Rotary’s District Governor for Alaska and the Yukon paid a visit to Petersburg last week. She stopped by KFSK with other local Rotarians to talk about women in the organization, inclusiveness, and her new role.

Rotary is over 100 years old and for a long time it was a men’s club. But that’s just not true anymore.

“Gone are the days where Rotary was all about –sorry if I’m just going to say this but a bunch of old men–stodgy old men – sitting around having an expensive lunch and writing checks and that was it and it was perceived as kind of this kind of exclusive organization,” says Michelle O’Brien.

O’Brien has been involved in Rotary for 18 years, since she was in her late 20s.

“So a super long time,” she says. “But I may be outside of the norm.”

As of July 1, she is the new District Governor. She says one of her goals is to make the organization more inclusive and welcoming.

“Not only to existing Rotarians and growing them as leaders,” says O’Brien. “There’s no more glass ceiling. I want to shatter that notion.”

O’Brien is one of a growing number of women in Rotary. Of the 1.2 million members worldwide, 21 percent are female.

“If you look at the world of Rotary, literally the globe. There are 537 districts, says O’Brien. “One hundred of those district governors are now women. In 30 short years that’s a huge amount of change. Our club in Ketchikan is nearly 55 percent women. I don’t really think about it quite frankly, and I think it seems normal to most people except for those folks that have literally been around for like 40 or 50 years.”

Assistant District Governor Rosie Roppel is traveling with O’Brien. This is what she heard from a male colleague about going co-ed.

“You know I don’t know why we didn’t put them in earlier, we get so much more done now.”

O’Brien says the role of the District Governor is to visit communities in the area, meet with local clubs and support their success.

“We’re here to help them in terms of membership, being vibrant in their community,” says O’Brien.

She’s visiting with Petersburg club President Desi Burrell, who has been involved in the group for less than a year.

“I’ve been here in Petersburg my whole life,” says Burrell. “I’d never been invited to Rotary.”

She didn’t even really know what the organization was before this year.

“I thought it was like this exclusive club, secret meeting or whatever,” says Burrell. “But what I really found out is that they’re doing amazing things within our community and internationally.”

Rotary International was established in 1905, and the Rotary Foundation 1917. As a group, Rotary has worked for years toward eradicating polio. They’ve also contributed to humanitarian efforts and educational programs globally. And they have several other focuses around the world. But efforts are also localized.

“It is a group of really fun people in each community, sometimes each week, sometimes not each week, having breakfast, lunch, or dinner,” says O’Brien. “Doing projects right here in Petersburg or any other community that Rotary is a part of. I think they’re an integral part of the community in the sense that they do huge things to benefit the community. And the most important thing is they have a lot of fun doing it.”

At its core, Rotary is a service organization. Here in Petersburg they support an annual student exchange program and hold fundraisers like the duck race throughout the year. This year, the Petersburg club celebrated its 75th year.

For Roppel, who joined Rotary after retiring from teaching about six years ago, the club is similar to her experiences working with the student government at the school she taught at.

“We were doing service projects, we had fun, we met together,” she says.

O’Brien says across the world there are really no set rules for clubs.

“Because what we want Rotary to do is look at Rotary and say hey this is a vital part of our community, everything that they do in their community is very, very important to us and we want to be more inclusive,” says O’Brien.

The organization has made it easier over time to be a part of, even with a busy schedule. For instance, they now have e-clubs that meet online. O’Brien encourages more people to get involved in Rotary.

“If you have a passion and you want to get something done in your community, become a Rotarian,” she says.

In Petersburg, among other projects, Burrell is working to start an Interact program that would allow kids ages 12-18 to take part in the group. She says she’d love to see more people come join the local club.