- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 5, 2009

Later this week, more than 3,000 Daughters of the American Revolution will file into Constitution Hall for their annual Continental Congress. They’ll talk about genealogy, patriotism and public service, as well as future initiatives on how to keep their group relevant and dynamic in the 21st century.

The task wasn’t so difficult when the group was founded in 1890. DAR members had to prove bloodlines to someone who contributed to the American Revolution, but being only a generation removed, the paperwork and stories were still fresh in families’ minds.

More than a century later, the membership criteria is the same, but the family trees are many generations removed. Not only that, but women have such a wide variety of organizations vying for their attention - not to mention work, family and community responsibilities.

“Our challenge is to show women why DAR is the group they should join,” says Bren Landon, DAR spokeswoman. “We need to break the stereotype of ‘old ladies drinking tea.’”

One of the ways to do that is to emphasize the mission of DAR: promoting patriotism, preserving American history and securing America’s future through better education, says Ms. Landon.

“People today are passionate about being patriotic,” says Ms. Landon. “To be truly patriotic it helps to know where we came from.”

Another stereotype the 165,000-member organization is trying to break is that everyone involved in the American Revolution was a white man, so minorities need not apply. The group also recently observed the 70th anniversary of Marian Anderson’s concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Remember, the concert took place there because DAR denied Miss Anderson the opportunity to sing at Constitution Hall because of her race.

Seventy years later, the organization says “it deeply regrets” the incident and points out that Miss Anderson later sang at the venue several times. Miss Anderson was awarded the DAR Centennial Medallion, which recognizes women who gave outstanding service to the nation, in 1992.

DAR researchers also have published a database of 6,600 names of blacks and American Indians with ties to the revolution. Some of that research, which has taken place over the last 25 years, has been published in a recent book titled “Forgotten Patriots.”

Identifying those people has also opened up membership possibilities for many people, Ms. Landon says.

“It has been fascinating, uncovering the possibilities,” she said. “We also have members who are not even American, for instance their ancestors may have been French or Spanish and sent money to the American cause. Many people think ‘so few people can join DAR.’ But in reality, it is a much larger pool.”

Similarly, the Junior League - a women’s nonprofit organization with 292 chapters in four countries - is trying to change with the times. Today’s communities are different, and today’s women are different, which has resulted in changes in Junior League outreach and programming, says Debbie Brown-Robinson, president of the Association of Junior Leagues International and a member of the Junior League of Houston for 26 years.

Ms. Brown-Robinson says nearly 70 percent of the Junior League’s 160,000 members now work outside the home, which means meeting times have been changed to evenings. In most chapters, prospective members no longer need a sponsor.

“I don’t think our work will ever be done when it comes to reaching more minorities,” says Ms. Brown-Robinson. “But we are extremely responsive to the changing needs of communities. We are really trying to break the stereotype of ladies in white gloves and pearls.

“You used to have to be recommended [by a member] for membership,” she says. “Now, if you have a commitment to volunteerism, come join us. That has helped take down some of the racial and age barriers.”

Ms. Brown-Robinson says that the programming and projects of many of the Junior League chapters has changed to reflect emerging problems. For instance, environmental issues came into focus for many chapters in the 1960s. The next two decades saw advocacy initiatives for the child welfare system and women and the impact of alcohol abuse on women.

Since 2000, the Junior League has paid more attention to literacy and childhood obesity, which are growing issues in the United States.

Tamara Ashford, the immediate past president of the Junior League of Northern Virginia and member of the national organization’s strategic planning committee, says the local group has changed as Northern Virginia has changed. When the Junior League of Northern Virginia was founded in 1961, it was primarily focused on Arlington County and the health and welfare of children.

The mission evolved to address homelessness, and now focuses on projects to “prepare children in Northern Virginia for success,” Ms. Ashford says.

These days, the Junior League of Northern Virginia has expanded to 500 members from Ashburn to Alexandria. Meanwhile, Ms. Ashford represents many of the changes in who belongs to the Junior League in 2009.

Ms. Ashford, 40, is black, single and a Washington tax lawyer.

“We are all here for the same purpose,” says Ms. Ashford, who has been a Junior League member since 1997. “We are committed to promoting volunteerism. But it is important for any organization to consciously think of diversity, whether ethnic, racial or religious.

“I joined because I thought it would be a great way to connect with other like-minded women and make an impact in my community. What I love is that if you want it, you can be in a leadership position. One of the wonderful benefits is the leadership skills I have gained.”

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