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Tracy Frank, Published May 06 2012

Program nudges women to leadership roles: Closing gender gap in politics goal of NEW

MOORHEAD – A local leadership program has helped motivate area women to run for public office, work on political campaigns and create positive change in their communities.

The National Education for Women’s Leadership program teaches women how to take active roles in public leadership.

“Very often women are doing work in the community but not necessarily being recognized as leaders or being asked to take on leadership roles,” said Deborah White, Tri-College NEW Leadership Development Institute coordinator and chairwoman of the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Minnesota State University Moorhead. “Running for office is one area where we really need to do some work.”

The program is a five-day leadership training program run through Tri-College University, the partnership between MSUM, Concordia College, and North Dakota State University.

Participants attend workshops about topics such as running for office, public speaking, community organizing, fundraising, anti-oppression, public policy advocacy and working with media.

“What it’s doing is it’s holding a mirror up to them so they can see the amazing potential that’s already within them that they haven’t recognized,” White said.

The program emphasizes recruiting women from groups that have typically been underrepresented in the political process, White said.

There is no charge for the sessions, food, accommodations or materials. The institute relies on grants and donations to fund the program. The institute also raises money to provide seed grants for the women’s projects and scholarships to help with travel and childcare costs.

Participants and faculty live on campus during the program to help build relationships and facilitate conversations, White said.

“They stay up until the wee hours of the morning and they’re talking and working on things together. It’s what makes it unique,” she said. “It’s a very intense experience.”

Only 50 women are accepted into the program each year, although more than 100 applied this year.

“There’s clearly a need for this kind of a program,” White said, adding that it works best with around 50 participants. “We want this to be a very intimate experience where they work very closely with the other women in the program and with the women leaders.”

The institute wants the women to form close connections with each other so they can collaborate on community projects, White said.

Kris Wallman, a Fargo School Board member, took part in the program.

“Statistically speaking and for lots of reasons, women don’t generally run for public office unless they are asked,” she said. “Without question, the institute connects participants with a network of amazing women, provides skill development, and heaps of inspiration.”

Wallman said the program is invaluable.

“I found the Tri-college NEW Women’s Leadership Development Institute to be an inspiring and informative program that immerses participants in the intensive experience of learning about and from women leaders in our region, from all walks of life,” she said.

Prairie Rose Seminole, a coordinator at Native American Center Project in Fargo and a local human rights activist, has also participated in the program, both as a participant and as a faculty member.

“The NEW Leadership Institute is about giving tools to women to act on the issues that matter to them,” she said. “It is a non-partisan engagement which also allows women from various points of the political spectrum to see eye-to-eye on issues, and see that they care about the same things.

“We may not see ourselves as leaders, but when we walk away from the Institute we see that we can lead on issues that we care about. That is significant growth that happens within a week.”

The leadership program was developed at the Center for American Women and Politics, a unit of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers in New Jersey.

So far, more than 3,500 women from 21 states have participated in NEW Leadership Summer Institutes. The Tri-College NEW Leadership Development Institute is one of 18 institutionalized programs nationwide.

This year’s session will be held June 2 through 6 at Concordia. The application deadline was in March.