“We’re super excited to be here in Rhode Island,” said A’shanti Gholer, national political director of Emerge America. “We feel that Rhode Island is a state where we can start to make a difference. It is not going to happen overnight, we are not the immediate prayer answer to everything, but we know that in a few years there can be some great Emerge women on the ballot.”
Gholer and Jill Barkley, the National Affiliate Director, have just finished their eighth Rhode Island presentation on Emerge America in four days and there econ in Providence on Sunday. They’ve been all over the state, Newport, Cumberland, South Kingstown, Warwick, Bristol, North Providence and they’re ending their tour with three stops in Providence on Sunday. They have have one more to do, at the Lippitt House Museum on the East Side.
“Women should run because government needs to hear our voices at the the table,” said Gholer, “There are 520,000 elected offices in this country and women constitute less than a third of them. We want to make sure all voices are heard.”
According to a New York Times piece, “Studies also show that although female politicians have a wide range of positions, they often are more compassionate, better at working across the aisle and more willing to compromise, qualities intricately bound in successful policymaking.”
“Take, for example, the 2016 election,” said Gholer. “A lot of the things Hillary Clinton was talking about, Donald Trump wasn’t talking about,” she said. “Especially in the engagement with women. Hillary not only hit the bread and butter issues, she talked about sexual assault on campus. That was important. She talked about immigrant communities, about mothers that were afraid they would be separated from their children. We all remember when the little girl came up to Hillary and said she was scared that her mom could get deported and Hillary said, ‘You let me do the worrying, you be a little kid.’ It was that kind of connection. When you have women in government it’s a different style of conversation, a different style of campaigning.”
Emerge America is a training program for Democratic women with the goal of inspiring women to run for office. Emerge America has affiliates in 18 states, including nearby Massachusetts. Rhode Islanders Donna Personeus and Tracey LeBeau are co-chairing the Emerge RI Organizing Committee. Right now they are fundraising to hire an executive director.
Gholer said women have widely divergent views on hot button issues like abortion, gun safety an immigration and promoting female candidates doesn’t always mean promoting a progressive agenda.
“We are a Democratic women’s organization and we’re also national. So we know that what may work here in Rhode Island may not work in Arkansas and what works in Washington state might not work in Virginia,” replied Gholer, “And that’s why we recruit in different areas, so that we have women that are saying, ‘Okay, I’m not being represented properly,” and it can be by another Democrat, or Republican, Independent- If they want to run and make a difference, they should run. We’re never not going to tell one of our alums to run for office. We’re also not going to force her to be a certain way on the issues, because we have to be honest.”
Gholer added, “We had a woman who ran who was pro-choice, for gun safety, but those ideals did not work in the community that she ran in. She just didn’t talk about them openly. But also, our women are to do no harm. I was in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and we had a pro-life woman who came to that informational session and said the fact that I am pro-life and I can come to an organization like Emerge and be supported felt good. That woman also said that if she were elected, she had no plans to do any harm [to reproductive rights] at all.
“We have to realize that women in our program are running for different seats. If you’re running for water board they’re really not going to ask you how you feel about gun safety. That’s why our program is tailored the way that it is. Some women are going to be asked questions and some women aren’t, but when we say you can come to us for support and advice and we can connect you to mentors and other elected officials, you can talk to them for guidance about how to navigate all of that.”
With that in mind, why limit the training to only Democrats?
“Women will reach across the aisle. We get this all the time: ‘Why won’t you guys train Republican women?’ The answer is that we’re Democratic women, we’re proud to be Democratic women.
“I’ll give this example from West Virginia. All of a sudden our phones are ringing off the hook from women looking for Emerge America affiliate training. So I’m on Google asking ‘What’s going on in West Virginia?’ and find out that Republican women have introduced a bill to do away with the West Virginia Women’s Commission which made sure that West Virginian women not only received some kind of political training, but also equality and fairness. No Democratic women had any part of that bill at all.
“At the same time, we do know that with our Republican sisters, there are times when we can collaborate. We don’t legislate in a bubble. We have our standards, things we believe in, but we also know we can’t get it done alone.”
State Representative Moira Walsh (Democrat, District 3, Providence) is pictured on some of their literature. “Moira Walsh is one of our alums,” explained Gholer, “She is an alum from Massachusetts. That’s where she did the program and we’re super excited about her. She’s a validator- a woman legislator from Rhode Island is on the national Emerge America literature.”
The race in Newport for Teresa Paiva-Weed‘s recently vacated District 13 Senate seat is getting under way. Gholer told me that Dawn Euer, who recently scored the Rhode Island National Organization for Women (RI NOW) endorsement, is interested in attending an Emerge America boot camp.
“We met Dawn Euer in Newport, at our first informational session, and we talked to her about her race and she is very interested in coming into our boot camp that we’re hosting in Massachusetts,” said Gholer, “So that’s part of what Jill and I have been doing this weekend, is that for a lot of women, who want to run this cycle, we’re inviting them to come to an Emerge America boot camp and getting them some training. So they’ll have that kind of knowledge to run before next cycle, before the affiliate here gets up and running.”
The RI NOW PAC met last night and voted to endorse Dawn Euer in the special election for RI Senate District 13…. https://t.co/L3PFGmIctD
— RI NOW (@RhodeIsland_NOW) April 25, 2017
Emerge America is not just about women, it’s about representing all women, especially women of color, whose representation in elected positions is dismal.
“We know that it’s hard for women to run for office, but we know that it’s harder for women of color,” said Gholer, “We can’t call ourselves a national organization if we don’t look like America.”
For instance, she continued, “There are differences in talking about fundraising for Latino women, particularly first generation: There’s this circle, and you’re told ‘This is where you go to get your money’ and that circle is family and friends. The family and friends of many Latino women aren’t going to have that money.”
And the quest for diversity doesn’t end there.
“Two weeks ago I did a disability training focusing on women with disabilities and that was two pronged,” said Gholer, “It talked about how we can be better at going out into the disability community and talking to woman and sating ‘We need your voices at the table, you need to be heard, we see you,’ but also for the women in our classes, when they’re candidates, we ask, ‘How can you be better about disability issues?’ One of the things we talk about is ‘Is your website accessible? How about your office space? Is it easy for people with wheel chairs and walkers to get into?’
“We did several trainings after the Women’s March and at one of them two Muslim women came up to me afterwards. They were from Minnesota. They wanted to get an Emerge affiliate going in their state because they have a growing Muslim population. There’s this myth that Muslim women are subordinate. These ladies were there, they had on their buttons, they were anti-Trump, so we’re excited about the Muslim women that want to be in the Emerge program and we embrace them with open arms.”
Jill Barkley was called into the conversation at this point. “That’s another reason why, even though our organization is for Democratic women, we don’t require our Democratic women to pass any other tests,” Barkley adds, “because we recognize that our Muslim sisters of faith might have other views for themselves personally, deeply held religious views, and we want to make sure we are respecting those.
“In Maine, we graduated our first Somali woman this past year, and she taught me so much as an executive director. How, for instance, I should make sure she can eat the food and make sure that she could have time to pray. Now we have our first Muslim executive director in California and our first Muslim staff members.”
Preparing to head off to their last session before leaving the state, Gholer says, “Donna and Tracy have done a great job. Nine informational sessions. It definitely gave us the breadth of the state and I feel we’re better prepared to help.”