On the Importance of Programs like Run Sister Run

Crystal DesVignes is a graduate student in political science at Rutgers University – Newark. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree and recently worked as a graduate intern at the Center for American Women and Politics. The views presented in this entry are her own.

            On March 22, 2013, the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) hosted approximately fifty African American women for its annual Run Sister Run program in conjunction with its Ready to Run™ program. As part of the diversity initiative along with Elección Latina, and Rising Stars, Run Sister Run offers campaign and political leadership training for those of the African Diaspora. The program is an opportunity to receive encouragement and valuable insight, and to interact first-hand with other African American women who have either run for elected office, are currently running for a position, plan to run in the future, or are contemplating running for an elected office.

 R2R_12The program is geared toward making sure that African American women who are politically-minded have a space to network and be directed to resources and people who will help them to meet their political aspirations. As a third time attendee of the program, I was already a believer in its importance. But, as the saying goes, the third time was the charm for me in solidifying my understanding of why we need to continue programs like this and expand them around the country.

            As I write this piece, I am painfully aware of the issues that women face in our country, even in 2013. We are underpaid for our work in the market place (hence the need for equal pay legislation like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act) and undervalued for our work in the home. We were reminded last year of the fragility of our right to reproductive healthcare, and there was even discussion around whether our bodies could “shut down” a pregnancy that resulted from a “legitimate rape.” We were reduced to being included in “binders full of women” in the last presidential election as one candidate sought to prove that he supported gender equality in his gubernatorial cabinet. Despite all of this, and in some cases because of this, we press on and continue to fight for our place in the decision-making process in our country and government.

            The road to political inclusion is hard for women, to say the least. But for women of color, and African American women it particular, it can mean being doubly excluded from the political arena due to racialization and gendering. Of 98 women serving in Congress (18.3 % of the 535 seats in the 113th Congress), 30 or 30.6% are women of color. Only 14 are African American women. African American women hold only 241 seats in state legislatures across 44 states, and although New Jersey has an African American woman currently serving as speaker of the State Assembly (the Honorable Shelia Y. Oliver), she is only the second African American woman to hold this office in a state legislature nationwide.

            The numbers don’t lie. The people who come to the table to make decisions in our cities, states, and capitals should not all look alike. They should represent the country as we know it. To have a more inclusive racial/ethnic and gendered make-up among our elected officials isn’t just good politics, it makes for better government. We need more representation from African American women. The Center for American Women and Politics provides just a forum for this endeavor in Run Sister Run.

 

The Smart Business of Women’s Public Leadership

Last night, I joined an expert group of women on HuffPost Live to talk about Warren Buffett’s Fortune article on the importance of women’s full inclusion into American business, politics, and leadership. Put simply, Buffett argues that women are essential to American growth and success, representing half of the population that has been underutilized (“relegated to the sidelines”) for too long. Stifling half of the country’s talent is not only unethical, he writes, but is also bad business. And, as we know at the Center for American Women and Politics, under-representation of women in political offices is bad for democracy and governance. Our research shows that women bring unique voices to government, as voters, advocates, and elected officials. When in office, women prioritize different issues, build upon unique experiences, and often take a more inclusive and collaborative approach to Women in Congress Pie_Webgoverning. In the current political environment, it’s women who have provided at least some hope of breaking the paralysis that has characterized our nation’s capital. And, with women still representing less than 20% of Congress and under a quarter of state legislative posts, we have significant “human capacity,” in Buffett’s terms, left to be tapped. How do we capitalize on women’s capacity to lead? Buffett calls on his male colleagues to “get on board” with gender parity, but also urges women not to doubt their abilities nor give in to structural or self-imposed barriers to advancement. There is a symbiotic relationship between structural barriers and self-doubt, however, where women’s experiences with (or within) male-dominated institutions make it hard for them to view themselves as equal players in what remains a man’s world. The change that fuels Buffett’s optimism for the future is reliant on disrupting masculine dominance in public life, and that means altering long-held images of and expectations for public leadership. Buffett describes how, as a young man in the 1940s and 1950s, his floor for professional success was the ceiling for his sisters. In other words, society’s expectations for boys were not only greater than those expectations for girls, but women faced structural barriers that halted their path to leadership before they could even dare to see themselves as heads of communities, companies, or countries. Buffett is right to note that those structural barriers are eroding, but societal expectations of how leaders look and act still fall heavily into a male mold. CAWP has recently launched Teach a Girl to Lead, a campaign meant to change those expectations among boys and girls so that the idea of women’s leadership is not extraordinary, but ordinary – and essential. If we are to be as optimistic as Warren Buffett is about America’s future, we know that it’s imperative that future generations of girls and women not only see themselves as public leaders, but help to shatter the glass ceilings that remain in politics and government. That’s not only good for democracy, but it's also best for our country’s bottom line.

On Importance, Power, and Politics

On April  16, the Center for American Women and Politics welcomed Melody Barnes - former assistant to President Obama and director of the White House Domestic Policy Council – as this year’s Senator Wynona Lipman Chair in Women’s Political Leadership. Barnes spoke on Policies that Empower: The Journey from Vulnerability to Engagement, detailing the policy agenda that she deems essential to moving our country forward – particularly among the most vulnerable and most growing populations of Americans. barnes2In addition, Barnes paid tribute to the Chair’s namesake – Senator Wynona Lipman – by detailing both her accomplishments and her legacy. While Senator Wynona Lipman became the first African American woman elected to the New Jersey State Senate in 1971, her legacy is not simply as a “first;” she is best remembered as an advocate, activist, and champion for those whose voices could easily be left unheard in the halls of power. In her remarks, Barnes referred to a quote from Senator Lipman that shaped the remainder of her speech. Senator Lipman frequently told young people, “If you want to create change, don’t just get to know important people, become important people.” This message resonates amidst recent discussions about “leaning in” not only to make a difference in your own life, but also to affect the lives of others. Women in politics have begun to heed this message. Women play an essential role in electing our political leaders; they vote at higher rates and in higher numbers than their male counterparts, and women’s votes have decided the outcomes of recent elections. While this could be viewed as women supporting other important people, women voters have proven that they, in fact, are some of the most important people in electoral politics today. But women’s political participation should not stop at casting ballots. To take Senator Lipman’s words truly to heart, women should fight for their rightful places at decision-making tables throughout our nation, whether on councils, boards, or in our state and federal legislatures. Senator Lipman knew that advocacy and activism are essential to make change, but being in positions of power to heed the calls of advocates in creating policies or statutes is essential. And, as Barnes noted, Senator Lipman emphasized follow-up to ensure that once on the books, laws were enforced effectively. Melody Barnes shared her journey to becoming an important person who was able to sit at some of the highest decision-making tables in the land – advising President Obama and shaping his domestic policy agenda. She has followed Senator Lipman’s advice and has made tangible change – from helping to craft and pass the Affordable Care Act to enacting education reforms from early childhood to higher education. But what Barnes reiterated in her remarks were the ways in which we all are, or can become, important people by harnessing the power we already hold (and of which we are often unaware) to make change in the areas we choose. Politics is an opportune site for harnessing that power, and it’s one where women must engage to create the lasting change they seek.