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Rimel advocates renewed civic action -- nation is in need, she says

Rebecca Rimel
Rebecca Rimel


By Anne Bromley

Picture yourself sitting in an airplane five or 10 years from now, hearing two people behind you talking about your organization: what do they say that makes you feel proud or makes you want to shrink? Using that scenario was one way Rebecca Rimel, when she became president and chief executive officer of the Pew Charitable Trusts, led the foundation's board to a more pro-active approach in its grant-making and other activities.

A 1973 Nursing School graduate, Rimel discussed the responsibilities of citizens, as well as philanthropies, when she returned to U.Va. Nov. 3 to receive the Women's Center's 1999 Distinguished Alumna Award.

Along with being honored at a benefit dinner at President John T. Casteen III's house that night, Rimel spoke to students at a private luncheon and gave a public talk in the Rotunda. During the latter speech, she decried "an ailing and diseased public life" -- with low voter participation as a prime example -- and called on a renewal of civic involvement.

She posed a similar question about accountability to the audience filling the Dome Room, asking: If we each had our own 15 minutes of fame, how would we want to be judged?

"It's easy to lead in good times. The real work comes in difficult times," said Rimel, whose achievements include significantly increasing the Pew Trusts' support for environmental concerns and launching the Pew Civic Journalism Center. The Philadelphia-based foundation, which granted more than $210 million last year to about 300 organizations, is also working on campaign finance reform.

Reviewing the items Thomas Jefferson listed on his tombstone for which he wanted to be remembered, Rimel called the Declaration of Independence "a touchstone still there for us when we need it.

"We are in a time of need right now," she said.

"The elections in 1996 marked the first time in 70 years that more eligible voters stayed home than went to the polls," she said, adding that it was in large part due to the low numbers of young people voting. She cited a lack of civics education in school and at home and the media's negative focus on issues as reasons why "it's no surprise that young people are disaffected. ...

"Young people feel that no one is listening to their voices, and they're right.

"We need their time and talent," said Rimel, acknowledging the growing number of young volunteers and saying it would be wise to attract their interest for a broader civic activism.

She linked elections back to campaign financing by saying that not having full disclosure of contributions makes citizens feel like their votes aren't going to matter.

Turning to Jefferson's Statute of Religious Freedom, she said the United States has gone too far in separating church and state, that religious views and morality should be brought to the table to enrich public debates. She later explained that she meant to enhance tolerance and understanding, not to advance political agendas or narrow views. Religion can provide social connectedness, and conversely, if there are tensions about different beliefs, they should be discussed openly, she said.

The University -- the third accomplishment on Jefferson's epitaph -- has been able to seize problematic moments in its history and see them through, thereby reinventing itself, Rimel said. She especially commended President Casteen and the Board of Visitors for continuing to support diversity in the student body despite recent attacks on admissions procedures.

At the talk and at the less formal luncheon with students and other U.Va. representatives, Rimel stressed that being born, raised and educated in Charlottesville gave her a great start in life and instilled in her the importance of history. That history also referred to her own life story. In giving advice to students, she told them to "remember where you came from and who your mentors have been."

When Dr. John Jane, the head of neurosurgery in the Medical School, hired her as the first nurse to join the medical faculty, he took a calculated risk, she said about one of her mentors. "I am most motivated by those who are willing to stand up and be counted," she said.

Along with the importance of thoughtful risk-taking, she cautioned the luncheon guests not to set their standards so high they'd be unattainable. "I think sometimes women especially set the bar too high in our personal and professional lives.

"If you set realistic and ambitious goals, there are very few boundaries that can stand in your way," she said. "I've been called a raging incrementalist. I try to set realistic benchmarks toward bigger goals."

Throughout her evolving career, Rimel has maintained ties to the Nursing School and U.Va., currently serving on the Executive Committee of the Campaign for the University. She chaired the Nursing Advisory Board from 1992-97, and last year she joined the Alumni Association's Board of Managers. In addition, Rimel has served on the board of Monticello's Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation since 1993.


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