Happy Election Day! On Behalf of One of My Personal Heroes, Jean Sinzdak, I’m Asking You Ladies to Run (and Vote)!

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In time for midterm elections, here’s an interview with my fellow University of Scranton alumna, Jean Sinzdak.

Get our an vote, ladies (and gents)!  Better yet, think about running yourself!

Hello, Jean!  The last time we saw each other, we were graduating from college. It’s been a while!! I know you went to grad school. What was that for?

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost (ahem) 20 years since college! After we graduated, I went on to get my master’s degree in social work, specializing in social policy and economic development.

Where are you now?

Now I live in Highland Park, NJ.

Can you tell us what CAWP is? And what do you do there? What is your title?

CAWP stands for the Center for American Women and Politics. We are based at Rutgers University and are the leading source for all things women and politics in the US. My title is Director of the Program for Women Public Officials, which aims to increase the impact of women in politics and make political women’s leadership more effective through national, regional, and local events and programs for women officeholders, candidates, and campaign operatives. Basically, I work on a lot of educational programs and initiatives to encourage more women to get into politics and government.

How did you end up at CAWP and how long have you been there?

I have been at CAWP since 2005. My career has always been focused on women’s leadership and women’s policy, and I started that when I was in school – at the University of Scranton I interned at the Women’s Center, and while in grad school I did a field placement at the Penn Women’s Center. After school, I moved to Washington, DC, where I primarily worked at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a think tank focused on women’s policy issues. I did outreach and communications for the institute’s research initiatives, particularly the Status of Women in the States project, which measures how women are doing in this country on a variety of indicators, including economic well-being, health, and others.

Who is CAWP for? How does one get involved with CAWP?

CAWP is for scholars, students, journalists, women public officials, candidates, and the general public. We often have events with women leaders that are open to the public, and we regularly have students who intern for us. We do a lot of joint projects and work with community leaders all over the country to implement their own programs around women’s political leadership. The easiest way to get involved is to reach out to us!

Describe a typical working day.

The good thing about this job is that it rarely feels typical. Because we are a somewhat small organization, we all get involved in each other’s projects, and there is a true collaborative spirit. On any given day, I could be in a planning meeting about a new project, attending an event hosted by a partner organization, or chatting on the phone with a representative from a women’s commission in another state about getting more women engaged in government (this is how my Friday went last week.)

What is “Teach a Girl to Lead™”?

Teach a Girl to Lead™, or TAG, is our newest initiative to make women’s public leadership visible to the next generation. We want to inspire girls and young women to follow in the footsteps of women leaders, and we want both boys and girls to grow up with more inclusive ideas about who can lead. TAG provides the tools and resources to educators, leaders of youth-serving groups, media outlets and parents who want to help young people rethink leadership with women in the picture. On the TAG site, for example, you can find lesson plans on women in politics; games and activities to help young people better understand the workings of their government and the roles that women play in the process; and exercises to enhance the capacity of girls and young women for public leadership. You can also find great books and films about women leaders. The Programs & Places Resource Map features girls’ leadership programs, including those with a focus public leadership, as well as coed civic leadership programs; historic sites where women leaders made history; and field trip ideas to show girls and boys about women’s political history.  And to make it easy for teachers or leaders to a woman public leader to speak to their class or youth program, we created the Leaders Lineup, a searchable map of women leaders, along with sample invite letters and discussion questions. We hope TAG inspires teachers and leaders everywhere to talk to kids about women’s public leadership and about civic engagement.

What is “Ready to Run®”?

Ready to Run® is our non-partisan campaign training program to encourage women to run for elective office, position themselves for appointive office, work on a campaign, or get involved in public life in other ways. We now have a national network of Ready to Run® partner programs committed to electing more women to public office. CAWP created the program with two main goals: to put a spotlight on how few women serve in office and to provide the “nuts and bolts” training women need to launch successful campaigns.

Molly, my 8-year-old daughter, my friend, and I had hoped to start a Girls on The Run program this Fall. Can you recommend any other programs for younger girls to get involved with that teach things like goal-setting, community involvement and self-care?

Girls on the Run is an excellent organization and program! I actually can’t wait until my oldest is big enough for it. Girls on the Run is one of the allies of Teach a Girl to Lead™. One thing I have been encouraged by is how many organizations out there are doing terrific work on girls’ leadership and community involvement.

There are the ones, like Girl Scouts and Girls, Inc. , that many people are familiar with. Both of those organizations have many terrific programs focused on helping girls discover their potential and grow their leadership skills. The Girls Leadership Institute offers parent and daughter workshops focused on raising resilient girls. Hardy Girls, Healthy Women’s mission is to empower girls with knowledge, critical thinking skills, and a platform to drive social change. The Eleanor Roosevelt Center has a Girls Leadership Worldwide Program focused on civic engagement, with the mission to “empower girls to be principled and socially conscious good global leaders.”

There are also a good number of summer camps dedicated to girls’ leadership. In my own backyard, for example, the Alice Paul Institute, which is dedicated to honoring the life of the noted suffragist, offers a Girlblazers summer camp focused on developing leadership and social action skills, among other great programs they offer.

And these are just a few of the programs I’ve found. Not to put in another plug for our Teach a Girl to Lead™ project, but you can find more of these types of programs on TAG’s Program and Places Map. We are constantly adding to it, so keep checking back!

Jean, from my experiences with you, you could have really done anything you wished. Why women and politics?  

Wow, what a nice compliment! I always think the same of you. To be honest, it’s not as if I made a conscious decision that this was what my career was going to be. It just…felt right to work on women’s leadership and women’s development issues. It’s something I’m passionate about, so I followed my passion and was lucky enough to find jobs that fulfilled that passion. In terms of the politics side of it, I am fascinated by the idea of power – who has it and how they use it, and how power can be used effectively to further social and cultural change. So women and politics pieces all that together for me. I’ve been lucky and am grateful to be able to spend my work life focused on something I really care about.

What do you mean by politics?

When I think about politics in terms of my job, I mean everything that has to do with government and the way government works, including elected officials, government staff, policy development, and infrastructure. So when I talk about getting more women into politics, I want more women to think about being at the table when policy decisions are being made – as an elected official, as a staffer, or as a lobbyist. Be part of the conversation, not outside of it.

Can you give us a snapshot of where you think the U.S. is right now for women and politics?

The US has made strides in recent years – we now have a record 20 women serving in the US Senate. That’s incredible when you think that as recently as 1991, we only had a maximum of 2 women in the Senate. So a pretty dramatic rise in the past couple of decades, although we are nowhere close to parity. Overall, there are 99 women serving in Congress , which is 18.5% of the members of Congress. Women make up about 23% of statewide executive offices in this country (such as governor, lt. governor, treasurer and other statewide officials). There are 5 women serving as governors out of 50, and 24.2% of state legislative seats are held by women. At the local level, just over 18% of mayors of cities with population over 30,000 are women, and 13% of mayors of the 100 largest cities are women. So we have a long way to go before women are equally represented in public office, although we can be proud of recent positive trends. I am optimistic about the future, but we still have work to do. For reference, you can always find the current numbers of women serving on CAWP’s web site.

You have three daughters and a husband, right? What is it like, for you, being a working mom and spouse?

It’s a busy life, that’s for sure. But my husband and I are really a team in everything we do, and we always make our family the priority. And my girls are the best! Not that I’m bragging or anything.

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I vividly remember reading The Second Shift with Dr. Harris back when we were at Scranton. Do you remember it? Do you think there is still a “second shift” (basically, the labor performed at home in addition to the paid work that a working woman does)? Is it good, bad, neither?

I remember that as well! By the way, I have been working with Dr. Harris for the past few years – the University of Scranton is one of our Ready to Run® partners. It’s been really neat to close the circle in terms of my experience as a student and now a professional. Generally, yes, I think there is still a second shift, but I am hopefully that we are moving in the right direction. My mother, a recently retired pediatric nurse, always comments on fathers she sees today, including my husband, doing so much more than they did when her generation was raising kids. My father freely admits he never really changed diapers, which blows my mind. I think cultural perceptions are changing, and fathers today do much more, at least in some places. Women still bear the burden of the second shift overall, though. Change is coming, but it will take some time. What we need to continue to do is focus on how to give support to families. US society has traditionally undervalued or ignored creating policies aimed at supporting healthy and productive family lives. Other countries are way ahead of us on that front, on issues like maternity/paternity leave and living wages.

I remember a while back you posted a picture from when you attended The White House Research Conference on Girls. What was that day like?

That was a great day – informative and inspiring. I learned so many fascinating things from the researchers who presented, and I really didn’t want the day to end. One thing I keep thinking about was a panel focused on girls and STEM. In particular, Dr. Jo Boaler of Stanford University presented a research study about how girls learn math. There is a lot of evidence that suggests that changing the way math is taught will help girls, and also boys, learn and stay engaged in math. It’s so important because girls are just as good at math as boys are, but our culture believes they aren’t.  I also learned about so many other organizations and initiatives that it made me hopeful for the girls of our country and for the future. There are lots of exciting initiatives going on.

Also, you crowdsourced a toast for your brother’s wedding via Facebook. That really cracked me up. What did you end up saying?

It was fun to see what people said about marriage. In the end, I talked about my brother’s best qualities and how his wife was his match in every way, and I talked about her amazing qualities. They are perfect together, and it was nice to celebrate who they are as individual people and as a couple. I ended it with a quote from the author AA Milne, which perfectly sums up their relationship: “If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day, so I never have to live without you.”

What’s your favorite thing about being married or in a long-term relationship, and what piece of advice do you have for a couple about to tie the knot?

It’s a cliché, but definitely marry your best friend. My husband and I still love to talk to each other, even in the midst of all the craziness and busy-ness of our lives. We just had our 10th wedding anniversary, and I couldn’t imagine hanging out with anyone else. He is still the person I most want to see and talk to about my day.

I love to talk with my kids about their “roses” (best things) and “thorns” (worst things) each day. What are three roses and three thorns in your life right now?

We do “peaks” and “pits” at our house, too! It’s a nice thing to do over dinner. Hmm, three roses: my family, my health, and my job.

Thorns: can I say “lack of time” for all three thorns?? That’s the biggest challenge I face, and I think most people face, these days is finding the time to get everything done and also not get overwhelmed and pulled in every direction. I have been working hard on asking myself, “is this important or can it wait?” or “can I say no to this request?” without feeling guilty. You need to say no sometimes, right?

Who should run for office?

Anyone who wants to make a difference in their community. One thing that tends to hold people back is that they feel like they need to learn everything about every policy or issue before they run for office. Or they think they do not have enough political experience. But what you really need is passion for helping your community and the commitment to do the hard work. Everything else you can learn.

What are the barriers to women running for office? How do we get around them?

CAWP’s research has shown that the biggest barriers for women running for office include: family and work commitments, lack of a roadmap for how to run, concerns about privacy or negativity, and – the biggest one – no one asked them to run. We know that women need to be asked, but we also know that they are far less likely than men to be asked to run, particularly by other elected officials and party leaders. So one thing we can all do is identify women in our communities who would make great public officials and encourage them to run. It could make all the difference.

What would you say to someone who is jaded by our current political climate? Why do you think politicians can make a difference?

It’s understandable to feel that way. I think Congress’s approval ratings have been at an all-time low, and nobody thinks anything is getting down in this polarized climate. It’s hard to feel like politics or government is useful. But two things I would say: Congress is high profile and gets a lot of media attention, but government starts at home. And despite media attention suggesting otherwise, government accomplishes so many good things that we as a society would be lost without. So don’t be discouraged — whether you want to change something in your town, your county, at the state level, or beyond, there are many places and many ways to have an impact. Focus on your own goals and the things you want to accomplish, and then start to plan the best way to participate to get your goals accomplished.

If I wanted to run for office, where should I start?

Do a personal inventory: do you have the time, family support, and the drive to campaign? Do a political inventory: what seat do you want to run for? Is there an open seat, or will you need to run against an incumbent?   Are you aware of the basic issues? Are you willing to fundraise? There are more questions like this to consider. But it’s a good idea to make a list and see if you feel strongly one way or another. If you are ready to run after considering all the factors involved, then try to attend a campaign training if there is one in your area. Seek out other political leaders who can help you get started. Build your network and start laying the groundwork for your eventual run. There are a lot of practical steps that you can take, and it feels less overwhelming if you take it step by step.

What are 3-5 of your favorite books right now?

Right now I am reading Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests, which I cannot put down. Waters is a master at historical fiction that is morally complex and suspenseful. I just finished Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, which I absolutely loved. I also have Bruce Feiler’s The Secret of Happy Families on my nightstand. I not necessarily big on self-help books, but I was completely drawn to this one because it promises practical strategies for organizing your family’s life, and one of the strategies touted on the cover was ways for making mornings easier. I was a sucker for that idea – we’ve got a lot of people to get out the door in the morning, so any ideas that make it smoother are welcome. I just started reading it but already enjoyed the tips on how to handle kids’ allowances – that day is coming soon for me.

We also read with the kids constantly, and their current favorites are: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Yoko, and The Very Busy Spider.

Any questions you wished I asked that I didn’t?

Hmmm…can’t think of any. I’d love to ask you, though: are you as surprised as I am that it’s been almost two decades since we were in school together?? And, if you could tell your 20-year-old self anything, what would it be?

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