Women in the Workforce: Linda Soderberg McKay

Linda Soderberg, 1960

With a growing family, in 1964 Linda embarked on a life-long journey in which she combined full-time parenting with social outreach activities, initially on a part-time volunteer basis, and then, after her daughters were grown, on a full-time basis.  Through a church group, she coordinated volunteer support at a Kansas City well-baby clinic that provided immunizations and parent counseling to low-income families.

When Linda and husband Mike moved to Shawnee in 1970, the city was transitioning from a rural to a suburban environment which had sparse regulation for development.  She volunteered to work with the Shawnee Civics Arts Commission, an all-volunteer group that advised the city on development issues.  She was the only woman on the commission, and as the one person with daytime availability, she stepped up to become the chair to address administrative and communications issues during the business day, including  issues with nationally-based corporations.  Linda was introduced to male business perceptions when a representative from one of these national headquarters called her residence and asked for Mr. McKay.  When she informed him she was chair of the commission and the person with whom he should speak, his blurted-out response was, “You mean you’re a woman?”  After that rocky start for the caller, the conversation moved forward.  Linda reports that most of the development plans were brought in by men, and most of the time it was very clear they were not comfortable working with a woman.  “I decided early on that being defensive was not the answer.  Instead I stayed calm, most of the time, respectful and firm, and can only remember a couple of times this strategy didn’t work.”

A challenging start for Linda, handled smoothly and firmly, she began a long career in public service leadership positions, where she learned how to work within and lead diverse groups.  She credits Junior League training in Kansas City and St. Louis with teaching her how to facilitate change in a community and to address projects with the question, “If you were to walk away from the project you care about, what would you put in place to keep it going?”

How do you move from local volunteer work and a full-time mother of four (and now a grandmother of 14) to become a national leader in education reform?  For Linda it was hard work and passion.  Initially, her time commitment was limited, with her four daughters to shepherd and Mike’s busy travel schedule.  When Mike’s work took the family to St. Louis in 1985, and with reduced child-rearing responsibilities, Linda became involved deeply in work that has become her passion: how to create character education in our schools by teaching core ethical values such as honesty, fairness, responsibility and respect for self and others.  A fundamental tenet of character education is that schools need to join with students, parents and the community in support of character education so that students can flourish.

Linda began this journey  earlier in her work in schools in Kansas City when she became concerned with the increasing drop-out rate, use of drugs, and suicide rate among youth.  In St. Louis she co-led a study of the crises in inner city black families, especially identifying the plight of young African-American males and the failures of the education system. 

In 1989, after 20 years of volunteer work, Linda had her first full-time paid employment when she became the managing director of  CHARACTERplus.  In this position she led the organization in developing statewide support for character education and collaborating with the Clinton Administration and Congress in support of federal legislative efforts.  She became a nationally recognized expert and was invited by the Bush Administration to become part of the Administration’s education initiatives, receiving an appointment as the Senior Advisor to the Deputy Under Secretary Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools for Character Education in the US Department of Education.   She continues to work with Congress and the Obama Administration as an unpaid National Advocate for Support of Character Education and School Culture and Climate in Washington, DC.  For more information on character education, see www.character.org/eleven principles.

Linda’s Reflections and Observations since “The Messenger” article in 2010. After working over a decade in Washington, DC, I returned to St. Louis due to my husband’s health issues.  But leaving DC did not have me leaving the work of  supporting Character Education’s remaining an integral part of a school process to prepare students to succeed academically and in life.  Thanks to technology, I have been able to accomplish this from my home.

My main work has been serving on the Board of Character.org, a national advocacy organization  supporting the importance of character development in schools, the community, businesses, and sports.

Character.org is more widely known for the 11 Principles Framework for School: A Guide to Cultivating a Character-Inspired Culture, an evaluation instrument developed by school leaders and character education researchers.  To date, more than 800 schools, after completing an independent and rigorous evaluation process, have been recognized by Character.org as National Schools of Character.  More recently, school districts have begun to be certified. It is in reading the National Schools of Character evaluations that I see results that give me hope we are preparing students to succeed academically as well as becoming caring citizens for the communities they will be living in.  Results such as student academics and behaviors have improved, discipline referrals have decreased, high schools report more graduates going to college or pursuing additional training, and students are very involved in community projects.

One might say that 800 schools is not even a drop in the basket.  But I know from Character.org that other initiatives have emerged with their own names and with the same goal of the importance of character development.  One example is the state of Kansas’ “Social-Emotional Character Development Standards (SECD)” which is now being looked at for adoption by other states.

Needless to say, I hope greater expansion for support continues as I remain steadfast in thinking the character development of our youth is the most important job we have as a society for their generation, ours and those that follow.

Editor’s Note:  This is the third article in the series Women in the Work Force as originally reported by Dave Kroenlein in “The Messenger” for our fifty-year class reunion in 2010.

Linda participated in many activities at East, including playing a Cockney Girl and singing “Wouldn’t it be Loverly?” in the musical “My Fair Lady.”

1 Comment
  1. Lee Ayres 1 year ago

    Linda, Bravo! Will draw on your work as we develop community culture in Allensworth, CA

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