Earlier this month, Women for Election travelled to the USA as part of the GEPLE Project, an EU Erasmus+ funded multi-national collaborative project, seeking to create best practices for empowering more women to run for office. Over the course of ten days in the USA, we met with NGOs, leaders in civic tech, and groups pushing for greater diversity of representation. With stops in New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC, it was brilliant to see the work being done across the three cities and drive of the people in these sectors to do good.
Our first stop was New York, where all the project partners met in Civic Hall to kick of the week of learning. During our day in Civic Hall we met with representatives from Microsoft New York, Hollaback, Democracy Works, and Civic Labs, all of whom are using new technologies for civic good. Democracy Works, for instance, uses online platforms and engages with companies across America to drive voter registration. It was great to learn new methods to create relationships, extend into communities, and help drive a civic cause through tech.
On our second day we visited Barnard College, a liberal arts college for women affiliated with Columbia University, where we met with Athena Center scholars, to learn about the center’s work to promote female leadership among its students. We also met with Marian Guerra, who told us of the work of the New American Leaders Project, which engages with people from immigrant backgrounds and supports them to run for political office. Like Women for Election, the New American Leaders Project uses training programmes to help demystify the running for election, and focuses on building a pipeline on immigrant candidates from a grassroots level.
Tech came to our aid when we watched a presentation by Kristin Hayden from California via LiveStream. Kristin works for IGNITE National, an organisation dedicated to encouraging political engagement amongst young women. They do this by training young women from high schools, colleges, and universities across the United States to realise their political potential. There was much to take away from this session for our own INFORM Training Programme for third-level students.
Following our morning in Barnard College, we headed south to the New York Women’s Foundation. This foundation is dedicated to providing funding and support to civil society organisation’s which have particular focus on women. What was particularly striking about the foundation was its board membership. The foundation strives to be inclusive, and brings together people from a myriad of backgrounds and viewpoints, creating a fuller discussion when it comes to decision making.
After a hectic few days in the Big Apple we took the train to Philadelphia, the original capital of thirteen colonies. There we met with Chris Bartlett of the William Way Community Centre. The centre has provided support for members of Philadelphia’s LGBTQ citizens since 1975, and has focused on building a strong sense of community for them.
Philadelphia is also home to a burgeoning civic tech community. We met with members of Technical.ly and Philadelphia 3.0 in Philly Pipeline, an incubation space for civic tech start-ups. Technical.ly is established in several US cities and grows local technology communities by connecting organizations and people through news, events and services. Philadelphia 3.0’s mission is to push political reform by modernising political and electoral structures, as well as encouraging new voices to run for political positions.
Fittingly, our last stop was Washington DC, a city currently buzzing with election season energy. On our first day there we met with members of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, to see how they were working with latino communities to, among other projects, bring about a reflection of their population in political office. One of the programmes they have recently begun work on is Latina’s Represent, an initiative to address the lack of Latina leaders in public office and change this situation.
With a focus on civic tech throughout this programme, it was only right that we should visit Facebook Washington DC, where members of their Government and Politics team spoke to our group about online campaigning. They showed us how to make the most of the platform, and how, even with a limited budget, a cause could make a great impact.
Our second day in DC saw us visit the New America offices. New America is “a think tank and civic enterprise committed to renewing American politics, prosperity, and purpose in the Digital Age”. Learning about their work in informing policy and bridging the gap been existing structures and new technologies was fascinating.
In the afternoon we met with Jessica Grounds, founder of Running Start and longtime friend of Women for Election, Michelle Whittaker, communications director at FairVote, and Emilie Aries, founder of BossedUp. There was much to take away from each of these women. Grounds has long been worked to empower women to become politically engaged, and Running Start’s programme are excellent examples of training women at all levels. Whittaker introduced us to the problems of electoral system structures in the USA, and how FairVote was working to overcome them and create more diverse representation. Aries’ own experiences of post-university career led her to create BossedUp, which trains young women in self-advocacy for their careers and breaks their cycles of burnout.
That evening we attended an event hosted by the Irish Network Washington DC, where Irish Times correspondent Simon Carswell moderated a Q&A with Cody Keenan, Director of Speechwriting for President Barack Obama. It was great to hear Keenan’s insights into crafting political speeches, particularly in the growing digital age. We also enjoyed meeting so many politically engaged Irish, who live in the city, and were very happy to learn how many supporters Women for Election have there!
Before heading back to Ireland, we travelled to George Mason University, just outside DC, to watch Michelle Obama rally on behalf of Hillary Clinton. An incredible speaker, Michelle not only created a marvellous energy in the room, but also drove home key election messages. She emphasised the importance of voter turnout in securing a win for Hillary in the forthcoming election. The electric atmosphere of the hall in which the speech took place was incredible and we were delighted to experience it!
Throughout the trip the project had internal meetings, and we are delighted to say that the project’s online platform is well on the way to completion. This platform will provide open resources to groups across the EU, who are seeking to achieve gender equality in public office. We are excited to see this site go live and use our learnings and shared knowledge to help others in this cause.
We would like to give a massive thank you to our project partner Vote Run Lead for organising such a diverse and enrichening programme of learning. A thank you too to Erasmus+, whose support has made the project possible.