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Women Candidates Power Change with Communities in the Lead

A woman wearing a light pink hijab laughs while holding up a microphone to her mouth.

In every election since 1992, more women are running for political office at every level. Our most recent election is no different, with record numbers of Black women running for political office, many of them for the first time. A partner in thousands of women’s journeys to elected office is VoteRunLead (VRL), a nonpartisan organization that builds the capacity of women candidates to not just run for office, but to win.

The Women’s Foundation of Minnesota has been an investor in VRL since before its inception as a nonprofit and was the first women’s foundation the VRL team approached about a partnership. As VRL launched as a program under The White House Project between 2005 and 2012, WFMN recognized the importance of supporting women candidates to run for and win office. In fact, Minnesota was the first state to partner with Vote Run Lead in the country. With this energy, the Foundation helped power VRL’s work in Minnesota, including training rural and Native American women to run for office.

From the beginning, the Women’s Foundation appreciated the deliberate and ambitious approach of VRL, and its momentum has only grown since. When VRL’s founder and CEO, Erin Vilardi, established the organization as its own nonprofit in 2014, she and her team launched in Minnesota with a dynamic conference that included now-Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and current Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan and trained women across Minnesota, particularly rural and Native women, to run for office.

WFMN continues to support VRL’s work because women still have a long way to go to reach parity in political representation across gender and race. WFMN sponsored VRL’s 2017 national #RunAsYouAre training in 2017 and supported VRL’s #RunAsYouAre training in 2019.

Data in WFMN’s 2020 Status of Women and Girls in Minnesota report shows that women of color and Native American women especially remain underrepresented in the state legislature relative to their proportion of the state’s population. At the local level, the report notes huge gaps in gender representation. Despite making up 50.2% of the population, women comprise just 17.2% of all county board chairs in the state and only 17% of Minnesota cities have women mayors.

VRL’s work to promote women candidates to run for office is not just about increasing the numbers. Political leadership that reflects the population of our state is critical to policymaking that is responsive to the lived experiences of our diverse communities. As a guest speaker at WFMN’s 2020 Leadership and Legacy Celebration, Erin Vilardi recalled that WFMN was a key, early partner because the Foundation was already “investing in women who were holding this community[‘s] social welfare.” Vilardi echoed WFMN’s ethos of amplifying and investing in the leadership and solutions of communities who experience the greatest inequities by noting that the woman who is already leading in her community “is the same leader that should actually be writing the laws and legislating the lives of women and girls in Minnesota.”

In recent election cycles, women have made leaps in representation at every level of government; many of them have been supported and trained through VRL. As the 2020 Status of Women and Girls report highlights, the 2018 political elections marked a significant expansion of representation for women of color and Native American women in Minnesota. As Ilhan Omar become the first Somali-American Member of Congress and one of the two first Muslim-American women elected to Congress, Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan became the highest-ranking Native women holding non-tribal Executive office and the state’s first Native American lieutenant governor. Angie Craig became the state’s first openly gay member elected to Congress. Minnesota’s first Latina mayor, Maria Regan Gonzalez, was elected in Richfield, and both Rochester and Mankato elected their first women mayors, Kim Norton and Majwa Massad, respectively.

During the 2020 election, record numbers of Black women ran for Congress. According to a recent blog post from the Gender, Race, and Place series from the Gender Policy Report, at least 130 Black women ran for Congress in 2020, compared to the 87 who ran in 2018, and 52 in 2016. These exponential increases are cause for celebration and a call to continue supporting the work of VRL and local organizations that lift up the leadership and voices of women who are already at the forefront of change, leading movements for truth, healing, equity, and transformation in their communities.

By Hayley Drozdowski, Communications Project Manager at Women’s Foundation of Minnesota

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