In the late 1960’s, a young Johns Hopkins and Harvard Law School graduate, then working on Capitol Hill as a congressional assistant and speechwriter, decided that the time was at hand to invite first hundreds, and then over ensuing decades, thousands of young American high school students from across the nation, to travel to Washington, DC to partake first-hand in short study seminars with leaders of American national government.
That first Washington Workshops seminar was held in the early summer of 1968. That year witnessed 12 months of historic turmoil in America. First came the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy, brother of the slain President, quickly accompanied by searing riots in city after city culminating in armed troops with drawn bayonets surrounding the U. S. Capitol building! Then occurred a tumultuous national political convention in Chicago, and later the unexpected refusal of President Lyndon Johnson to seek re-election. All of this shocked and galvanized a reeling America.
These many events and more cast amidst the unfolding drama of a growing war in Vietnam, brought increasing numbers of students to Washington to protest America’s controversial role in that far away land. It was a time when Members of Congress actually wanted to see fewer young Americans come to Washington, fearing more and worsening street demonstrations and an upending of U.S. foreign policy.
In such a climate, indeed perhaps because of it, Leo Tonkin thought the time never better for young Americans, with so much of their future at stake, to come to their nation’s capital, not to tear apart the fabric of government, but to meet and sensibly discuss with their elected leaders, their own deeply felt beliefs on the present and future course of America and its role in the international community.
A Washington Workshops commitment was forged that summer of 1968 that would bring together, session after session, year after year, bright and involved teenage Americans travelling to Washington, the epicenter of American and International Politics, and there to engage in the very essence of participatory democracy.
And thus was born the Washington Workshops and the high school student Congressional Seminars. Over the following years, Jr. High and Middle School student seminars have joined the roster, along with special and highly regarded internship programs on Capitol Hill available to a smaller group of high school and college students. Throughout its years of educational accomplishment, Washington Workshops has championed a unique experiential approach to the study of American civic education, all in a remarkable environment creating “..memories for a lifetime”.
Many Washington Workshops students have gone on to assume positions of leadership in their own communities, including state legislators, small town and big city mayors, and members of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.
Perhaps the enduring success of the Washington Workshops is best summed up in the words of the Americanism Award of the Valley Forge Freedoms Foundation presented to Leo Tonkin and Washington Workshops by then vice president of the United States Gerald R. Ford in a 1974 White House Ceremony, citing Washington Workshops “….for helping to bring about a better understanding of the American way of life”.
Late in his own life, Mr. Tonkin established and endowed a scholarship program for a continuing group of young Americans to participate in the Advanced Congressional Seminar, including an internship on Capitol Hill. These young recipients, know as Tonkin Scholars, will have a matchless opportunity for a hands-on dialogue with their nation’s leaders and undoubtedly go on in their own unique ways to help fashion a bright, free and dynamic America of the future.
And through the decades the Washington Workshops has now evolved simply to the Workshops Foundation. This slight adjustment in our name look and feel doesn’t change our principles and passion for experiential education. It allows us to broaden our program offerings including new and exciting offerings in Washington, DC and a host of new programs coming online in 2016 to points around the globe.