“If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.”
Historically, women have felt this way in many regards, including politically. Today, despite some forward movement, the inequality still exists. But NEW Leadership is hoping to help change that. Originally developed by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, the non-partisan program has spread to 24 states, providing intensive workshops to undergraduate female students. The goal is to address the under-representation of women in American politics by preparing and empowering them to be effective leaders in their communities and beyond.
A professor at my university had posted a flyer about it on their social media and I decided to apply. I had to write essays, perfect my resume, get letters of recommendation, and find a department at my school to sponsor the $500 program fee. But it was totally worth it because I was accepted into the program! This past May, on my birthday, I drove seven hours from South Texas to Austin for a six-day residential program at the University of Texas and here is a little bit of what I experienced there…
Most of the participants arrived the day before the program started, because almost all of the attendees and volunteers were coming from out of town. We stayed together in a residence hall on the UT campus. I was the very first one there! What can I say? I like to be early! And by coincidence, the second person to arrive to the program was my roommate for the week! After getting to know each other a little bit, we went downstairs and saw that other girls were arriving, and the program director was handing out our name-tags and binders.
Even though it was a hot, sunny afternoon, my new roomie and I decided to go walk around and explore. Our residence hall was situated right across the street from a historic church built in 1899, including a crypt holding the remains of one of their most beloved bishops. Across from the church is a small campus for a theological seminary. And on the other side of the residence hall is Guadalupe Street, also known as “The Drag,” which is littered with restaurants, shops, and stores frequented by both students and tourists. I showed my roomie, A’breanna, around the main part of campus. Much to our amazement, they built a brand new Target on campus, located underground in a small mall. It was super cool! I also showed her the famous “hi, how are you?” mural.
In six days we had over 50 speakers and panelists! Our keynote speaker (pictured above) was Representative Mary E. Gonzalez of District 75 (El Paso). Other speakers included professors from Texas universities, former White House staff members, lawyers, state representatives, the Texas Railroad Commissioner, activists, artists, and more. Only two of the speakers were male! We attended panels on how to be an effective presenter/communicator, women in politics, women and public leadership, running for office, networking, leadership styles, community advocacy, the Texas Civic Health Index Report, unconscious bias, political fundraising, tech & politics, crafting your message/brand, and a panel on the Texas Law of Parties (which re-shapes the death penalty).
It was a jam-packed week with long days! On top of everything, we also had a special project that we worked on throughout the week and had to present on the last day of the workshop. Luckily, they always had plenty of snacks and coffee for us. On top of that, the catering team prepared a special vegan menu for me. Two of my favorite meals were a hummus & baba ganoush plate with veggies and pita chips, and “fish” fillets with several yummy side dishes!
Our second to last day of the program was field trip day! First we visited Austin City Hall, which is a LEED Gold certified building. They also prominently display unique creations by local artists throughout city hall. After getting a tour, we sat down to an all female panel composed of city employees and moderated by the mayor pro tem. They each talked about the paths that led them to where they are, and gave us advice on our career goals and leadership skills.
After a stop at a nearby restaurant for a catered lunch of fajitas (veggie for me!), we continued on to the Austin State Capitol. We didn’t have time for the full tour which was disappointing, but we had a lineup of speakers waiting for us, including The Honorable Donna Howard, Texas State Representative.
One of the first things I noticed inside the Capitol is how the portraits, statues, plaques and memorabilia are male-dominated. There’s barely any reference to women or female leaders! It’s a sad reflection of how women are not represented in politics. One thing I do love, however, are the two life-size statues of Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin that greet you before entering the Capitol’s rotunda. I don’t love them because of who they memorialize, but because the sculptor was a woman! Elisabet Ney was born in Prussia and came to Texas in the late-1800’s, and she was always testing the boundaries of what was expected of women during her time period. When I lived in Austin, I used to love visiting her home/studio that was turned into a museum honoring her.
It was funny because whenever our large group of females passed by tourists at the Capitol, they would stop and stare at us. They were probably wondering what we were doing there!
Along with the debriefing sessions we would have each evening to discuss our experiences from the day, we were each assigned a speaker to write and present an introduction for, and we also had an activity where we each presented a cultural object we brought from home and explained it’s significance to us. We were split into groups and had to create a presentation that expressed our objects to the rest of the group… without talking or saying anything!
We also had a movie night where we watched a documentary called Women In Politics. As a side note, I would further recommend Missrepresentation and She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, both great documentaries on feminism and women in politics.
Here’s just a few of the MANY things I learned during the program:
- Less than 150 female Texas State Legislators have been elected in our history of 5,000 legislators.
- Voting isn’t the most important civic duty but it’s the most basic civic duty.
- If you’re over 18, you can become certified to register people to vote.
- Everyone is biased whether they are aware of it or not (it’s hardwired into us), and it affects our behavior.
- “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Albert Einstein
- Learning how to raise money is just learning relationship building. Everything in fundraising is expanding networks.
- At least 50% is what you don’t say… gesture, stance, facial expression.
I was both happy and sad to be leaving NEW Leadership Texas when it ended. I was excited to get back home to my foster dog and kitten, and get a good night’s sleep! But I knew I would miss gaining more knowledge, the experiences, and the friendships with the other attendees. Even though we were a diverse group, we all had one thing in common – a passion for female equality.
Women make up more than half of the world population, so our opinion matters! We should stand up for our rights, help each other, and be a voice for those who don’t have one.
I’ll end this post with my new favorite quote, which was not only reiterated by several speakers throughout the program, but rounds out the quote that I began with. It’s by Shirley Chisholm and goes…
“If you don’t have a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”