Alums in politics continue a Bryn Mawr tradition of taking action through public service

When she was a student at Bryn Mawr College, Angie Emery Henderson ’95 delighted in walking around the leafy town and taking the train to Philadelphia to roam the city on foot. As a Growth and Structure of Cities major, she says she was fascinated with the built environment, the trees, the streetscape, and the ample sidewalks. In fact, these very experiences led Henderson, 51, to first run for elected office nine years ago, hellbent on addressing sprawling Nashville’s lack of walkability.

“I came to politics to help deliver the city I wanted to live in, I wanted my children to grow up in,” says the former two-term Metropolitan Nashville Council member who was elected vice mayor in 2023.

During her council tenure, she worked to pass a 2017 bill requiring developers to build more sidewalks across the city. Although it was a popular policy, co-sponsored by 38 of 40 council members, a libertarian think tank advanced a legal challenge, partially overturning the legislation in a federal appeals court in 2023. Henderson, though, is undeterred, weighing next steps as she continues to advocate for more safely walkable communities.

“Anybody in public service and elected office now has to be extremely tenacious,” the self-described “policy nerd” says. “Bryn Mawr women by nature are pretty tenacious.”

Mikecia Witherspoon
Mikecia Witherspoon (center) with her mother and her mother’s partner at the Chester County Pridefest in June 2023. Photo provided.

In these polarizing times, many Mawrters are persevering and helping to shape policy on local, state, and federal levels as elected officeholders, government administrators, or aides—all while carrying on the Bryn Mawr tradition of making an impact through public service. One alum is formulating legislation to address New York State issues. Another is helping to secure federal support for local initiatives in Eastern Pennsylvania.

A graduate in Minnesota is tackling housing insecurity across the state. And in California, a Mawrter is providing economic analyses for capital projects, helping to improve infrastructure. “They feel inspired to contribute to the world as opposed to just profiting from it,” says Marissa Martino Golden, a Bryn Mawr associate professor of political science. “They want to be a force for good.”

She points to Brookings Institution senior fellow Elaine Kamarck ’72 as one prominent example. Considered one of the College’s most successful alumnae in politics, she served as a senior policy adviser to Vice President Al Gore from 1993 to 1997.

Bryn Mawr students have long arrived on campus politically interested. The College’s Career & Civic Engagement Center has tapped that enthusiasm to increase voting through info sessions, help with absentee ballots, and transportation to the polls, says Director of Civic Engagement Ellie Esmond. Students also get involved in campaigns, seeing what it’s like to run for office, and a center partnership exposes Mawrters to public policy seminars in Washington, D.C. It all adds up to sustained political engagement throughout the college years.

In 2022, Bryn Mawr was designated one of the most engaged campuses for voting in the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge. The National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) reported that the College’s voting rate between 2012 and 2020 has grown from 53.5 percent to a whopping 84 percent—a figure well above the average of 66 percent for NSLVE’s 1,200-plus campuses.

“The message,” Esmond says, “is the student vote really matters. Often, students vote with their actions, as well, by participating in activism or community organizing, and in the majors and career paths they choose.”

Sarah Lesser
New York State Sen. Sean Ryan, Sarah Lesser, and Senate Fellow Sean O’Brien at a November 2023 press conference for a bill by Senator Ryan. Credit: Senate Photography.

Certainly, political science major Sarah Lesser ’14 heeded that call. After earning a law degree from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University in 2018, the 32-year-old Schenectady-area resident joined New York State’s government, wanting to “effect change for people.” She provided legal guidance on policies and regulations in the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities and the Department of Financial Services and then, in 2021, became legislative director for Sen. Sean Ryan.

Lesser often meets with stakeholders around the state. She says Bryn Mawr’s discussion-based classes and participation in the Self-Government Association have given her the confidence to advocate for her—and her constituents’—beliefs. Her expertise, she says, lies in taking constituents’ problems and creating legislative solutions.

For instance, Lesser helped create a bill that would require justices in the state’s busiest town and village courts to be licensed attorneys for at least five years in order to serve on the bench. Currently, many localities have judges without a formal law background hearing cases, including felony arraignments. Lesser says she’s hopeful the bill, which passed the state Senate last year, will pass both houses this legislative session.

“It’s a Sisyphean task,” she allows, noting that more than 10,000 bills are introduced every two-year term. But she’s determined. “I don’t want to be the person who wrote the background memo. I want to point to a statute and say I was one of the people who helped make that possible.”

Like Lesser, Mikecia Witherspoon ’12 majored in political science, inspired by the Obama campaign and the chance to vote in 2008 for the country’s first Black president. “Politics seemed pretty cool,” the 33-year-old former college volleyball player who lives in Philadelphia’s Brewerytown says, adding that Bryn Mawr’s focus on civic engagement stoked the fire in her “to move the levers of power to get things done.”

After earning a master’s in public administration from the University of Pennsylvania in 2015, Witherspoon joined Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration as his body person, keeping him on schedule.

“I became a gatekeeper,” she says. It also made her privy to behind-the-scenes coalition building, and the mayor, she says, often sought her take. “I became very good at synthesizing information and putting it into a soundbite.”

Angie Henderson

Witherspoon parlayed the position to deputy chief of staff, managing legislative affairs before leaving in 2020 for a stint as government relations officer at the Community College of Philadelphia. From there, she was recruited to be Eastern Pennsylvania regional director for U.S. Sen. John Fetterman.

Now, Witherspoon spends time meeting with nonprofits, municipalities, businesses, and other constituents seeking federal funds. “It’s solving national issues at the local scale,” she says. “It may not be that sexy, but it’s critical.”

Witherspoon gets to see the impact of federal government up close. Earlier this year, she was with Fetterman and other officials in Upper Darby, Pa., for the announcement of $317 million in funds for SEPTA to replace rail vehicles—the largest federal award SEPTA has ever received, she notes.

Witherspoon, though, worries about attracting the next generation to public service. “A lot of people feel they don’t have a voice,” she says, adding that young voters are apathetic about a presidential race between two old, white men. “If I was in high school now, I don’t know if government would interest me as much as it did then.”

Still, Witherspoon keeps at it, staying focused on the wins. “Those moments,” she says, “build up as a constant reminder that these dollars and cents truly make an impact.”

Jennifer Leimaile Ho
Jennifer Leimaile Ho. Credit: Josh Nguyen, Minnesota Housing.

Minnesota Housing Commissioner Jennifer Leimaile Ho ’87 can attest to that. She has spent a career working to end homelessness by seeking the most impactful investments of often scarce resources. The 58-year-old, who lives in St. Paul, half jokes that she’s “really good at writing a memo.” That’s a skill rooted in Bryn Mawr, Ho says, where the philosophy major learned to be a critical thinker and a strong leader.

The College “celebrates women in leadership positions,” she says. “It instilled in us the confidence that if we decided we wanted to do something, we could.”

Initially, Ho worked for large insurance companies on Medicaid managed care, focusing on the relationship between higher health care costs and homelessness—a theme throughout her career. But, she says, the “for-profit health system wasn’t good for my soul.”

Ho then spent more than a decade at the Minnesota nonprofit Hearth Connection before joining the Obama administration in 2010 as deputy director at the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. From there she served as a senior adviser at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, where she made inroads on homelessness among veterans.

Those seven years, Ho says, gave her “a deep appreciation for public service and what you could get done.”

In 2019, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz tapped her to serve as housing commissioner. Sounding every bit the philosopher, Ho says she has encouraged her leadership team to “really ask the question, ‘What does it mean to be state government? How do we own the role government has played in creating housing inequity, and how do we use the power available to us and the resources we direct to try and make a difference?’”

One answer is the more than $1.3 billion state legislators approved in 2023 to build new housing, rehab existing homes, and create new programs to reduce homeownership disparities—all part of the largest housing investment in the state’s history, Ho says.

And during the pandemic, the state’s moratorium on evictions and emergency rental assistance “helped a lot of people stay in homes,” she adds.

Peilin Chen

Peilin Chen ’05 has a similar motivation for working in the public sector. “Our intentions are always good,” says the 40-year-old Growth and Structure of Cities major, who also earned a master’s in city planning thanks to Bryn Mawr’s 3+2 partnership with the University of Pennsylvania's Department of City and Regional Planning.

An internship at Philadelphia’s Diamond and Associates, an affordable housing development consultancy, turned into her first job as a project manager, where she learned the art of real estate deals and government financing packages. “It changed my life forever,” says the East Bay resident.

In 2010, Chen joined the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority and then, in 2016, she became the city’s deputy budget director for capital and real estate, where she oversaw an $11 billion, six-year capital budget. Since 2021, she has served as the principal administrative analyst for the County of Alameda, where Oakland, Calif., is located, and currently is managing a five-year, $2.1 billion budget that represents nearly 100 projects.

While her roles haven’t involved flashy political advocacy—“I very much am a person who prefers to be behind the scenes,” she says—Chen is the one making the numbers work and putting together complex funding for capital projects that ultimately help make an administration’s agenda a reality and advance public policy.

“Budgets,” she says, “are expressions of our values, putting money in the things we care about.”

The polarized environment, however, has made everything controversial. In her Alameda County role, Chen staffs Board of Supervisors meetings and hears plenty of feedback from county residents, including complaints about health mandates, tax dollars spent on campaigns that promoted free vaccinations, and claims that COVID-19 was a hoax.

“That really spoke to me about the politics of today,” she says. “In a state as liberal as California, you have folks who just don’t trust the government.”

It could be discouraging. But for Chen, the results—the health care facility, the community park that the capital budget built—keep her in the game.

“It’s important to go and see the projects,” she says. “It reminds me that our work is tangible, that we are making a difference.”

Back in Nashville, Henderson strives to keep politics out of council business—not necessarily easy for a blue city in a deep red state. “I believe very strongly that nonpartisan municipal government is the bedrock of democracy,” she says. “At that local level, we are practical problem-solvers. A pothole doesn’t have a party.”

Rather than politicking, Henderson says she draws upon her study of cities at Bryn Mawr to give constituents and other lawmakers context to Nashville’s issues. “I literally use my college major every day,” she says. “I bring that Bryn Mawr curiosity to work.”