Tweeting from the Association of Junior Leagues International (AJLI) 89th Annual Conference in Philadelphia brought two very important worlds colliding together. My decade-long affiliation with a 110-year-old women’s volunteer organization, and my passionate immersion in the tech world including a circle of blogging friends whom I see more often online than in person, and yet feel almost a spiritual kinship to.
The Leaguers are starting to tweet, but aren’t obsessive about it like my blogging friends, and my tweeting friends are mostly not Leaguers, so tweeting about things like the parade of delegates seemed as bizarre as if I were trying to describe the Mad Hatter’s tea party in 140 characters or less. And yet, because AJLI has made such a concerted effort to move into social media (even writing for the Huffington Post) and because I am a blogger, I felt it was my duty to take great advantage of that hash tag #jlac11to tweet about the conference — both to get the Leaguers tweeting and the tweeters to get an insider’s view of a Junior League Annual Conference.
I have spent the past year serving as President of my local Junior League, the year before that as President-Elect, and several years before that in various leadership positions in the League. When I tell people that, I get a range of reactions from, “What’s the Junior League?” to “Oh, I’m too old to join the League” or “Where are your pearls and twinset?” (It’s okay, I get similar reactions to “I’m a blogger.” They don’t ask about pearls though.)
What better place to dispel some myths than on my blog?
What is the Junior League?
The short answer is that we are a women’s service organization — we are volunteers who make a difference in our local communities — 292 communities in four countries. The long answer is that we were founded in New York City by a debutante with a social conscience named Mary Harriman. She mobilized 80 of her friends (thus the name “Junior”) to work to improve child health, nutrition and literacy among immigrants living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Her work inspired her friend Eleanor Roosevelt who joined the Junior League and taught calisthenics and dancing to young girls at the College Settlement House. Every League has the same mission: Promoting voluntarism, developing the potential of women and improving communities through the effective action of trained volunteers. However, each League may choose its own community focus area, for example: homelessness, literacy, child health, childhood obesity, women’s issues and so on. The Junior League of Northern Virginia focuses on preparing children in Northern Virginia for success — mentally, emotionally and physically.
Who may join?
Junior Leagues reach out to women of all races, religions and national origins who demonstrate an interest in and commitment to voluntarism. Each League may set its own specific membership requirements, but many have done away with “sponsorship” requirements. Many also have done away with a maximum age limit (i.e. there is no such thing as ”too old”) although many require that you be a minimum age of 21 to apply. The Junior League of Northern Virginia has no sponsorship requirement, a minimum age of 21, no maximum age requirement. Because the two largest pools of volunteers are Baby Boomers and Millennials, we are actually seeing many mothers and daughters joining the League together! (And no, you do not have to wear pearls or twinsets, many Leagues dress very casually!)
People always ask me questions about whether League members are married or single, with kids or not, working or not, etc. Take a look at these demographics. Yeah, those numbers would make any advertiser, sponsor, or advocacy group drool and yet they often forget to look at this incredible resource of women!
What do Junior Leagues do?
This is the part that makes me most proud. We all have a limited number of volunteer hours to give and so many organizations asking for them — why give them to the Junior League? I have spent a decade volunteering with the Junior League and I have received so much from my experience. One of the very first benefits I received was that I joined the Junior League of Palo Alto Mid-Peninsula (California) and within six months found myself moving to Virginia. Because we are an international organization, I was able to transfer my membership and had an instant community to help me settle into my new hometown. What makes me most proud of the Junior League is that for over a century, as an organization, we have been at the forefront of identifying community need and creating a solution. Time and time again, you see Junior Leagues identify the needs of our society long before other organizations do and swiftly put a plan in place – whether it is addressing the needs of immigrants, milk stations and birth control clinics in the Depression Era, war time efforts during World War II, or even childhood obesity through the Kids in the Kitchen initiative before it became popular to do so. I tell prospective new members, “When you become a Junior League member, you not only become a member of an individual chapter, you become a part of this Junior League movement, and you help write the next chapter.” Junior Leagues have built zoos, museums, homeless shelters, libraries and schools. They have spoken on Capitol Hill as well as in front of state and local lawmakers. They have advocated for change and have helped create or change laws. They have raised millions and millions of dollars in their communities. Junior Leaguers become local civic leaders and often local, state and sometimes national leaders. Every Junior League committee is a training opportunity for members. Most Leagues have leadership training series, some are open to the public. Dollars raised and given to the community are enhanced by volunteer hours provided. Members are given numerous opportunities to enhance leadership skills inside and outside of the League. In my own League, I’ve watched women who weren’t being given certain opportunities in their workplace (i.e. to learn social media, to work on PR skills) spending their “spare” time developing those skills inside the League and then launching entirely new careers.
So when I’m asked if an organization like the Junior League is still relevant today, when so many women, including the majority of our own members are in the workforce, I answer, “You bet!”
It may seem odd to hear about some of our antiquated traditions from the conference — lining up in a parade to represent each League in the order that we joined AJLI and then cracking open a glow stick to help light up the darkened room to demonstrate the spread of the Junior League movement. Yes, it felt odd, tweeting it. But sometimes, there is something to be said for traditions that have been around a while. I’m pretty sure if Mary Harriman were alive today, she would’ve approved of the glow of the glow sticks, the tweeting cell phones, and the faces of the 800+ proud delegates representing their Leagues.