946-47 somewhere in there. So from 1947 until 1958 we lived in Milwaukee.

Supportive Family

MAL: Did you find that your Irish Catholic heritage impacted family gender roles?

KO: Gender roles? Sure, but I think it was the whole ambience of the era. Boys were first in the sense of – even in my family – I have two brothers and they are younger and are lovely people. But of course my parents talked about them going to college as opposed to we girls. They weren’t against it, but they knew if they couldn’t afford it, it probably would be the boys first. There were six of us – four girls and two boys and the girls should try to find a happy family life. It had changed I have to say. Later on when one of my sisters got married and we were all talking before the marriage about how things had changed – my grandmother was there – my mother and other relatives. My mother said she didn’t think she really was as appreciated as a woman and as a mother until my father, her husband Bill, saw what the four of us girls could do. He became very proud of us and he realized that girls and women could do a lot more than I think he realized. He was a very traditional guy. Whether it was Irish Catholic upbringing or just the era that we all grew up in.

MAL: And when you decided to become a woman religious – were you at a young age?

Women Who Made A Difference 

KO: Yes and I was in high school. I often say, for me at that time it was either becoming a nurse or becoming a nun. It was one or the other. I had worked as a candy striper in high school in a hospital – I thought I’d be a nurse and my father eventually talked me out of that, by the way. I was very naive [and] also very traditional. But I also saw in the School Sisters of St. Francis – that’s the order I belong [to] – I saw women who made a difference, who organized our education, the schools in ways that made a difference for the kids. I don’t know if I could have articulated it that way when I joined the Community, but I was very impressed with the women that I knew. In fact that’s how I came to know Austin Doherty. I had school sisters at St. Catharine’s in Milwaukee, but then went to one year of Pius XI High School before we moved to California and my homeroom teacher was Austin Doherty. Not only Austin was great, but the school sisters there at Pius High School were and they were role models.

They were people who yes, were wearing the black habit. They were people who were a little bit out of our experience. But I could see how engaged they were in the world at the same time. So yes, I suppose I joined religious life in part because I saw them as terrific models. By the way I had other Sisters in other Communities because we belonged to several parishes along the way. And as my mother always said  – those School Sisters know how to get it done. So it made a difference and that’s why I joined that order.

MAL: And when did you join?

KO: I joined in 1962 right after high school. I went to a public high school outside of San Diego, California. It was a great experience. I wouldn’t tell anybody that I was joining a religious order. I didn’t think they’d understand it. I had a wonderful experience in California. My father always said – “Why in the world didn’t you kids stay here?” He never understood. But you know when you’re in life you have to make some decisions about where you’re going and that was the decision I decided to make then.

 MAL: So when did feminism as a concept first enter into your life?

What Is A Feminist?

KO: I don’t think I had understood the word but I know from – even what I was saying about my father and growing up – that I could tell that not all girls and then women were reaching their full potential. And I consider feminism – you’re a feminist if you know and act on trying to help other girls and women reach their potential in a society that’s not always organized to do that for them. Either because of their religious, family background, national characteristics, you name it, whatever it is. The world’s not always organized to help young women and of course adult women reach their potential.

MAL: Alverno then became the place where you went to college and participated in the order.

Life At Alverno College 

KO: Right, when you join the School Sisters, the first year you’re a freshman in college but you’re also a Postulant and you’re being formed as a woman religious and then we have two years of Novitiate and one of which we didn’t go to college then eventually we returned and finished at Alverno. That’s how I got to know Joel because I was a history major. As I said, my father talked me out of nursing which was very smart – for me anyway – not because it’s not a good profession but it wouldn’t have been for me. I realized later how smart he was.

But at any rate, I was history major and my advisor was Joel Read. I came to know her very well, first as a teacher and then – she was wonderful with we younger Sisters helping us think about our futures. And even in the kind of context of the order that we were in and had a lot of different rules for her as well as us. She helped us navigate that and particularly me. Austin was a very good friend and colleague of Joel’s. When I was at Alverno, Austin was actually going to doctoral school. She wasn’t around very much. So I came to know Joel a lot more. Then when Austin would come, I obviously would see her.

MAL: What were some of the first women’s movement things you got into either through Joel or Austin?

KO: I’m trying to think – some of the years get a little mixed in my head now in terms of what happened first, second and third. It may have happened after I graduated, but Joel and Austin and Celestine Schall and several others started – I really can’t remember what it was called now – but they invited a lot of our own Sisters and other women to kind of a consortium. It was like a retreat and most of the meetings were down at the Racine Dominican Retreat House right off Lake Michigan. I think that’s where I first met Kathryn Clarenbach and Catherine Conroy – if I didn’t meet them at Alverno.

I cannot recall exactly. These meetings were not set up for somebody like me – let’s put it this way. I was invited when I would come to town and I would go to them and listen. I was basically a listener to these older women. They weren’t elderly, they were just older than me – professionals talk about their lives as women, their careers, their professions and the struggles they had in a more male dominated society. I think that was the first time I became much more aware of – I knew on a personal level the issues of feminism and the struggles women had.

I Think it Was the First Time the Women’s Movement Was Framed for Me.

MAL: And that consortium was mainly women religious right?

KO:  No, they invited others as well. I have to admit I’d have to say – this is the sad part about not having Joel or Austin with us anymore. I’d have to go back, because I don’t have any written materials about that time; but I remember feeling very privileged to come to some of those meetings, because I learned so much that as a young person in her early 20s, I wouldn’t have known at all. There is a story – there were a lot of Sisters there… and one day I went to the ladies room and had come in first. I was in one of the stalls and all of a sudden Kathryn Clarenbach and Catherine Conroy came in and they didn’t know I was in the room. Not that it would have made a whole lot of difference. Both were quite big smokers – you could smoke in the ladies room at that point.

They were standing and kind of laughing about all the things that were going on and because there were so many Sisters they started calling each other Sister. “Now Sister Conroy, what do you think about the issue of…?” “Well Sister Clarenbach here’s what I think.” I started to laugh. They were kind of mimicking what they heard from – especially Joel and Austin how they talked and they caught it perfectly. I came out and fessed up that I was there and they laughed. They were great people. I think what I appreciated, not just at that moment but all the way through those meetings was the sense of care that the more experienced women there and in other times showed for us younger people. And how much they mentored us and wanted us to be able to swim through the waters without having to deal with the sharks. They were so positive and supportive and caring.

Leadership Experience

MAL: I noticed that you had been part of the Provincial Leadership Team and I know Austin did work in that area too. Did you work together with her?

KO: At that time because I joined religious life from California, we used to have five provinces and Austin belonged to another province. She was in the Milwaukee area. Actually it was called the Alverno province at that point. And it was just the college Sisters. I was sent out to what we called the western province, which was Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa, and Montana – places I’d never lived before. So my leadership experience there was in Omaha. Although because you end up being in effect what is the legislative body for the School Sisters, so was Austin. So yes there were a number of meetings. I’d come back to Milwaukee probably twice maybe three times a year for those meetings always stayed at Austin and Joel’s place and that was always fun because I learned a lot from them. We’d talk after all the meetings about what we liked and didn’t like and what we could do. The seven years I was in Nebraska and South Dakota, a minimum of twice maybe three times a year, I was in Milwaukee and staying with them.

Politics – A Rude Awakening

MAL: As long as you’re talking about Nebraska we should talk about your job as delegate for Shirley Chisholm.

KO:  This is maybe too long a story but I was teaching at one of our high schools, which has since closed – Ryan High School in Omaha. I taught a local government  – of course it was organized kind of differently; it wasn’t just the American Government class, [it] was called Local Government. And I used to get my students down to the local Douglas County Courthouse and really try to get them engaged in the city, not just learn about it in a book. And because of that, a chemistry teacher who happened to be the only African-American who was teaching at Ryan at that point and of all things a Republican for that era came up to me – it was 1971 or ‘72, whenever the election time was going on.

He said he was going to run as a delegate to the Republican convention and I should do the same thing. He assumed I was a Democrat – indeed – and said “Why don’t you do it? It only costs ten dollars. Go down to Douglas County Courthouse and put your name in. Put your ten dollars down.” I suppose every state party does this a little differently, but the way Nebraska did it or at least Douglas County,  that’s all you had to do. Your name would be on the ballot and there’d be maybe 50 names to go to first the state convention and then the national convention and they would elect ten to the national. I get down to the Douglas County Courthouse and this is the era when George McGovern and crowd were extremely organized and they had – let’s call them – poll watchers at the courthouse and realized I was coming – you had to sign up committed to one of the presidential candidates.

I Intended To Sign for George McGovern. 

I was just about to do that, when somebody came up to me and said we’re from the George McGovern group and we’re trying to limit the number of people who sign up committed to George McGovern, because if too many people do that – I guess there could be a thousand people who could sign up committed et cetera. We want only a few so that most of us are going to put our votes just to those people and they’ll end up as delegates. This is my first shock of being a mini politician. I had no idea people did that kind of thing.  I said – OK that’s fine. And this man said to me we’re meeting at a local hotel tonight to decide which are the 10 people who are going to agree to be committed to George McGovern and the others won’t be able to commit. So I said OK. So I decided to go to that hotel that night. They had an election that was totally rigged. They nominated 10 people. There were probably 50 people there but 10 people – one of the sisters came with me and I was the 11th nominated out of 10. And I was the only one not elected – picture the scene. So a rude awakening I guess. I was kind of embarrassed because you know you were co-opted really doing that.

MAL: Males and Females ran?

KO: Yes and they had equal numbers. They made sure they had at least two African-Americans, people of color – they had five women and five men. I mean picture the scene. Actually it was a good education for me, because I didn’t know people did those things -put it that way. I left the meeting, we went home and that night I must have gotten 10 to 15 calls from people saying they were terribly embarrassed. We really shouldn’t have done that to you. Can we help – please run anyway? Either you can do the McGovern thing – although I agreed to go to the meetings, so I thought I did. So I went down the list and said well the person I really think is the next best for me is Shirley Chisholm. So I went and put my ten dollars for her.

That’s Why I Ran as A Committed Delegate to Shirley Chisholm.

I actually beat out about – I think eight of the people got elected. You first had to get elected to the state convention – eight of the McGovern people – but I got elected. A lot of my friends put out posters all over the place. We went to university of Nebraska, Omaha, certainly anywhere there were young students etc. And so I got a lot of votes. People weren’t in the primaries so people weren’t going out to vote. So it didn’t take a whole lot to get there but that’s how I ended up getting elected to the state convention. I did not get elected to – the McGovern people did – into the national convention. That was my introduction to ward politics because I was then a co-chair with the man of the district I was in Omaha with. So we had our regular Democratic meetings with anybody who wanted to attend once a month through that period.

MAL: Were you in a habit at that time?

Change Was In The Air 

KO: At that time no, because we had changed and that was 1972. When I finished at Alverno it was 1967 and we were still in at least a modified habit and then the next year ‘67 – ‘68 still. It was 1968 and right beyond that that we changed. So no, I had, call them street clothes on at that point. I think the question was – when and why did we change our mode of dress, what was called the habit at the time. The quicker version of this is Vatican II happened – it begun in ‘62. There was a lot of change in the church – a lot of fresh air, so to speak. In my own religious order we did change by I think 1967. We went to a very modified habit – sort of in stages from the full habit to a semi full habit to essentially a black skirt and blouse and a veil and a cowl collar. I was teaching with that on in my first teaching role in 1967 – ’68.

In the summer of ’68 – now picture that period. The antiwar movement was in full swing, Martin Luther King had just been assassinated, Robert Kennedy – you can just imagine the time it was. I was sent to Georgetown University to attend a rural sociology program that was for Sisters and Priests who were working in more rural areas. I was there for eight weeks. During that period – because I was staying in one of the dorms that nurses students usually stayed in – there were a lot of calls for babysitters. I did that and came to know some hoi polloi in the Georgetown area, like the Assistant Secretary of the Naval Operations or the Peace Corps. Those kinds of people and also as a result of that talking with them about what was going on in Washington – it was a fascinating time. But I was also earning money and I’d go back to my dorm room and just take a look at my modified habit and say – “Why am I wearing this? This is the women’s movement, the antiwar, the changes in the church – why are we sticking with things that are just part of the old regime?”

So I thought I was being quite radical. I went downtown, bought a green skirt and a white blouse as plain as you can imagine. And I think nylons – I don’t remember at the moment – but I went back and wore that the rest of the summer and then I had to decide what to do when I flew back to Milwaukee for a set of meetings right before school started again. I decided I’d be very brave and wear this green skirt and white blouse. I probably bought another blouse by then. One of my friends in the Community – her father was visiting and they said they would pick me up at the airport. I walked out of the plane – ran right into my friend and her father and lo and behold she had a green skirt and a white blouse on too. The winds of change had hit her part of the world too.

And sure enough as we went to the meetings which were called the Chapter of Mat’s which is a Franciscan phrase, many of the Sisters came wearing – let’s call them street clothes and not the habit. We were all changing, deciding that as women religious, this was the time for change. We were really saying to our Order, our congregation and the Head of the Order, Sister Francis Borgia, “You better catch up with us.” It was time for change. Regarding being a Chisholm delegate, I think what I said, and part of what I wrote in the notes, is that because I was publicly identified with Shirley Chisholm, I got a number of calls, unsolicited of course, from Catholics who actually for the most part were very courteous but said – how could you run committed to a woman who believes in choice? I just said because that’s not the only thing – I’m not a one-issue voter. I don’t choose people just simply for one issue. If that’s your choice and if that’s how you feel that’s fine and I will not disagree with the church’s teaching on this but that’s not why I ran committed to Shirley Chisholm.

Continuing Education 

MAL: Let’s talk about other organizations.  What you were involved in and if it was with Austin and Joel.

KO: The primary involvement with Austin Read and Joel was Alverno College. I was working – I kept getting transferred from – first teaching in Fremont, Nebraska and then Howard, South Dakota and then Elgin, Nebraska, then to Omaha. I suppose it was mostly in Omaha that several years that I was there. Joel kept calling and saying – why don’t you come back to Alverno and do X Y Z. Finally I told her that I had to – the Nebraska state law was such that you had to start a master’s degree when you were in education. I talked to Joel quite a bit about what I should do. I was thinking about going to law school just given all the issues. I finally decided to get a master’s in business administration, an MBA.

This was primarily Joel’s encouragement. She wanted me to come and start the business program at the college. Part of that was to empower women again. There are so few women in the business world. I said to her – “Joel I’m smart at math but I can’t balance a checkbook, it’s not my experience. How are people going to listen to me?” Well this is another good Joel part – “Of course you can do it.” The long and the short of it is I agreed and I applied to Vanderbilt in Nashville Tennessee because they had kind of an innovative program, at least at the beginning. And so that’s where I went and I did graduate from there and then eventually I went and got a PhD  in management from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

That Was All to Help Me Start the Business Program at Alverno.

It’s funny. My sister who also went to Alverno. We both said, she’s a lawyer and went through a lot of schooling too. She said – We all had such good preparation from Alverno that you didn’t say your next graduate work was easy, but I felt very well prepared. And in terms of male vs. female that wasn’t so much an issue in terms of being successful as a student. But – oh my gosh – an MBA program. I’ll never forget – I think there were about 30 or 40 in the class I started with and of that there were seven women. I’ll never forget one day one of the men students stopped me after class and he said, “Aren’t you embarrassed that you’re getting an MBA?” And I said,  “What – what do you mean? Why would I be embarrassed?” And he said, “Well you basically are going to take a job away from a man, because if you graduate from here you’ll get a pretty decent job and men have to be wage earners,” and so forth. I was frankly so shocked I didn’t even know what to say to him. I just said, “I’m sorry I don’t see it that way.” And so there was some of that at Vanderbilt in some of the male students.

I have to say I found more as a woman religious more issues with Catholicism because most of the students, not all but many were from the south and they had grown up – particularly in the Nashville area. There are some very evangelical – and want to be courteous. I would call them very right wing religious traditions and they had the weirdest idea of what Catholicism was and what Sisters were. Some of them would tell me how they learned that Nuns and Priests had tunnels from the convent to the rectory and all kinds of nefarious things were happening down there. They sort of laughed at it too. They knew it probably wasn’t true but that’s what they’d grown up in. So not only as a woman but I think as a woman religious there were a number of issues along those line for those two years.

It Was an Interesting Time.  

Picture it – that was the end of the Vietnam War and even going back to my Omaha years. I was part of a lot of the protest events that happened there. I was often in groups that went to Offutt Air Force Base and protested outside the base. The Grape Boycott – we did that. Just quite a few things like that and then going to Vanderbilt after that and at the end of the Vietnam War [it was] quite an era. I think those of you watching this probably know.

MAL: And experienced change galore.

KO: That’s right. So the women’s movements, the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement – all of those things were part of my experience in Omaha and of course at Vanderbilt.

MAL: What would you say would be your greatest concern as an issue?

KO:  I think we’re in a big transition period. It’s often hard – I know this from my history background – to see how other people are going to look at it in the future. I think, as you know many people refuse to call themselves feminists. I think they just saw that as too much of a fringe approach on how to deal with women’s issues. That I’ve never been happy with, because I think so many women that I taught (I taught a lot of adults at Alverno, because we had a weekend college program and so many of these women were working in businesses – Harley Davidson, Northwestern Mutual, big companies around Milwaukee) and to hear their stories of what they were experiencing certainly told me that the women’s movement hadn’t made enough of a mark.

Let’s Put it That Way – We Needed to Keep Moving.

But what was so problematic is that so many of these women were really too afraid of rocking the boat. I think they viewed most things as sort of a zero sum game situation where if one woman got promoted the rest of them wouldn’t. So they were often jealous of the  person. I don’t mean to denigrate these women, but I’m just saying I’d see what would happen because the situation they were facing I think the men – and other women too but the men in particular – organized things. So they weren’t going to be promoted; they weren’t going to be as successful as their male colleagues. And part of that is they would have children and then they get off the track. All those kinds of issues.

MAL: We’re talking late ‘70’s?

KO:  Late ‘70s to the ‘80s and into the ‘90s.  I can’t say that I see – I think there’s certainly been a lot of changes and that there’s obviously lots more being written and talked about and presented. But when you look at the numbers in terms of – I’m thinking of business in particular.

There Aren’t as Many Breakthroughs as I Think People Think There Are.

I know part of it is just the issue of women having families and then getting off the track that the company thinks they ought to be on. All those things. So many of the CEOs don’t have children – don’t feel they can. I think we’re still this big transition period. Not till we work out a better way for women and men to deal with their children and schooling and time off and all those things will we get much better.

MAL: You also said as Academic Dean at Alverno you saw a great deal of change among the women and what power an institution like Alverno can have.

KO: It did my heart good when – well any class for that matter but especially at graduation – and I’d see the difference between when they came in and when they finished. Not only that but after they come back as alums. One of my favorite stories is this woman told me that every time she had a hard time at work she would go to Alverno and drive around the college and drive through it very slowly. And then she got calmer and then she could go back and deal with the issues.

I Think the College Was Such a Wonderful Touchstone for so Many Women.

And they learned they could work together to make things better, to solve problems, to face the issues they had to face. Women were allies not competitors in the organizations, the businesses they would then go to. And I think they – I know they learned that at Alverno, they talk about it that way. It was just a wonderful catalyst for the city – certainly for women. I think perhaps many of you have read some of the research that we’ve done on our women and what a difference the college experience made for them.

MAL: You were also involved in the Women and Girls Center that Austin helped start too, right?

KO: Right. Austin started a wonderful Research Center for Women. And over the years partly because she got more involved in the administration of the colleges, as vice president and also just funding – you had grants and things like that. It had waned. There were still faculty working on some research, but we didn’t have a lot of money to support it. When I became vice president I kept trying to find ways that we might be able to build that center again. And one of our board members very graciously gave us a million plus to refurbish part of the college as a Center. And we hired a director and restarted the research center. We called it then the Research Center on Women and Girls – to include the girls part because for all kinds of reasons. But at that time when we started it, there had been a study in Milwaukee that said if you put four quadrants and you have men/boys and women/girls and looked at the kind of money that was given to each of those segments, girls got the least. We said that’s an area that we want to focus on in terms of the Center. I had just become more involved with the Girl Scouts of Milwaukee, and then became the Girl Scouts of Wisconsin Southeast as the Girl Scouts reorganized. I just became more involved with girls issues in the city.

MAL: You spent 14 years with the Girl Scouts.

KO:  Right. As a board member for all those years and then the last six – I think you get two terms as the chair – I was the chair of the board for Wisconsin Southeast and we’re proud to say and it’s still true today that it is the fifth largest by proportion Girl Scout Council in the country. It serves one out of every five girls that can be served in Southeast Wisconsin. So it’s quite a lively organization.

MAL: So it’s one of your greater accomplishments and do you have others?

The Importance of Organizing

KO: I was thinking last night about this and there are so many things one could say but I was reminded of Margaret Mead, the famous anthropologist. She said – now I’m not going to remember the quote. I think it goes something like this – Never doubt that a small group of dedicated committed people can change the world. In fact that’s pretty much how it’s always been. I think the women’s movement – I think my involvement with Joel and Austin and the college and the School Sisters – all of those together – proved to me over and over that that’s true. You have to organize, and I’m not talking large organizations, we’re talking small groups of people who can make a difference for other women through your commitment, through your dedication, through having a good time together, frankly. I enjoyed all the work we did together. It was energizing. So memorable moments – many. I think that the point is that these small groups can really make a difference. If you’re dedicated, you care about it, you keep your nose to the grindstone and you keep moving ahead.

Staying Connected 

MAL: How do you stay connected with feminist activism at the present time?

KO: Right now it’s more about working for political candidates and addressing some of the issues still facing women and girls. But because my world has been so involved in the accreditation of the American Islamic College [as Vice President of Academic Affairs] I haven’t been able to kind of step out and do more directly now than I’d like but I plan to in the future.

MAL: You worked for Tammy Baldwin.

KO: Yes. Tammy won thank goodness and was reelected. I did the usual thing. I worked in the office on the south side and made phone calls and got signs ups, that kind of thing. That’s been my activity lately.

MAL: You’ve been working with political candidates since your high school teaching years.

KO: Yes. My father was kind of an introvert but he got involved in ward politics in Milwaukee when I was in grade school. And then of course we moved out to California so he didn’t maintain that. But one good thing about an Irish Catholic American family is you live in the kitchen and that’s where you talk. And it’s not because you’re eating really. It’s just the place to stand around and as the dinner is progressing and then you put it on the table and you’re all still talking about the news of the day. That was very much my family and so that continued into caring about the political world. And of course then for me it was in particular to support women candidates.

Muslim Feminists 

MAL: Now you mentioned the Islamic school and you are obviously looking at the role of women among the Muslim women.

KO: I have met more Muslim women feminists and you would be very surprised I think. I had some very stereotypical views of Muslims in general and women in particular. Some of my best friends – let’s put it that way are the ones who are wearing hijabs and look very traditional but aren’t. They certainly are in the religious sense. If you’re going to wear a hijab the idea is you are committed to being an observant Muslim and practicing your religion in an observant way. But that doesn’t mean they don’t question especially the cultural norms that have come from any of the traditions. One of the things I’ve learned about Islam especially here in Chicago, which is a wonderful hotbed of it. One of the biggest Muslim communities in the country and the issue here is a very typical American Chicago story.

Just like we Catholics who came here – Irish, Polish, Italian, you name it and you’d have a church on every corner. And sometimes the norms of your own culture and tradition were stronger than the quote – unquote religion, per se. The same thing with Muslims. They come from South Asia, they come from the Middle East, Indonesia, you name it. And Chicago in particular has a very polyglot Islamic community. It’s not one community; it’s just very different. You can be Turkish, you can be Egyptian and all of those countries or nationalities bring their version of Islam to Chicago. One of the reasons I’m very committed to American Islamic College is it is one of the places where all those traditions and cultures come together in an American setting, in a liberal arts setting, where they can talk with each other across all their experiences. It’s absolutely wonderful. I’ve learned quite a bit about Islam which of course I really didn’t know about which is fascinating and how really open so many of the observant Muslims are. They’re in as you can imagine a very difficult situation not being understood. The Pew Center says that about 3 percent of the U.S. is Muslim, but in the Chicago area it’s much higher than that. So they are still a minority and not understood and of course vilified by certain – shall we not name them – people, so it’s difficult for them.

MAL: Do you see the Muslim women taking leadership positions in any way?

KO: You know the interesting part is – yes. Yes there are some very strong very charismatic inspirational Muslim women in Chicago. Some come from fairly wealthy families that have done a lot with Chicago Public Schools. They would like to see changes in their mosques in the way that things are done in Islam. But I think it’s more because of the cultural traditions that have affected how women are viewed in and act in Islam than anything else. It’s going to take a while. When you think back on Catholicism and what it was like say in the 1920s and 30s or even earlier, take that in Chicago, it’s not the American church today.

MAL: Anything else that’s relevant or memorable that you want to cover?

Getting and Staying Involved

KO: I suppose, but I’ll think about it tonight. 

MAL: Well the concept of getting kids involved in government certainly got you involved in it and we appreciate hearing that.

KO: That’s a very Alverno thing though. Not just as students – we practiced the 40 years I was there that you have to get out of the classroom. Get outside of the four walls and really experience life and learn from it as opposed to just reading about it – thinking about it. So yes, if you’re going to teach government, hands on experiential, you learn by doing and you reflect on it – doesn’t mean you just do – but that that’s been the tradition of Alverno for sure.