Kay Coles James spoke on how she armed herself for politics by becoming solidified in her identity, calling and faith.
The School of Public Policy hosted James during the Augustus and Patricia Tagliaferri Dean’s Distinguished Lecture. Pete Peterson, dean of the School of Public Policy, sat down with James for a discussion titled: A Life of Faithful Leadership in Politics and Policy. This discussion took place Jan. 26, at the Wilburn Auditorium.
“I wish I could say I was a happy warrior,” James said. “I was not. I went kicking and screaming at everything I ever do,”
James has an extensive background of working in public policy for over 40 years. James served as a former secretary for the State of Virginia, secretary of the Commonwealth of Virginia and the U.S. director of Personnel Management under President George W. Bush. James is regarded as one of the nation’s most respected public servants, according to the School of Public Policy.
James discussed her childhood, being a woman of color and the power of reconciliation.
James described her upbringing as “a quintessential American story.” She grew up in the public housing projects of Richmond, Virginia. Her welfare mother raised her alongside her five brothers, James said.
“Coming from a group of five rough and tumble boys made Washington a rather easy lifting,” James said.
This drew a hearty chuckle from Peterson and the audience members, many of whom were graduate students studying public policy.
She attributed her stance on public policy largely to her upbringing.
James shared experiences of being discriminated against as a woman of color working in corporate America before becoming involved in politics.
“There’s a lot about me that you could hate if you wanted to,” James said. “[I’m] Not only black, not only female, but [I have] the audacity to be pro-life and to be a Republican.”
James faced adversity in the public eye, but bigots can’t ignore excellence, James said. In order to survive in this world, an individual must be steadfast in their identity and know the calling on their life. Having principles and staying true to those principles will be your armor, James said.
“If you are not convinced of a calling that God has on your life, you must know that in order to survive and to be sustained through some of the things that you will confront in life,” James said.
A common question James said she receives is about the fact that she’s never been indicted while serving 40 years in and out of government.
Principles, when clung tightly to and treasured will serve as protection, James said.
“When you are grounded in faith and you live by certain principles, those principles protect you,” James said.
James said, as a professor, she would encourage her students and those involved in public policy to never do anything illegal, immoral or unethical. It doesn’t matter if it’s the President of the United States, a cabinet officer or a chief of staff, James said.
“Just don’t do it,” she said.
James said she’s had to walk away from jobs because of her principles.
“Whatever momentary loss — that was made up many times over down the road,” James said.
Faith has sustained James while working in public service as a spokeswoman for National Right to Life, leading her staff in Washington D.C. during 9/11 and working toward racial reconciliation, James said.
James said she has navigated reconciliation by extending patience, forgiveness and love to those she disagrees with. On any given day, we run into people with opposing viewpoints and opinions, but division can be avoided by extending grace, she said.
“I think we [Americans] are uniquely equipped to demonstrate to the world what it looks like to live in a pluralistic society,” James said.
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