Upcoming EventsView all events →
Martha Lester Harris grew up in Wilmington, Delaware. Her father was a mechanical engineer who graduated from MIT, and her mother was a writing specialist who graduated from Wellesley. Harris enjoyed spending summers at her family’s beach house in Stone Harbor. “I learned to swim and body surf and enjoyed laying in the sun. I developed a lifelong love of the beach and salt water,” she says, beaming. When asked what career she wanted to have as a child, she replies, “It’s still evolving.”
In high school, Harris was passionate about interior design. The extent of that ended one summer after she graduated from college when she repainted her parents’ den. “That concluded my career in interior design,” she says with laughter. At age seventeen, she headed to Dickinson College where she majored in English and theatre. She says her creative side found life in the performing arts. “I acted all through college and studied Shakespeare in London, going back for a summer in between my junior and senior years to study Shakespearean performance with scholars from all over the world.” Harris took classes at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and believed theatre would be her career.
Instead, she came back to Dickinson [Carlisle] in the fall of 1976 and got a tip from a friend who was the production supervisor at Channel 15 in Mt. Gretna. He suggested she think about an internship. Her senior year, she only needed two more credits to graduate. By this point, she had taken all the classes she could in communications. “They didn’t have a communications degree at the time, so there was no way to study broadcast journalism.” Harris got her internship approved and drove fifty-five miles each way to Channel 15 in her dad’s Dodge Dart.
As an intern, she produced forty-second human interest stories called “People Are Great” about outstanding individuals who were making a difference in Lancaster, Lebanon, and Berks Counties. Harris enjoyed all aspects of the project: researching the people, scheduling and conducting interviews, recording, filming, and editing. “That launched my career in broadcasting.”
In August of 1977, she received a letter in the mail from her English professor with a Patriot-News cutout that WHP was looking to hire a part-time studio camera operator. Harris sent in her resume and attended a group interview, along with eighty others who got a
tour of Channel 21. For $3.00 an hour, sixteen hours a week, Harris took the job and rented a room at the YWCA in Harrisburg. “I was grossing $48 dollars a week and the YWCA charged me $21 a week for my dorm room,” she says with a laugh. Harris continued to succeed, adding more and more skills to her repertoire.
March 28, 1979, was the turning point in her career. Harrisburg became frontline news as the epicenter of the world’s first commercial nuclear accident.” She was driving to work that morning when she heard WKBO-AM Radio break the story about Three Mile Island. There were no cell phones, live cams, fax machines, or Internet. At twenty-three years old, Harris was reporting on a crisis of the greatest magnitude. “As Assignment Editor for WHP, I dispatched every reporter and cameraman to investigate this unprecedented story. As fallout from the TMI accident continued for months, I became knowledgeable about nuclear power and produced several documentaries and live call-in shows to inform our viewers about the unfolding events.”
That’s where Harris’ life changed. Instead of continuing in broadcast journalism, she realized she wanted to be involved in making a difference, not just reporting on events. She wanted to make a difference and serve the public. After some soul searching she decided to move toward government. She served in many roles, learning everything from how nuclear power is regulated and insured to how to lobby and do advocacy work. Harris continued her career in public policy, becoming the associate director of the governor’s office in Washington, serving as an advocate for Governor Thornburgh's federal legislative agenda before Congress and the Executive Branch. She earned a master's degree in Public Administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Following graduation, she moved to Pittsburgh and established the Southwestern Pennsylvania Industrial Resource Center, before returning to Harrisburg to serve as a Deputy Secretary of Commerce in Governor Ridge's Administration where she helped create Pennsylvania's workforce investment system.
Today, Harris is the CEO of YWCA Lancaster. She wants to influence the public dialogue about the economic status of women and children—and has started to do that by joining the Mayor’s Commission to Combat Poverty. She is working with Community Action Program and other partners to secure a large federal grant to help move low income workers into middle and higher wage jobs in fields like technology and healthcare. “We want to link the people we serve to those opportunities.” She is expanding the YWCA’s mission by focusing on economic self-sufficiency. Harris is perfectly suited to tackle difficult challenges with her background in economic, community, and workforce development.
“All of my life I’ve been at the bleeding edge of the advancement of women. I’ve had exposure to nontraditional occupations. I’ve been a business owner. I’ve started companies from scratch. I pride myself on building organizations that last.