Panel discusses women and diversity in local politics
By Courtney Beale
Sunday, May 13, 2012
Cupcakes and political anecdotes were shared recently when a panel of women involved in local government spoke about their experiences in politics.
Andrea D. Copeland of Positive Channels moderated the conversation, which centered on how women can become involved in the political process and the obstacles they may face.
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Former Charlottesville Mayor Nancy K. O’Brien, city School Board member Colette Blount and Sally H. Thomas, former chairwoman of Albemarle County’s Board of Supervisors explained their personal reasons for becoming active in local politics.
“The impetus for me was that I cared about something,” O’Brien said. “I cared about something in the community and after caring, I thought I could do something about that better than some of the other people.”
“What are you giving up in terms of your personal life and your ability to earn a living?” Thomas asked. “That part, after you’re elected, I think is a real barrier.”
Thomas also stated that stereotypes against women should not deter anyone from becoming politically active.
“There are these stereotypes you have to overcome, [and] when you do overcome them, more attention gets paid to you because you have broken the stereotype,” Thomas said. “I had a lot of fun breaking stereotypes.”
O’Brien said that although women do face barriers they also have advantages in politics.
“Women bring a different thought process to the discussion,” O’Brien said. “We are able to encompass things as a whole better, I think, than most men.”
Increasing political diversity was a theme throughout the panel discussion.
“I am a big believer of having a diversity of voices, a diversity of people,” said Blount, who is African-American. “There is no one race or one gender that owns the market on a perspective or point of view.”
O’Brien said that there is a foundation for diversity in Charlottesville’s City Council but for that to continue, citizens need to be active and choose diverse candidates.
“We have these things to keep building on but it takes encouragement and a bit of luck,” O’Brien said.
All three of the panelists encouraged women to be present in politics in whatever way they choose.
Thomas called upon women to get involved in local politics even if they were not interested in holding a political position.
“There are lots of committees and that’s a way to put your toe in the water without running a political campaign,” Thomas said.
O’Brien said she has actively aided other women who wanted to be part of the City Council.
“I did not want to leave office without another woman following me … I did not want to see an all-male council,” O’Brien said.
Blount is also accustomed to encouraging women to be active. She said she worked as a political organizer in Boston, helping to connect women with politicians and news organizations. Blount mentioned the possibility of creating a leadership-building program for young girls as a way to encourage women to be involved in government.
“That would touch on a variety of areas for the girls, how to find your voice and speak up, things like that,” Blount said. “To start that at an early stage would be a way to address this scarcity.”
Copeland also asked the panel which issues are important for women to have a presence in.
“I think all of them,” O’Brien responded. “I would say that every issue is fair game, any issue is fair game, whatever issue makes you curious, excites you … I would say, don’t think of issues in a narrow way, look at the whole thing and see what you’re interested in ... There is not an issue that is not yours for the taking.”