The Power of Women's Leadership
By Anna Johnson WFAN Board Member
Did you know that the agricultural world is littered with opportunities to serve on boards and be elected to office? The more I learn, the more I’m amazed – there are check-off boards, Farm Service Agency committees, county conservation district seats, and many others. How many of those seats do you think are filled by women? I don’t have that statistic in my pocket, but I expect it’s far less than half. But picture this awesome scenario: on every one of those boards and committees, from the local co-op board all the way up to the US Senate Agriculture Committee, half the members are women.
WFAN’s Plate to Politics program aims for a related goal: to empower women to work in the political arena and make change in the agricultural system. Because this is one of my favorite parts of WFAN’s work, I was thrilled to attend a Plate to Politics training at WFAN’s 2015 annual conference. There, I learned a great deal about different women’s struggles in agricultural politics, and I picked up a couple of useful tactics and strategies for myself. I thought I’d give a recap of the training for those who couldn’t be there, so read on!
The session and first section of the training was lead by Liz Johnson, co-founder of VoteRunLead and a longtime friend and collaborator with WFAN. In true WFAN style, Liz asked us to introduce ourselves and describe our individual expertise (literally fill in the blank, “I am an expert in…” because everyone is an expert in something. (Even you, dear Reader). The skills and experience in the room were amazing – farmers and students and landowners and non-profit employees.
A few of the women talked about holding elected office, and I was really intrigued by their stories – about the challenges of serving on all-male boards, and about the need to encourage women to run for office. One woman talked about how she facilitated the creation of a community of women in agriculture in her area via the great Midwestern tradition of potlucks. Many of the invaluable friendships that developed through these potlucks wouldn’t have existed otherwise. I was heartened by each woman’s insistence on the importance of community-building.
We next heard the story of the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA). It was great to learn about an awesome Midwest organization that supports farmers of color. I also had very little prior exposure to the history of the Hmong people in the US and was grateful to learn more. Mo Vue (below left), representing HAFA, had lots of awesome advice around how to understand and work in a community. We talked about how to establish good communication and clear expectations when entering partnerships with other organizations – which are important skills in both non-profit work and in holding an elected office.
Mo also described to us the key things to think about when “mapping” a community – what are its boundaries, its hopes, its members, its institutions, its gatekeepers, its struggles. The value of a community map wasn’t immediately clear to me (aren’t all those things obvious?), but then I remembered that different community members would have different knowledge and experiences. Creating a community map with a group of community members would be incredibly valuable for everyone. We closed this session with self-assessments, reflecting on our own knowledge, assets, networks, unique qualities, ambitions. You can try this at home!
During the final portion of the training, we learned from former Iowa Senator Maggie Tinsman about the Iowa-based organization 50-50 in 2020. The organization’s goal is to fill 50% of Iowa’s major elected offices with women by 2020 – that’s only four years from now, folks! Iowa has a dismal record on gender and elections – we only sent our first female senator to DC in 2014 – so this effort is sorely needed. I was impressed by Ms. Tinsman’s description of the training in campaigning that their organization offers. With this bipartisan group, women of either party who are interested in running for office are eligible to participate. Ms. Tinsman described how the women who finish the training not only have all manner of new and useful skills for running and winning, they also have a COHORT of BIPARTISAN FRIENDS. In a political era marked by polarization and intractability, this struck me as an invaluable community to cultivate.
I left the Plate to Politics training so inspired that when I went home, I watched more political training webinars in the VoteRunLead archive (www.voterunlead.org). Once I figure out where I’ll be after grad school, I can start putting some of this training to use….so, stay tuned!
Editor’s note: You can access more resources for women's leadership training on WFAN's Plate to Politics page, including archived P2P training webinars. Click here!