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Election Night 2016 unleashed a kaleidoscope of human emotion. For many American women, it was a complex stew of utter deflation and a primal provocation of empowerment. As they processed Donald Trump’s unexpected win, women who sent their votes elsewhere asked themselves: What now?
For many, the answer was to dive into the political arena themselves. The rise of women who are moving to enter local and national politics is evident right here in Colorado. Just ask Jenny Willford, executive director of Emerge Colorado, a national advocacy group that trains Democratic women how to run for office.
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Emerge Colorado’s program saw twice as many applications for its 2017 program than it has in past years. “We’ve never seen anything like this before,” Willford says. “Our phones have been ringing off the hook since the day after the election.” To address its record number of applicants, Emerge will train two cohorts of women (20 women each) this year instead of just one, with the first group of participants beginning this month.
The one-weekend-a-month, six-month-long program shows women how to run for office—including how to fundraise, knock on doors, connect with constituents, run a campaign, and other pertinent skills. The curriculum also helps women learn how to tell their personal stories, and includes an anti-oppression component that helps participants unpack subconscious biases.
The program is more than just an exercise in personal awareness; it’s a roadmap for changing the makeup of Colorado’s government: On January 11, six graduates of Emerge Colorado (pictured above) started their 2017 legislative session. As Democrats steel themselves for an unpredictable new presidential administration and an uncharted political era, 40 Colorado women will be entering a program that could change their lives—and yours. Meet five of them.
*Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
Name: Julie Mullica
Colorado Roots: Born and raised in Thornton, lives in Northglenn
Background: I was born and raised in the old Thornton—not the new fancy one. (Laughs) My family was working class: My mom was stay-at-home and my dad, who dropped out of high school, worked two jobs to support a family of five. We definitely didn’t grow up with a lot but I hardly even noticed. I’m a first-generation college graduate; I studied biology at CU-Boulder and got my master’s in Public Health from CU-Denver.
Why did you apply for Emerge’s 2017 training program?
I actually started my application last year but didn’t finish it because I was so busy taking care of my newborn son. This year, timing was in my favor: I no longer had a newborn, and the election played a huge role for me. It was truly heartbreaking and shocking, and I’m still coming to terms with it. I was a Bernie Sanders supporter and voted for Hillary Clinton. I think electing Donald Trump was a huge setback for our country. He doesn’t represent the American values I was raised with. I’ve been trying to be open-minded about it because I understand the gridlock and the frustration on both sides has been going on for decades. But Donald Trump—who has taken part in and encourages a high level of hate—doesn’t deserve to hold the highest office. Trying to manage my feelings around that has been difficult, but it has also encouraged me to take a step up and do my part in making my community what it should be.
What was Emerge Colorado’s application and interview process like?
It’s easy to label yourself: Democrat, Republican, Independent. But when you have to drill down to the why—what defines you, what kind of candidate you might be—for me, it’s about my past and how I was raised. For example, I had to tap into my parents’ lessons about respecting others. Regardless of whether that’s what our country is teaching people, that’s what I think should happen. The application and interview process made me take a close look at why I believe what I do. Parenthood also has helped me define the why.
So why did you decide to channel that into running for public office?
I always think of what Emma Watson said during her speech at the United Nations: “If not me, who? If not now, when?” That spoke to me. If no one else will step up, then I need to do this. We don’t need change in five years; we need it now.
What issues or policy areas are you most interested in?
My education really shaped me. I realized during high school that I went to a low-income school. I knew I was probably getting shorted, even if my district was giving me everything they could. When housing taxes funds schools, kids in Cherry Creek are going to get more and better resources than others. My education also made me a humble person; I wouldn’t change it for the world.
I’m also very family-oriented. The issues that are most important to me impact how Americans are able to take care of their families, young and old: Access to early childhood education, affordable childcare programs, and women’s rights such as equal pay, maternity leave, and health care.
Name: Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez
Colorado Roots: Third-generation Denver native, born and raised in North Denver; granddaughter of Chicano Movement activist Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales
Background: My dad, Joaquin, was Corky Gonzales’ son and grew up in an environment of activism. My family was always very involved in the community, so giving back was normal for us. I heard about the program and mentioned it to my husband. Then this opportunity came and I thought, I’m going to take advantage of this.
The election further motivated me. I had so many thoughts when that reality set in that Trump was elected: What will this mean for me and my family? What conversations do I need to have with my kids? What does this mean for the families I work with every day? I was already considering getting more involved; then Emerge came about and I thought [the timing] was perfect.
What issues are you most interested in?
Mental health and substance abuse treatment, because they are personal for everybody. I feel like every person I meet has someone in their life that has been affected by substance abuse—and that can spur a whole life of crime. Society focuses on punitive sanctions but spends limited time devoted to creating healthy individuals. Healthy people don’t commit so many crimes. Prevention programs are important. Our institutions are so reactive—in protocols, policies, and procedures—instead of leveraging funds on the front end and knowing you’ll see a return.
Diversified affordable housing is also something I see a need for in my own community. We have people in constant states of transition and then wonder why their kids don’t show up to school or make a doctor’s appointment. It’s because their basic housing necessity is not being met. Can you imagine being a kid that is expected to get up and go to school when you don’t know where you’re going to sleep that night?
Name: Shontel Lewis
Colorado Roots: Born and raised in Five Points
Background: I grew up in Five Points and lived there until recently. I just purchased a house on East Colfax because, like so many others, I couldn’t afford to buy where I grew up. I have four sisters and one brother. I met my high school sweetheart and had a son my junior year. His name is Diego, after his father. I was the first one in my family to go to college, and to graduate.
What are your biggest hopes for program?
I am really, really shy. (Laughs) I hope this program will help me know what I know; that it will give me the confidence to speak clearly, deliberately, and firmly. I am also excited about the sisterhood. I’m looking forward to being part of this network of women where we all know we can call on each other, and support each other through whatever our endeavors are.
What policy areas are you interested in?
The two things I’ve always paid attention to are education and work, because they’re the two things that can really change people’s lives. Everyone needs access to equitable education and the ability to make money.
Name: Cayenna Johnson
Colorado Roots: Aurora resident; moved to Colorado in 2002
Background: I’ve been working with refugee youth for the past 12 years, and I’ve also lived in Aurora—one of the most diverse cities in the country—for a very long time. Refugees come from places where they can’t practice their religion and are persecuted for their beliefs, even as they make a new home here. I feel like [running for office] is the humanitarian and patriotic thing to do.
Have you always been politically inclined, or is this new for you?
I always felt that I was an outsider to the political realm. But I’m a mom and a homeowner and my husband is a business owner, and I realized: Oh! I am the status quo, I am the person who needs to be involved in politics. I know about our social fabric, I’m educated, and I need to have a voice.
How do you see this program fitting into the larger picture of women being more politically involved or vocal?
We all need to be involved in the political system in a more a formal way, especially women and people of color. I want to dig in there and be part of that conversation, because with enough time and energy, those of us who want to have real dialogue can overwhelm the national drama of silliness and fighting.
Before the election I thought I didn’t have time for something like this. But then I thought about all the important people throughout history who made changes, and they made their family a part of all of that. It’s a huge commitment, but because of the threat to civil rights—and that people are saying facts don’t matter—I feel I am being a good mother by taking my kids with me, so to speak, and teaching them that they have power. That they can participate and be part of the change.
Mothers have a different relationship with the future. We are birthing the future, not just with our bodies by having kids, but with our work. Working moms in particular will never be flippant about the future of our country because we know that what is happening impacts our children and everyone’s children. When you’re a mom, you relate to every other mother, and in a way, every kid becomes your kid. I think more mothers should be leading everything from governments to companies.
How do you think your rural upbringing might help you pursue a public office?
People look at who is going to support them and the way they live. Democrats talk about social programs that don’t mean anything to people in rural areas who don’t have access to them. My upbringing directs who I am today. For instance, my response to the election was to say, Ok, we have to step up. I don’t feel powerless at all. I feel like we have a lot of power and we need to seize it.
If you get elected to a public office, what issues will you focus on?
Locally, my concerns are developing our city so that it’s safe for families. Integration. Providing housing opportunities for every level of society so it’s not just affordable to some people. Aurora is on the right track, and I’m looking forward to participating in any way I can.
Name: Christine Breen
Colorado Roots: Lived here as a toddler and returned in 2011; currently living in Westminster
Background: I’ve always had a gut feeling, a real pull, to come back here. When I finished law school this was the only logical place for me to go. I love the people. I love the weather. I love that I can look through my sliding glass door and see the Front Range and the mountains covered in snow. It’s just a beautiful place to be.
I’m an attorney practicing in two areas: civil and commercial litigation, which is people suing each other. The other part, which I am extremely proud of, is my employment and civil rights practice. I make sure employers aren’t firing you because you’re pregnant or because you’re a minority, or not hiring you because you use a service animal. [Protecting people’s rights] sort of fell into my lap, but it really triggered this deep sense of right and wrong and [invigorated] the strong sense of justice I’ve always had. These laws exist for a reason: To protect people from the bullies in the real world. I have the opportunity to help people protect themselves, and that opportunity is humbling and empowering all at once.
How did the election affect your decision to apply to Emerge?
You could say it had a positive effect. It was, in a way, inspiring; a call to action. It is really a time where strong, smart women are needed at the front lines. And I am more than happy to be on those front lines. It’s exciting to see so many women getting fired up. Regardless of how we might feel about our current political climate, we have to admit it is really cool to see all these women getting empowered.
What sort of impact do you hope to have if you’re ever elected to public office?
I really hope I can help people live better. I want to make public policies more accessible to the public. What I mean by that is, as an attorney, I see people every day who have no idea what their rights are or how laws impact them. Maybe if we can make policy more clear and accessible, citizens might better understand their rights. How cool would that be if people understood when their rights are being violated and then do something about it?
Emerge Colorado is piloting a week-long, condensed version of its training program this summer, July 10–14. The application process is open to any woman who lives in Colorado and is a registered Democrat. Emerge does not endorse candidates after they graduate (however, they will support program grads with appropriate resources, information, and contacts). To learn more about the application process, which will open this spring, visit the Emerge website.