Meade hopes to break ground for Kennedy Institute next year

Officials at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate are expected to announce in a couple of weeks the selection of an architect for the program’s building on the campus of the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

“We hope to break ground next year,” said Peter Meade, president and chief executive of the institute, which will focus on education about the history and role of the U.S. Senate in American democracy.

It’s estimated that construction will take 2-1/2 years, Meade told more than 20 members at a meeting of the Columbia Point Associates last week at the Geiger- Gibson Community Health Center.

Plans provide for a 40,000-square foot building to be located near the John F. Kennedy Library.

The building will house classrooms, a theater, museum and exhibit space, a library, research area, and reception spaces.

A major goal of the institute is to improve civic education and inspire the next generation of legislators, according to the program’s website. As part of its educational programming, the institute will host a program for high school students. Two high school students from each state will be selected to participate in the “Summer Senate.” The first issue will be straight from the Constitution. “They will study, debate, and vote on the Bill of Rights,” Meade said.

A second issue will be selected from a historical debate and the students will be required to take positions that the senators from their individual states took in that debate, Meade said.

A third debate will be on a current issue.
“The building will also have programs on a regular basis and hopefully host a lot of debates,” Meade said. “And we would like to have a forum there annually that will focus on the cutting edge of health care and do sessions on innovation.”

Educational programs will be designed to serve a range of audiences, including the public, scholars, teachers, incoming and current Senators and Senate staff and others working in public service.

The institute will serve as a resource for those studying the history of the Senate and will tell the story of what Meade calls the “American Evolution.”

At the end of the Revolutionary War, not everyone had access to the government, Meade said. “No people of color and no women could participate. There has been an American Evolution since then and how we have moved forward is reflected in the debates the Senate has had,” he said. “One of the things we want to do is teach people the history of the county and the history of the Senate.”

The Senate has been a stopping place for many leaders, including 16 presidents, 23 vice presidents ,and 15 justices of the Supreme Court, Meade noted.

Sen. Kennedy was noted for his extraordinary accomplishments. “He was the best prepared in the room. He did his homework,” Meade said. “He respected the people across the table from him. He knew how to get things done. I believe he was the most effective legislator in the history of the republic.”

The proximity to the University, the JFK Library, and the Massachusetts State Archives and Commonwealth Museum is conducive for collaborative programs or borrowing material for exhibits.

The institute, however, will not house Sen. Kennedy’s papers, Meade said. Those will remain at the neighboring Library. But it will include a replica of Sen. Kennedy’s office, giving visitors a glimpse into a typical day for him in the Senate.

While it’s widely known that health care was a priority issue for Kennedy throughout his career, many may not realize the birth of the community health center movement began with the first center, Geiger-Gibson Community Health Center, which will now be the institute’s neighbor.

The center was the first of what became a national model with the support of legislation introduced by Kennedy. Today, there are more than 6,000 health centers serving 18 million people nationwide, said Lou Brady, Geiger- Gibson executive director.

The center received federal approval in September to launch pharmacies in three of its locations, Geiger-Gibson, Neponset Health Center, and the Mid Upper Cape Community Health Center in Hyannis.

The pharmacies will begin to open in June, September and December of 2010 and will be be able to dispense drugs to patients, often at discount prices.

The siting of the EMK Institute is also about coming home to Dorchester.

Senator Kennedy, who was born at the former St. Margaret’s Hospital in Dorchester, wanted the institute to be sited at UMass-Boston, Meade said.

For Meade, the work in Dorchester is also a homecoming since he, too, grew up in the neighborhood and it remains home to several of his siblings.

“My family has never lost its connection to Dorchester,” he said. “So many of my treasured relationships, that are cherished and held close throughout my life are from Dorchester.”