Exclusive Interview: VoteRunLead Founder Erin Vilardi

Erin Vilardi is the CEO and Founder of VoteRunLead, a national non-profit organization that uses technology and training to accelerate the number of women in civic and political leadership. VoteRunLead has a 10+ city nationwide tour this summer and fall that is traveling around the country offering “Run As You Are” training sessions to teach women how to run for office. For tour dates and more info on the organization, go to voterunlead.org and follow them on Twitter @VoteRunLead.

What is VoteRunLead?

We are a training powerhouse for women who want to run for local, state, and federal office.

What inspired you to create this organization?

I have long believed that the world would be a better place if more women were in power. When I was studying in college, I double majored in politics and women’s studies, gender studies, and really that solidified that I wanted to work within the system to reshape the system and to inspire and encourage others who can be transformers inside of our government. I got an internship with an organization called The White House Project where I went from intern to vice president over the course of about nine years, and actually launched VoteRunLead for the first time as a program for The White House Project. There, it was a traditional field operation with offices in several states, and traveling around in our cars, doing face to face training. In 2014, I launched the organization on its own, with the opportunity to leverage technology and to bring online training networks, to support and augment the face to face engagement we were doing. We’ve been growing ever since. It was great to be an already-established resource, following the presidential election, seeing the surge in women who wanted to run, to be able to say, ‘hey, we’ve got resources already available to you.’

Have you seen a surge of candidates trying to run for office since the election?

Yes.

I’ve seen a lot of stories about these Democratic candidates popping up. Is that something that you guys have been helping, or is it happening organically?

I think it’s happening organically. I don’t think actually any of us can take credit, or any of these organizations can take credit for the surge. We’ve had over 8,600 women sign up for courses. Almost 3,000 of them have taken a course, so we feel like our number is not inflated in any way; it’s not an email address, it’s folks that have taken action. And as we poll them – why did you take this course – we find that many women have been thinking about public office for some time, or have been thinking about how to increase civic leadership. After the election, a few things that I saw, one is that the qualifications of our current president are not… overly remarkable. Women who have been holding themselves to higher standards are looking at that and saying: ‘No political or military experience? I can definitely run for my county commission.’ So the barriers to women’s qualifications, which is really big, went down. The second thing we saw were there were a lot of issues at stake, and so the issue agenda all of the sudden really broadened, and whether you are a scientist, or you were a tech engineer, or an activist, there was a reason, the thing you cared about the most was on the chopping block. So the issue motivation is broad and deep. And third, I think that there’s this conversation happening about democracy, [which] right after the election was a little bit harder to find. I think you see it more and more now, but there was sort of an undercurrent of women who are on our list who care deeply about democracy and felt like the popular vote and the electoral college is extremely flawed in the results of the presidential election, [who] were thinking about gerrymandering and redistricting, [who] didn’t have the candidates that they had wanted to vote for, so the whole system itself feeling a bit broken. I think we’re seeing that undercurrent and motivation show itself more and more post-election, but we noticed that a few weeks in right off the bat. So those are three things that we saw – the qualifications, the issues, and democracy.

Wherever a lot of us stand on the Trump presidency, it’s obviously very controversial. Do you think it’s prompted a progressive response because it’s made a lot of people wake up and realize, ‘we have to actually get involved if we want to change this and not let it happen again?

I think not just progressives, I think conservatives, I think moderate Republicans are also waking up. I don’t think they are as vocal, but I think they are as attuned to what has been a blatant dismissal of the function and role of government. I think what we’re seeing with progressive activists or folks who had one of those issues at stake, I don’t know what they call themselves, having a quicker motivation to act. What I think we’re also seeing in the last couple of weeks is a desperate need for moderate Republicans to often have to come in and swoop in and save the day, whether it be healthcare or a government shutdown, or what is likely to be another government shutdown over the wall, you will find that it will be moderate Republican women who stake a claim to sanity and the functions of government; and not voting on a bill before it comes to the floor, and listening to their constituents, and putting people before partisanship. I think, for women’s organizations like mine, it’s really critical to encourage and challenge and expose the full diversity of women leaders. Which is, like, radical trans women who should be running for office, and moderate Republican women who should be standing side by side with them.

Yeah, throughout the whole healthcare debates and all the time we spent worrying about that, at the end of the day it was the two female Republican senators who really made the difference. A lot of people talked about John McCain’s ‘historic vote’ but who was it, Murkowski I believe?

And Collins.

Senator Collins, that’s right, both of them were sort of the leaders in that situation.

I want to get back to your organization. You guys have events scheduled in cities all around the country, they’ve been running all summer. What should people expect when they go to these events?

You should expect to come out of there feeling really qualified. We go through a lot of exercises about why the skills you already have are perfect for public office and that you don’t need to change who you are. You might need to show us some campaign skills, but what you’re bringing to the table is enough. We really come from a strengths-based coaching and training style. You’re going to learn, you’re going to get some overviews on campaigning, and fundraising, and messaging, but you’re going to get supplemented following a one-day engagement with online courses that will go deeper into, financing your campaign, or an online campaign plan that walks you through a 15-month calendar. Then you also get connected to our Facebook community where we’ve got 1,500 women who are actively sharing and supporting one another. Anyone who comes in person also gets an opportunity for a free coaching session, [to] have a conversation with a real human being about their leadership and navigating the political waters. At most of the sessions now we’re doing something called the 90-day challenge, which is 30 actions for women to take to accelerate their political capital; help them make the decision if they want to run, or decide what office they want to run for. And that’s everything from like, having fifteen coffees with community members, to some of us it’s just getting on different social media, for others it’s filling out your form on why are you running, and taking that half a day to sit with yourself and really understand your personal motivation. It’s about building your base and sort of taking stock of who you are, and it’s a great set of challenges. If you can do half of those activities in 90 days you’re definitely ready to run for office.

You mentioned social media as one of the tools these women running for office can use. Do you think that it’s expanded access to political action and made it more available for everybody to get involved?

I think it definitely has expanded. What I also think is really critical is seeing other women who’ve done it before. We have alumni stories on our website of women [like] Ilhan Omar, who is the highest-ranking Somali-American legislator in the country, the first ever, out of Minnesota, and Denise Schultz, who is a local school board member on the [Metro West Commission on the Status of Women] outside of Boston. So it’s a real range on the kind of leadership you can take and the different role models that are out there for you to say, ‘Oh, she did it, I can do it too.’

Justin Trudeau has a cabinet with equal representation of women; what do you think would change in our government if half of our officials were women?

I think you would see the process of government, the inner workings of government be better. There would be more transparency if more women were in government, whether they were conservative or progressive. You would see broader decision making meaning more constituents would be involved in the decision-making process. You would probably see our State Department and various agencies full because people want to work for women, because we get stuff done, so these jobs would be filled up. I think you would see more dialogue with the American people.

Do you think that’s something we’ll see in the near future for the United States?

Oh gosh, I just, I’ve quit making predictions. But I think two things are going to happen around increasing women’s representation; I think a lot of women are going to run, and not enough women are going to get in. So [it’s important] not to be discouraged by the 2018 elections, not to paint it as sort of a giant fail. Incumbency is still the greatest indicator of whether you’ll be elected or not. So we need to look at some of the system stuff on top of women running. My job at VoteRunLead is to get thousands and thousands of women to run for office. I also work with another great group called Representation 2020, which is about how systems change, whether that be public officials inside of the individual parties or changes to multi-member districts, you know changing from a winner take all system to proportional voting or rank choice voting where you’re able to say what your first, second, and third choice is instead of having to vote for just one person. These are all things that are going to probably be faster accelerators. It’s almost like two sides of the same coin; we need thirty thousand women running for office right now, and we need significant policy change for the system stuff, whether that be gerrymandering or rank choice voting.

I’m sure as more women you get into office, into different positions, that’s going to start changing.

How do you think that Trump’s presidency has the way everyday Americans treat women? Do you think it’s given a rise to some more of the misogyny and inappropriate behavior that he has championed?  

Yes. I have family members that send me things on Facebook asking, ‘how can I respond to this?’ [and] in a way that…you know, I don’t just want to delete it, I want to respond and say, ‘Oh my god, this is my family.’ It’s happening within our families, and that’s very scary. I think the other thing is also challenging a lot of folks to think differently about their activism and about who they’re including in their conversations, whether that be young black women who led the marches in Boston and got too little coverage in the media. It’s challenging to folks who think they’re doing good work, which is a sort of healthy challenge, but it’s also really emboldening folks who just have these really backwards views about women’s roles and they have an echo chamber. They’re having a national dialogue with our president about why it’s okay to mistreat women, and that’s pretty terrible.

I see the same thing I see people behaving in a way towards women that just surprises me for this day and age. Before the Trump presidency, I don’t think I would’ve seen that out in the open as much and it’s a little discouraging. How would you say to respond to—for men who want to be helpful and supportive to women who are being treated wrong—what’s the best way to go about addressing situations like that?

Well, one, if it’s an issue of safety; make sure that person is taken out of that situation. If it seems like there’s potential for violence, that’s your first thing to assess, and if it’s not you who can help then who are the right folks… But if it’s in a classroom or something like that on a college campus you have to stand up, you have to raise your hand and say, ‘that is not okay.’ And I also think there has to be more public shaming, and it can be as simple as, ‘you sound like an idiot, and my heart wants to believe that you don’t really think that, you’re really getting caught up in what’s going on right now, but what you’re saying doesn’t help you, doesn’t help me, doesn’t help us. You’re part of the problem, not part of the solution.’ You just sort of have to name it and shame it. And the third piece is, you can offer some support. Say, ‘I’d love to have a conversation with you about why you think that’s okay, or what are your motivations for doing that, what do you get out of this? Is it just a rise, is this who you are?’ You know, more and more women are challenging trolls online which I find really interesting. There are different strategies, but one is definitely to make sure the situation is safe for you to engage; if it’s not, get out of there. Use the resources that you do have, reach out to local networks, hotlines, things like that, organizations. But we need more young men like you to just stand up and say, ‘shut up.’

If you could speak directly to that next generation of women, who are in high school and college right now, what advice would you give them as they start to engage in politics and activism?  

It’s worth it to be involved in politics. It’s rewarding, you get to change people’s lives. It’s hard work, but everything’s hard work, nothing’s easy, and there are resources to help you, there are networks to help you. And having power is one of the most wonderful things you can do with your life because you can share that power, you can grow other people’s power, and it’s something that you should have the opportunity and the privilege to be a part of.

Absolutely. What’s something that you have seen or heard lately that makes you hopeful about our future?

All of these women running for office. They’re declaring their candidacies. I pulled the list of people who said they’re willing to run within the next three years and it’s like 60 percent of our newly-signed up folks. That’s huge. Prior to the election, about two-thirds of women wanted a five-year plan. After the election, about 60 percent of the women wanted to run between now and 2020. So they’re saying yes to running for office, it means they’re accelerating their timelines, so that’s something that really gives me hope that sort of shift that has just happened in their mind, that they’re the ones we’ve been waiting for.

How many women are you talking about that you guys have worked with that are about to run for office?

The tracking is crazy, but I can tell you just in the last few weeks or so, there have been several dozen, just in the last, like, from July to August, that are jumping in on the Facebook group to say, ‘I’m running for Congress,’ ‘I’m running for Cook County Judge,’ ‘I’m running for State Senate,’ ‘I’m running for State Rep. in Ohio.’ There are seven women who are running for New York City Council right now… It’s a lot. It’s a good problem to have that I can’t keep track of it.

Is that happening all over the country or is it localized in any certain areas?  

Our networks are in five major regions around the country so we see a little bit more in those regions because we’ve been there, but I’m seeing it from Albuquerque to Maine.

Even in those more rural districts, some of the areas that have high rates of incumbency and that sort of thing?

Well, two things; We’ve got an initiative called Plate to Politics that works with women in the food and agriculture movement. which is primarily rural. We’ve had some success in rural communities, it’s been one of the tracks of our work and will be again. We have a national conference, applications open on the 6th of September, it’s November 17th, 18th, 19th, it’s called National Go Run, and there is a track for rural women leaders. So that is something that we’re very much attuned to and probably one of the only organizations that really pulls out and develops rural women’s leadership potential.

Jake is a college student studying political science at UCSB.

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