One of the few good things to come out of the presidential election is the enormous uptick of women who want to influence positive change.
“We haven’t had to go out and build that passion and build that wave because that wave came out of the election. Women looked at what happened, looked at the president who thinks it’s okay to grope women, and women are standing up now and saying ‘no, it’s not,'” said Beth Kelly, executive director of Emerge Michigan, the premier training program for Democratic women that inspires them to run for public office and hones their skills to win.
Emerge Michigan, launched in 2015, is an affiliate of Emerge America, a national organization currently working in 18 states. Since the first Emerge state was established in California in 2002, the organization has trained more than 2,000 Democratic women to run for office.
Emerge America reports that American women are still vastly underrepresented at all levels of government.
– Only 37 women have ever served as governor across the U.S
– Only 27 states have ever had a woman governor
– Women make up just 19.4 percent of the U.S. Congress and 24.8 percent of state legislatures
– Women make up only 18.8 percent of mayors in cities with a population of more than 30,000
Too often, women do not see themselves running for office as they assume they aren’t experienced enough or they don’t know where to begin. Emerge Michigan has made it their mission to change the way women view politics.
“Even after working in politics for over a decade, the prospect of putting my name on the ballot still felt intimidating. Through the Emerge Michigan fellowship my confidence increased and I felt prepared to run a competitive campaign and win,” said Sommer Foster, the first African-American person and the first woman of color to serve on the Canton Township Board of Trustees.
“Not only did I benefit from the curriculum and the expertise of our trainers, I joined a sisterhood of amazing, accomplished women and I was able to lean on them for support and encouragement,” said Foster.
The fairly new entity had their first class of 16 women in 2016. Foster was one of five who ran for office last year and one of four of those five who appeared on the election ballot.
“In a really tough year, she won, which is really great. She’s amazing. We’re very proud to call her a graduate of our program,” said Kelly, who was hired on in February 2016. She said that while working in Democratic politics for more than a decade, she has never worked for a female candidate.
“This is a huge issue right now in our state,” she said, further explaining why the organization is so committed to women specifically.
“Women tend to focus on more gender-salient issues, but they’re also natural consensus builders and have a tendency to focus less on hierarchy. I recognize that we need more women who are going to help us to stop bad bills from getting passed, but also be able to work with folks on the other side of the aisle to accomplish a more justice-oriented agenda in Michigan.”
The Emerge Program
Emerge Michigan offers 70 hours of intensive training over a five-month period. The program’s trainers are comprised of an elite team of campaign consultants, advisors and staff from all over the country, who have been involved in some of the most successful campaigns and initiatives seen in recent election cycles. Participants learn from these experts and develop practical knowledge in areas such as public speaking, fundraising, campaign strategy, voter contact, media and messaging and others.
Kelly said all registered Democrats can apply. This includes women of all ages, races, nationalities, marital status, religious affiliations, sexual orientations and physical abilities.
“We are open to a diverse group of women,” she said. “That’s our goal. If we ended up with a room full of lawyers, for example, the lack of diversity in experience would be a disservice to the class.”
There is a rigorous selection process though. Criteria includes evidence of political leadership experience or potential; meaningful involvement in workplace or community; interest in pursuing political office; demonstrated ability to bring together disparate groups to achieve a goal; ability and desire to build effective networks; ability to articulate a personal political vision; demonstrated ability to inspire others; and commitment to full participation and attendance requirements of the trainings.
On average, Kelly said the organization spends around $3,000 per student to train, yet tuition only costs $750.
“There’s a huge investment on our part. That’s why fundraising is critical for us to support this program that’s really going to change politics in the state,” she said. “We are very lucky. We have enjoyed the support of the Michigan Democratic Party, which has been critical for our success and sustainability, but a majority of our funding comes in the form of grassroots donations.”
With 12 active board members, Emerge Michigan is building relationships across the state to help with recruitment and training. A few of the organizations they partner with are MI Women Win, the Great Lakes Political Academy, and the Economic Justice Alliance of Michigan.
“We’re creating this leadership ladder for candidates and their multiple access points so wherever you are in your interest for running for office – whether it just popped into your mind and you’re not sure what you want to run for or what you’re doing and you need a weekend training to figure it out – we have a program for you, and if it’s not us, it’s one of our partners,” said Kelly.
Class of 2017
Emerge Michigan selected a group of 25 women for this year’s training program. Kelly confirmed the organization started with 17 applications on Election Day and ended with 83, a significant increase from just 20 in 2016.
“I have always been a grassroots organizer, and always felt that the most effective change can come from the ground,” said Fatima Salman of Bloomfield Hills. “After this election cycle, and having had the privilege of attending the Joint Congressional Speech in D.C. in February, I recognize even more than ever that change comes from the top just as well as the bottom. If we do not have the right leaders in positions of influence, there is only so much the grassroots can accomplish, and vice versa. I look forward to being part of this year’s class.”
Kelly Rossman-McKinney of Lansing said, “I’m proud to be a part of Emerge Michigan’s 2017 class and am looking forward to learning how to use my skills and experience in a new capacity. It’s time for more women to learn, lead and run. I hope my classmates and I will go on to grow Michigan’s female political leadership.”