Building the Old Girls Network

Last week, Oakland, California Mayor Libby Schaaf announced the appointment of Venus Johnson as Director of Public Safety. What you might not know is that Venus Johnson and Libby Schaaf share one thing in common: They are graduates of Emerge California, an organization that recruits, trains and provides a powerful network for Democratic women interested in running for office. Emerge California is the flagship affiliate of a national organization, Emerge America, that is currently training women in 17 states to run for offices up and down the ballot. This training is at the core of what we need to reinvigorate the women’s movement—a focus on political power and strong female mentorship.

While Libby Schaaf went through the Emerge program in 2009 and Venus Johnson graduated in 2013, they are connected by a powerful Emerge network that is emphasized from day one of our 6-month training. Our message is simply this: When you run and win elected office, you have a responsibility to reach behind you and help the next woman up. Women supporting, mentoring, and guiding other women through the ranks is the only way that we will see parity in politics, or any industry for that matter. On the same day that Mayor Schaaf appointed Venus Johnson, she also appointed a female police chief, meaning six of Oakland’s top leadership positions are currently filled by women. That is what I call a critical mass.

And Libby and Venus’s story is not unique. Across the country, we see countless examples of Emerge women supporting one another. When Wisconsin State Senator Nikiya Harris-Dodd (Emerge Wisconsin, 2011) announced she would not be running for re-election in 2016, State Rep. LaTonya Johnson (Emerge Wisconsin, 2012) announced her candidacy just days later—with Harris-Dodd’s endorsement—and won the seat in her primary with 60% of the vote.

When Oregon State Representative Val Hoyle (Emerge Oregon, 2009) resigned to run for Secretary of State in 2015, Julie Fahey (Emerge Oregon, 2010) kept Hoyle’s house seat blue, winning her race with 51.96 percent of the vote. Hoyle also served as House Majority Leader, and when she stepped down, Emerge alumna Rep. Jennifer Williamson (Emerge Oregon, 2009) was elected to replace her.

Recently, California Attorney General Kamala Harris was sworn in as the junior senator from California. It is no coincidence that Kamala has also mentored a number of women, including Venus Johnson, who most recently served under her in the Attorney General’s office, President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors London Breed, who she recruited into the Emerge program, and Lateefah Simon, the newest member of BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) Board of Directors, who worked with Kamala when she was a District Attorney to create San Francisco’s first reentry services division. This is what women supporting women looks like.

As Michelle Obama said at the 2012 DNC, “When you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. You reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.” Emerge is filling the pipeline with qualified Democratic women so that when an opportunity arises, we have a bench of diverse, dynamic women who are ready to run. But it’s the support that comes with the Emerge network that makes their training truly invaluable.