Workshop Empowers Female Leaders

By Rod Abhari

On Saturday, March 9, the 37th anniversary of International Women’s Day, around 50 female students and one male journalist filled the McCullough Social Space for ElectHer, a five-hour political leadership workshop designed to help women get elected into political office.

Each student at the event was nominated by a faculty member for their outstanding leadership skills. Over the course of the day female political leaders spoke to the students about the hurdles facing female political leaders and organized activities illustrating how to overcome them.

The idea for the event came from sophomore senator Rana Abdelhamid ’15. Abdelhamid was introduced to ElectHer after meeting Jessica Grounds at a young woman’s leadership camp two summers ago. Grounds, the executive director of Running Start, a nonprofit which inspires young women to run for political office, proposed ElectHer to get young women involved on their campuses.

“The program is based on the principle that women who run for office on campus are more likely to run for political office in the future,” said Grounds.

After Abdelhamid was elected SGA senator as a first-year, she began to notice a gender discrepancy across campus leadership positions.

“There was never another young woman running against me,” she said. “In fact, of the three women currently serving in the SGA, I am the only one who ran opposed. There hasn’t been a female SGA President in 10 years.”

Abdelhamid decided to work with Karin Hanta, director of the Chellis House, to try to bring ElectHer to campus.

“I was excited to come to Middlebury because I had met so many amazing women in D.C. who graduated from here,” said Grounds.

With the help of co-facilitators Alexandra Strott ’15 and Mandy Kwan ’15, Abdelhamid received a grant to host the event. She was able to bring to grounds and alexandra maclean, governor shumlin’s deputy chief of staff and secretary of civil and military affairs, to the College.

Maclean shared not only her some of her invaluable experiences with politics, but also an important strategy to help the women improve their political efficiency. “Imagine the type of speech you’d give if you were trying to convince someone you just met to vote for you in the timespan of an elevator ride. It’s got to be short, sweet and to the point,” Maclean said.

After breaking up into smaller groups to practice their “elevator speeches,” several of the students volunteered to perform them. Naina Qayyum ’15, a student from Karachi, Pakistan, spoke about her experience working with women’s health in Pakistan. She succinctly explained her reason for supporting her issue with the impromptu catechism, “the health of a woman is wealth of the nation!”

The last event of the day was a voting simulation, where the women had 10 minutes to run around campus and gather as many signatures as they could. The stakes were high —  the winner received an invitation to a women’s leadership conference in D.C.

The reaction to this exercise was generally positive, though Rabeya Jawaid ’16, a first-year from Karachi, Pakistan, was frustrated by how little work she had to do to get a signature from the students. “How much work needs to be done if people don’t care about who they vote for?” Others echoed her concern.

But some students disagreed. An unnamed student mentioned that the activity helped push her outside of her comfort zone. “I’m usually shy, so I was really inspired by how receptive people were.”

All the women worked hard, but the prize went to first-year Laura Nubler ’16, who managed to recieve 75 signatures in 10 minutes. “I decided that I really wanted to win this, so I thought strategically, and realized that the library was the best place to get signatures.”

She found that she got votes most efficiently by giving a condensed elevator speech, explaining her passion for climate change. But ultimately, she admitted, “I was just running around begging everyone I saw for signatures.”

For Jawaid and Nubler, the event was an empowering experience. Jawaid, who ended up being the runner up in the simulation, said that she felt “super excited, because I want to run for office back in Pakistan. Although the political environments in America and Pakistan are very different, I know I can bring the strategies I learned here back to Pakistan.”