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Sherri Richards, Published March 04 2013

Women’s lobby day planned in Bismarck

If you go

What: WE Rise women’s lobby day

When: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday

Where: Capitol building, Bismarck

Info: Event is free. Transportation provided by bus from Minot and Fargo and stops along the way. To register, visit www.ndwomen.org or call (701) 223-6985.

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BISMARCK – Jessica Haak hadn’t thought about running for office when she first saw information about WE Rise, a women’s lobby day event at the state Capitol. She’d started a new job, but was interested in issues in the Legislature, in learning to talk to legislators, and in meeting women from across the state.

When she attended the event here in 2011, she heard testimony from victims of domestic violence. She was told by women legislators that public service was a way to make a difference.

Now, two years later, she’s state Rep. Jessica Haak, a freshman Democrat from Jamestown.

WE Rise got the ball rolling for Haak. “It was really very powerful,” she says. “It challenged me to get more involved.”

The third biennial WE Rise event will be held Monday at the capitol. Organizers expect more than 150 women to take part, the largest group yet.

Participants will tour the Capitol, meet their legislators, sit in on committee hearings, listen to debate on the floor and speak with female legislators and statewide officeholders.

A companion event on Sunday in Bismarck will offer advocacy training. It will be followed by a progressive women networking event.

The goal of WE Rise is to make the legislative process less intimidating, says Renee Stromme, executive director of the North Dakota Women’s Network, primary sponsor of the lobby day.

“WE” stands for Women Empowered. Topics highlighted are economic security, reproductive health, education and freedom from violence.

Several bills have been passed this session by either the Senate or House that would limit abortion in the state. Child care and early childhood education also have been at the forefront of legislative discussion.

“We think women’s needs are being overlooked, if not completely mishandled,” Stromme says. “The only way to really make sure that doesn’t happen is to have women be part of the process.”

The long-term goal of the lobby day is to encourage more women to run for office, Stromme says.

Women tend to provide a more balanced approach to policy, Stromme says, as data show they are more likely to reach across the aisle.

Currently, 17 percent of North Dakota legislators are women, she says.

Stromme notes few North Dakota legislators have young children at home and deal with issues like child care.

“We want to diversify that,” she says. “The more diversity we have in the legislative process, the more we’re going to get a broad section of approaches. People can provide another perspective and move the needle on how something may be enacted or not enacted.”

Other sponsors of WE Rise are the North Dakota Farmers Union, North Dakota Council on Abused Women Services, Planned Parenthood, National Association of Social Workers in North Dakota and the American Association of University Women.

Amy Jacobson, co-founder of WE Rise and who works for Planned Parenthood, says the lobby day is particularly important for women in Fargo and other communities geographically removed from Bismarck.

“We’re very isolated from what’s happening at the Capitol,” she says. “In order for women to really make change in our state, we want to make sure we’re there and know how to participate.”

Jacobson notes the event is timed for after crossover of bills between the two houses, a pivotal point in the process, which makes the advocacy training and testimony of WE Rise participants critical.

These bills “either need to be passed or need to be stopped in that second body,” she says.

Jacobson says the another great part of WE Rise is the way female legislators from both parties have taken time to address the group, “talk about their path to elected office and how being a woman in elected office feels, how very achievable and empowering that is.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5556.