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Interview with Erin Vilardi of VoteRunLead

Erin Vilardi is the Founder and Director of VoteRunLead, a national non-partisan organization focused on getting more women into public office. In its first 12 years, VoteRunLead provided training for 14,000 women to run for elected positions. But that approach wasn’t working on a scale that would make a significant difference.

As Vilardi points out, when you have 500,000 elected offices across the country, “14,000 is not enough.”

Two years ago Vilardi launched VoteRunLead as an independent organization, and now she’s trying out a new approach – using the power of peer-to-peer to get more women to step up.

Dana: What exactly is peer-to-peer organizing?

Erin: The concept of peer-to-peer is borrowed from the tech sector and the peer economy, things like Airbnb where regular folks are creating new ways to work, essentially with their neighbors, their equals, their counterparts, their peers.

We realized that if part of the problem is that women don’t feel they’re qualified to run for office, if they lack the ambition to even consider running for office, then let’s enlist her peer community to give her the push she needs.

What happens when a woman’s friends, husbands, bosses, partners and colleagues at work tell her they believe she’s qualified and ask her to run? Research tells us that if you ask a woman to run, that’s very powerful and can fuel her ambition, and she might actually do it.

If you say, Hey, I think you are awesome. Have you ever thought about running for office? – that can make a big difference.

It’s approaching the problem from the demand side rather than the supply side. That’s they theory we’re testing. And when her peers do nominate her, then we provide the tools and information she needs to get started.

So we’re trying out what’s working in the peer economy the idea to see if we can attack the problem at a larger scale.

Dana: You’re saying women often don’t feel they’re qualified to run for office. Why is that? What’s underlying that at a deeper level?

Erin: I think of it as the permission to be ambitious. It’s about giving ourselves permission to say, I desire this power.

Women wanting something for themselves in our culture has never really been encouraged. In fact, we are supposed to be in the service of others. That’s what feels comfortable. But it doesn’t have to be one or the other. I see it as the combination of two things that are different sides of the same coin.

We can say, Yes, I want to do good with my power, I want to help others. But to do that, I have to have the power.

So to get there, you have to be comfortable with power. You have to desire to be ambitious. You have to believe that you are the right person for the job. You give yourself permission to step out and lead the flock.

Dana: In terms of women in elected positions, how much have we actually moved the needle? Where we were when you started VoteRunLead two years ago, and where we are now?

Erin: Frankly we haven’t seen a dramatic uptick. We knew that Hillary was going to be running for President, and I think that put it in the air, which has helped.

We’ve had some interesting gains, including some important firsts. Joni Ernst is the first woman in the US Senate from Iowa – the first woman combat veteran in the Senate. Places like New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Colorado – they’re inching closer to 40-45% women in their state legislatures. There’s been real growth in some of those states.

But then you see places like Pennsylvania, which has kind of gone backwards. The Southern states have been pretty stagnant, with low to no growth. If I were a nerdy researcher, I would say there’s been a net zero.

But I think what we are seeing, even though the numbers aren’t moving, is that women doing the business of government has been more visible and public. Especially in the Senate – we have Kelly Ayotte and Kirsten Gillibrand talking about sexual assault. Susan Collins and Claire McCaskill – they’ve all done bipartisan work together on women’s and other issues. They’re willing to cross the aisle and talk about it, and set an example.

Numbers are not really the most revealing way to look at progress. They tell one piece of the story – but not the full story.

Erin Vilardi is Founder and Director of VoteRunLead. You can reach her at info@VoteRunLead.org.

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