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NEW Leadership Pennsylvania promotes women in politics

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The Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics (PCWP) at Chatham University reported that in the wake of the 2014-midterm elections, for the first time in U.S. history, 100 women are serving in the U.S. House of Representatives. However, none of these women represent the state of Pennsylvania.

To help combat this inequity—and to increase gender parity in politics overall—PCWP hosted the NEW Leadership Pennsylvania ™ summer institute—an intensive, non-partisan, six-day residential program that took place in June. NEW Leadership Pennsylvania™ is a part of a national network of NEW Leadership programs developed by the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University.

The program was open to women college students from colleges and universities throughout Pennsylvania. Thirty-six students from 23 different colleges and universities participated, including five Chatham students.

Participants with Chaz Kellam, Senior Director, Advocacy for Race & Gender Equity at YWCA Greater Pittsburgh

A major part of the program was a trip to the state capitol. “We met with elected officials, lobbyists, staffers—hitting on all aspects of what someone could do if they were interested in working in politics or policy. You got to see where you might fit in,” said participant Vanessa McCarthy-Johnson ’17, a policy studies major at Chatham. McCarthy-Johnson personally found this helpful: “Before the program, I didn’t know if I wanted to run for higher office (ed: VMJ sits on the Wilkinsburg Borough Council), or work in a campaign office. I realized how much I love working on policy, research papers, and things like that.”

“Students learn about the underrepresentation of women in politics by networking directly with women who are in those leadership roles. We spend time helping the students learn and develop professionalization skills like public speaking, networking, and leadership skills through workshops,” said Dana Brown, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics.


“Overall, the value in the program is the increased confidence we see in students at the end of the week. We know from alums of the program that this experience increases their knowledge of the political system, their overall confidence, and their ability to affect change.”

Throughout the program, participants heard panels and presentations from leaders at Chatham and across the state, including a Women in Public Leadership Keynote Address by Kate Michelman, who served as the President of NARAL Pro-Choice America for nearly 20 years.

Former Commissioner Barbara Cross ’75 acted as practitioner-in-residence. Commissioner Cross led and participated in informative, inspiring sessions on running for political office, advised students on their social action projects, and was available to advise students all week.

Back in Pittsburgh, participants worked on a “social action project” culminating in a mock hearing about the possibility of fracking on school district property. “We were assigned roles, including council members, school district members, environmental group members, concerned parents,” says McCarthy-Johnson. “We researched our positions, created plans, and listened to the public debate. There were even (fake) reporters there, throwing crazy questions at us that we couldn’t really prepare for. It was a real taste of what it’s like.”



“The networking—with students, panelists, and guest speakers—was invaluable” says McCarthy-Johnson. “Coming in as an older students and a transfer student, I was never really well versed in that skill, and this program helped a lot.”

NEW Leadership 2016 was sponsored by the EQT Foundation and the Hillman Foundation.  “The EQT Foundation is proud to provide continuing support for Chatham’s National Education for Women’s Leadership Pennsylvania Program,” said Charlene Petrelli, President, EQT Foundation. “Supporting education initiatives in the areas where we operate is a priority for EQT and we believe in programs that develop the region’s future leaders. The EQT Foundation is honored to support Chatham University’s NEW Leadership Program to help build tomorrow’s team of skilled, empowered women leaders.”

After the summer institute, participants are encouraged to continue to develop public leadership skills and will be invited to return to PCWP for special events, workshops, and programs.


McCarthy-Johnson laughed when asked what she’s say to others thinking about applying to the program. “Don’t even think about it. Just dive in and do it,” she said. “You don’t even have to know anything about politics. It’s just something everyone should do. The connections that were made with the women that were in the program were invaluable. We came in as thirty-some strangers, and left as one big family. We had some eye-opening sessions.”

About the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University
The Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics (PCWP) at Chatham University is a non–partisan center devoted to fostering women’s public leadership through education, empowerment, and action. The first to focus on women’s political involvement in Pennsylvania, the PCWP integrates disciplinary knowledge, civic education, and coalition building while examining the intersection of women and public policy. The Center conducts candidate and advocacy trainings, offers educational programs in applied politics, and provides timely analysis on women’s issues. The Center is also home to the University’s membership in Project Pericles – a select group of liberal arts colleges and universities that have made institutional commitments to promoting participatory citizenship and social responsibility.




“It wasn’t my plan to run,” Pittsburgh City Councilwoman Deborah Gross told the roomful of women following the casual wine and cheese networking reception. “It came as a surprise when the councilman retired. I was holding the phone with one hand and writing a list of all the people I knew who could run, 150 or so, with the other. And then I thought I want to be the one to do this.

On October 22, the women of Pittsburgh City Council – Councilwoman Gross, Councilwoman Darlene M. Harris, Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith, and Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak – spoke candidly about their experiences running for office and serving as councilmembers at A Night Out with the Women of City Council, an event sponsored by the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics.

“Sometimes being on City Council is like being in the CIA. You can prevent bad things from happening without anyone knowing.”
– Councilwoman Darlene Harris

“During my run, I had the feeling that I was an outsider,” said Rudiak. “No one was tapping me on the shoulder and telling me that I should run. The hardest part was knowing people my whole life and seeing them not support me because they didn’t think I could win.”

The councilwomen’s remarks were followed by a question and answer session, during which one woman asked: Is it time for us as women to think about a different kind of political party?

“I struggle with that, as a Democrat,” said Rudiak. “Right now, I think there’s an unprecedented effort to get new people to run in our party. It is really energized. Sometimes working within the system provides the best opportunities for change.”

“There will always be someone to manipulate you, no matter what party you’re associated with,” agreed Kail-Smith. “Do what it takes to work within your community.”

The councilwomen also offered advice for women who were considering entering politics, much of which centered on fortitude: Keep on moving and doing what you think is right. You need to be in a place where you’re okay with people not liking you, and you need to keep going anyway. They also encouraged interested attendees to register for Ready to Run™ Pittsburgh, a day of bipartisan political training to encourage women to run for government leadership positions held at Chatham on January 31, 2015.

The Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics (PCWP) at Chatham University is a non–partisan center devoted to fostering women’s public leadership through education, empowerment, and action.