Last spring President Barack Obama signed a $5.7 billion bill that, among other things, provides stipends and scholarships to citizens over 55 who contribute their skills and time to communities in need. Among the proud onlookers: Jill Biden, Ed.D., 58, wife of Vice President Joe Biden. An English professor at Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria, Virginia, and the mother of a son serving in Iraq, Biden has emerged, along with First Lady Michelle Obama, as one of the more visible and enthusiastic foot soldiers for the White House in its campaign to encourage Americans to give back. She talked recently with AARP The Magazine's Marilyn Milloy.
Q: Do you see yourself reshaping the public image of the second lady, bringing her out from the shadows? I won't call it a bully pulpit.…
A: But it is! I've been handed a platform—and shame on me if I waste that. I've talked to so many women who have been victims of abuse, to military families who are struggling financially and emotionally, to spouses of soldiers who have PTSD [posttraumatic stress disorder]. I hear story after story after story, and so I am not going to sit closeted in the residence. I would much rather be at a service event doing something than sitting in a luncheon somewhere.
Q: You have a long personal history of service.
A: Service is a thread that has run through my life. I started the Biden Breast Health Initiative to help educate young women. I was on the board of the Ronald McDonald House for years. When [Hurricane] Katrina occurred, Joe and I happened to be in Italy, and I said to him, "When we go home, I'm going to Louisiana. No questions, I'm going." And I did.
Q: Is this the kind of spirit you're hoping the Serve America Act will inspire?
A: Americans have always reached out to others, but it's especially important now, when times are tough. I just think Americans need to say, "What act of kindness can I do to help somebody else?" It could be as simple as renting a movie and taking it with popcorn to your neighbor whose husband or wife is in the military and saying, "You know, I was thinking of you." Or, "Do you need your lawn cut?" Or, "Gee, I have these clothes that don't fit my kids anymore. Do you have anyone in your family who could use them?" I think that's what it's all about.
Q: How do you see your service advocacy role evolving over the next few years?
A: I love books, so I'd like to create libraries—whether in the Fisher House [temporary housing for families of injured soldiers], at a women's shelter, or in the children's ward of a hospital. In Wilmington, Delaware, I started the Book Buddies for disadvantaged preschool children. I asked every friend I had to come up with 100 bucks, and we bought books for these kids, so that every month each child got a book. So [to create the libraries I'm talking about] one of the things I'd do is to say to guests coming to the Vice President's residence: "We'd love to have you for dinner. Bring your favorite book." And then we'd give that book to the collection. I think that's a way to pull it together.
Q: Education and service clearly intersect for you, but I think people were intrigued—surprised even—by your determination to hold on to your teaching career after your husband was elected.
A: I was surprised that they were surprised, because I've done it for 28 years. I can't imagine my life without teaching. It's part of who I am—it never leaves me. And I try to make it part of everything I do.
Q: You're a military mom.
A: I am, and I never forget it. During the day, whatever time it is, all of a sudden it floats through my mind that my son is in Iraq , and I will stop and say a little prayer. Other military moms tell me the same thing. So it would be great if people in this country could just say once a week, "We're in a war. People are sacrificing for the safety of the United States. Maybe I should send a package, help my neighbor, find out who in my church has a family member in the military and add his or her name to our prayer list." Just do something.
Q: You have a doctorate, but the fashion mavens call you a fashionista, too.
A: Oh, no! I'm not a fashionista! And, gosh, I hope I never get put in that box. The image I have of myself is of a working woman, a mom, a grandmom, a friend, a listener. The things I care about have been consistent, and I'll keep working on them—just on a grander scale.