How can Indiana women get more involved in politics? This bi-partisan Fort Wayne group can help

This isn’t your mother's or grandmother’s political era. Women are more engaged in all facets of politics and public life in 2020 than they have been in previous generations, but there’s still room for more involvement, says one Fort Wayne-based advocacy group. 

Short for Advancing the Voices of Women, AVOW is a volunteer, grassroots organization that started in 2017 in response to the national Women's March on Washington when some 200,000 women stormed the nation's capital. It began as a way to continue the momentum on a local level.

Today, AVOW's four female Co-FoundersMarilyn Moran-Townsend, Rachel Tobin-Smith, Patti Hays, and Faith Van Gilderare working to empower women to become more politically active in public life, in the community square, and in Civil Conversations in northeast Indiana.

This month, the group will celebrate its third year of hosting Civil Conversations, or guided discussions about issues facing women, the greater Fort Wayne community, and the U.S. as a whole. So far, these community conversations have covered everything from gun control to sexual violence and religion. 

Civil Conversations are guided discussions about issues facing women, the greater Fort Wayne community, and the U.S. as a whole.

But while the group deals with hot-button issues, it hopes to break down real or perceived barriers in the community, too, challenging residents on both ends of the political spectrum to step out of their echo chambers and reach across the aisle in mutual respect, says Hays.

"If we just surround ourselves with our inner circle, then how do we address the growing polarization in the country right now?' Hays asks. "How do we get people engaged?"

So far, AVOW appears to making good on getting residents engaged in its work.

According to Tobin-Smith, the group has hosted about 1,000 attendees at numerous Civil Conversations and has facilitated the writing and submission of 52 letters-to-the-editor published in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, giving women a public platform to share their thought leadership.

The Women's Campaign Institute functions as an intensive "boot camp" of sorts.

Tobin-Smith says AVOW is encouraged by the city's participation in its work, and it's looking to continue the momentum in 2020 with a new initiative: A House Divided.

Starting in March and continuing through the November presidential election, AVOW and WANE 15 will host candid, Civil Conversations about some of the hottest issues most dividing the U.S. right now. WANE 15’s Alyssa Ivanson will moderate the discussions.

Another one of AVOW's priorities in 2020 is its annual non-partisan Women’s Campaign Institute aimed at encouraging local women to consider running for office or working on a campaign. Members of the 2019 Women's Campaign Institute.
Unlike men, women often need to be asked to run for office in order to consider doing it, so AVOW makes it a point to ask them to get involved and provides them with world-class experience informed by both Democrats and Republicans to get started. 

The three-day event, planned for March 6-8, 2020, functions as an intensive "boot camp" of sorts, helping women evaluate their own priorities and learn about the nature of political offices.

“It's really interesting because sometimes people think they want to run, and they have an office in mind, but they later discover it’s not best suited to make a difference in their pet issue,” Tobin-Smith explains. “We help them sort through some of that.”

She explains that AVOW's goal is to produce a “talent bank” of sorts for female politicians to rise up in Indiana. Even if women determine that now is not the right time for them to run, they will be equipped with the tools and resources they need when they are ready.

The Institute's work is especially critical at a time when the U.S. lags far behind other countries on women representation in government—75th out of 193 countries—according to data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union cited by CNBC. Even this year’s historic percentage of women-held Congressional seats (23.5 percent) is below the global average of 24.1 percent female representation.

City Councilwoman Michelle Chambers poses with Rachel Tobin-Smith
In Indiana, the gaps are even greater. In 2016, the Associated Press published an article, asking: Where are Indiana's women leaders? It noted that the state ranks 34th in the country for the percentage of women serving in the Legislature and lags behind other states in several key respects. 

AVOW's Institute seeks to fill this gap by covering a variety of topics related to political involvement and creating a talent pipeline for female politicians to raise each other up, Tobin-Smith explains.

For example, women who are alumni of the Institute make themselves available to the cohort individually and in small groups. This way, participants know they’re not alone in their pursuits, and they are more likely to succeed. 

“I know there are people who worry about whether they're giving away secrets, but really, what ends up happening is you've learned to reach across the aisle, which is what's going to make our government better," Tobin-Smith says.

Kendallville Mayor SuzAnne Handshoe, left, and Courtney Tritch, right, were among faculty at the 2019 Institute.

The registration fee for the Institute is $50, as the bulk of the cost is subsidized through fundraising. But according to Hays, the experience is priceless. After running for City Council in Fort Wayne for the first time in 2019, she knows personally what it’s like to run a campaign as a woman in the 21st century.

“Gone are the days that volunteering meant just stuffing envelopes," Hays says. "It doesn't happen that way anymore. It’s about getting out and knocking on doors. For me, it was about hosting events and inviting people in, too, so there are opportunities for Institute participants to learn the skills and then apply them to their own campaigns or political work."

Learn more

For more information about AVOW, visit its website, and follow it on Facebook and Eventbrite for a schedule of upcoming events.

Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a Fort Wayne-based writer. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. In the past 12 years she has worked in journalism, public relations, marketing, and digital media. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.
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