Representative Gina Mitten (D-83) represents portions of St. Louis City and St. Louis County. She talked to us about her inspiring personal story and what she enjoys most about serving the public.
What made you decide to get involved in public service?
I grew up in it! As a kid, my father was a pastor and my mom taught high school. My sisters and I were always involved in some aspect of our community – from Sundays at the nursing home to various church-related service projects, we were always involved in some way. As an adult, I became active in my kids’ schools, and then joined my local city council. A former State Representative suggested I should run – and so I did.
What’s the biggest challenge or setback you’ve faced?
Although investigating former Governor Greitens last year was a pretty big challenge, I think dropping out of high school at 15 was the biggest.
I enrolled in community college, but working full time – sometimes at minimum wage jobs – and attending night school is not an easy or quick way to get an education. Adding “single mom” to my resume did not make it easier. I didn’t get my Bachelor’s degree until I was in my 30s. I think it’s important to remember that achieving our educational goals can be very difficult for a lot of us – especially young mothers who, like I did, live paycheck to paycheck.
I had decided that I wanted to be an attorney just a week or so before I learned I was pregnant with my first child. I am extremely lucky that I was ultimately able to achieve that dream, and to do it at Washington University. So many little things – from a traffic ticket to a child’s illness – at the wrong time could have made my life turn out very differently.When my colleagues talk about the need for policy changes to allow for “personal responsibility,” I don’t think enough of them truly understand how precarious life can be for someone without a high school diploma; for someone struggling to keep her child fed and clothed; for someone who parks her stick shift car on a hill for months while saving the money for a new starter. I understand those challenges because I lived them, and I know just how lucky I am to have come through it with a law degree.
What is your advice to others, especially women, who want to get involved in public service?
Like Nike says – “just do it.” Women are socialized caregivers and all too often we think of others before ourselves. The list of ‘I can’t right now because….’ can be endless. Public service has been such an enriching and positive experience personally and for my entire family. I’m glad that my children grew up in a home where serving our community was a priority. Sometimes that meant late dinners or laundry not quite making it from the basket to the dresser drawers, but in the arc of our lives, those are pretty small sacrifices.
I am fortunate to have had a spouse who was also committed to public service, spending 21 years on our local school board. Juggling our service and home lives was challenging at times, but always worth it.
As women, I think we all know of the many double standards that can come into play. A colleague recently told me to “calm down” during debate, something I’ve never heard said to a man.
I think it’s important that we foster and actually live the idea that “Strong is the New Pretty.” That being strong does not make one less feminine. Women are already strong and we are already leaders. Shifting those skills to public service may seem daunting, but I think we are pretty darned good at figuring it out once we decide to jump in.
Is there anything that has surprised you about public service?
Lots of things surprised me in my first term. Primarily that there really was a sense of entitlement in many of my colleagues. Fortunately, a lot of that has changed since my first term, and I believe it will continue to improve. Implementing a sexual harassment policy and providing the House Ethics Committee with rules that have some teeth have been great steps that I am proud to have been a part of.
What’s your favorite thing about serving in your role?
That’s a really tough one. I love pretty much every aspect of my job. I can’t imagine another job that is so varied and enriching. One day I could be touring a pharmaceutical plant and the next actually changing policy that impacts millions.
But if I had to narrow it down to one thing, it would be talking about it with others. Each year I spend about an hour with every fourth grade class in my district to discuss the legislative process and do a mock bill based on their ideas. We have debate and inquiries and amendments so the kids will understand how we can take an idea and change it – sometimes making it better and sometimes not.
How has your background shaped the way you serve your constituents?
The challenges of being a single mom trying to make a living and get an education means that I can understand the day-to-day struggles faced by many of my constituents. I’ve been there and I understand what it’s like to be anxious about health insurance or the electricity being turned off. As an attorney, that understanding broadens to business and other concerns and allows me to be a strong advocate for everyone in “the fightin’ 83rd”.
Have you ever had a mentor, or someone who inspired you?
I’ve had so many mentors in my life, it’s hard to narrow that. My kids inspire me every day and I’m so grateful that we continue to learn from each other. As a young woman so many others helped me in ways I can never repay. An early sociology professor taught me the power of advocacy. A former law clerk for Justice Rehnquist gave me my first law firm job. The myriad people who took notice and gave me opportunities to learn and grow is quite long and helps me remember that what may seem to us as the smallest act of kindness can change another’s entire life.
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Our Change-Maker Profiles feature elected officials, civic leaders, and everyday citizens who are working for change in Missouri and Kansas.