Despite the fact that in the United States women are earning more college degrees than men and are entering the workforce in increasing numbers, women’s representation in policymaking and elected office is dismal. According to Political Parity, women make up 19 percent of US Congress and hold only five governorships, ranking them behind Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Nepal. Yet the US public rates women above or equal to men in traits considered crucial for leadership in policymaking areas.
I believe that one of the most powerful strategies funders can pursue to advance our goals—across a spectrum of social change issues—is to invest in the leadership of people who are most affected by problems in their communities.
At the Women’s Foundation of California, we have found that investment in grassroots women’s policy leadership is a core strategy for accelerating our goal to improve the lives of women and families in California. We’ve seen that when women have a voice in shaping and driving change, everyone benefits. For example, women lawmakers are more likely to prioritize families and children, and work out compromises, thereby resulting in better policy outcomes for everyone.
Through our Women’s Policy Institute, a year-long fellowship program (now in its 12th year) that invests in training community-based leaders on how state government works, we are training women to articulate and shape policy solutions for the challenges their communities face. Fellows gain skills in researching issue areas, working with the opposition, honing their public speaking, crafting and presenting testimony, creating fiscal estimates, building cross-movement coalitions, and framing issue messages for policymakers, the media, and the general public.
We believe that this model for investing in grassroots women leaders is an effective way to create policies that matter to people’s lives, because it adds diversity to our political representation. We’re finding that other funders, community leaders, and organizations leading change at the local, state, and national level want to partner with us. For example, when the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) developed a strategy to win rights for domestic workers across the United States at the state level, they approached us to train a cohort of leaders. Ai-jen Poo, director of NDWA who was recently awarded a 2014 MacArthur fellowship, explains: “We knew that if we wanted to win rights for domestic workers in California, we needed our community leaders to be prepared to shape policy in the state legislature. The Women’s Policy Institute provided unique support and training, with particular support to them as women leaders.” And it paid off: Domestic workers in California are now entitled to overtime pay.
The Institute has become so well-respected by legislators in California’s capitol—for combining well-reasoned, fact-supported messages with a personal experience of community need—that they too seek the partnership of the Institute to address community needs.
To date, women trained by the Institute have partnered with California legislators on more than 20 new bills that are improving the lives of women and families. In fact, just last week, Governor Jerry Brown signed another bill shaped by the Institute’s 2014 fellows. Assembly Bill 2102 facilitates the collection of demographic data on physicians and dentists—including ethnicity, gender, and language capacity—that will help create a workforce better equipped to meet the diverse healthcare needs of Californians.
But the Institute's impact goes beyond the passage of laws.
- It demystifies complex governmental and administrative processes.
- It supports a culture of leadership and advocacy within participants’ home organizations and communities
- It builds bridges. Fellows build enduring relationships with each other, elected officials, and legislative staffers.
- It increases diversity and relevance in policymaking.
By investing in the policy leadership of community-based women, we have found that the Institute is not only advancing capacity building within fellows and organizations, but also it is contributing to building networks, advancing fields, and strengthening a social justice movement so that we can accelerate change.
Other foundations are similarly accelerating their goals by investing in leadership among underrepresented groups. For example, the California Endowment has partnered with us to invest in increasing the leadership of women of color and young people in policymaking. "If we want to have good governance,” says Barbara Raymond, program director with the California Endowment, “then we need to make sure that the people who make up California are represented in the policymaking process. It’s not just the right thing; it’s the smart thing. Decisions are more innovative and effective when they encompass the perspectives, needs, and solutions of our diverse population.” She adds, "When you add leadership investment to people you are already investing in via their organization, you get great payoff on a marginal investment.”
We’ve seen this approach work in other movements as well. To ensure that LGBT people of color are represented and able to meaningfully lead efforts for securing LGBT rights, a number of foundations—including Arcus, Ford, Gill, and Astraea—came together to form the LGBT Racial Justice Fund. The fund aims to catalyze change by developing the leadership capabilities of people of color.
Similarly, a number of funders developed the Catalyst Fund to grow the leadership of women of color in the reproductive rights movement. The goal of the fund is to build a stronger, more effective US movement for reproductive justice by mobilizing new funding and capacity building resources for women of color-led efforts.
We’ve found that investing in the leadership of people who are closest to the problems in their communities—so that they can craft solutions to those problems—isn’t just smart; it’s effective, it’s strategic, and we feel the benefits far and wide.