Standing before the original founding charters of the United States in the magnificent rotunda of the National Archives, the United States Senate Youth Program 2017 Democratic Co-Chair Senator Heidi Heitkamp captured the profundity and resplendence of the moment. “The greatest blessing you have, other than your family, is that you are born in this country with this document,” she said, pointing to the Constitution. “It has survived the test of time and forms the basis of our social compact.” Senator Heitkamp, the first female senator elected from North Dakota, relayed her life’s story, beginning with her humble upbringing alongside six brothers and sisters in a very small town. She brimmed with emotion telling the students of the lifelong commitment to education that her hardworking parents instilled in her and her siblings.
Through her intense work ethic and determination and her parents’ sacrifice, she headed to college and then law school. At age 28, Senator Heitkamp ran for a first statewide office but did not win. “Life doesn’t always ensure victories, but every opportunity that you seize and take a chance on will change your life’s trajectory.” In her run for the U.S. Senate, she had low odds of winning in a state that was leaning heavily Republican. Senator Heitkamp then revealed a moment from her past when her physician gave her only a 28% chance of surviving a cancer diagnosis. She said “People will give you your chances your whole life. Only you know what you can and cannot do. Only you know the possibilities of your life.”
Given her broad policy background and current service on five Senate committees, Senator Heitkamp easily shifted from one legislative area to another as delegates posed questions on gun control, the Dakota pipeline, the ‘glass ceiling’ and education reform. She encouraged her young audience to be politically active as soon as possible, “I want to put in a pitch for all levels of diversity, whether it is racial, religious or ethnic. I think the one diversity we often lack in public life is age. We don’t have enough young people who are willing to step up and present. How you see the world, and what you see the world becoming is incredibly important, so you’re never too young to seek the challenge of service and serving.”
North Dakota delegate Ashlen Wright, in thanking the senator, offered a reflection on the group’s earlier experience at the United States Institute of Peace, stating, “conflict resolved with dialogue and progress made with consensus is often more successful than when it’s not. That message has been lived by Senator Heidi Heitkamp. She is a role model for us in these contentious times. May her dignity and grace inspire us to reach compromise and make successful progress for the future.”
Senator Heitkamp’s rapport with delegates was also described by a 2017 North Carolina delegate, Joseph Chong as he reflected on sitting near the senator under the Rotunda of the Archives, saying “Only two seats away from Senator Heitkamp at the table, I felt humbled to be in the presence of a prestigious senator and the Co-Chair for the program. As dinner was served, she prompted a conversation with me, asking me about my interests and career aspirations. I was honest with her, explaining I was interested in practicing politics but unsure because of the stigma surrounding politicians. She asked what type of job I was thinking about pursuing, and I explained to her I wanted to become a lawyer to fight for equitable education. She nodded and responded with a smile that my answer was a perfect path to politics, explaining that I didn’t say I wanted to become a senator or the president; rather, my answer was to serve the people. From that instant, I immediately knew that I wanted to pursue a career in public service and government.”
Delegate Tel Wittmer of Kansas also felt inspired, saying “Among the many great speakers we had the opportunity to listen to throughout the week, one of my favorites included hearing Senator Heidi Heitkamp speak in the rotunda of the National Archives. In her remarks, she emphasized political courage and left me inspired with her love for America and the people she serves.”
Photos by Erin Lubin and Jakub Mosur