I spent the last eight weeks working at Women’s Fund of Rhode Island (WFRI), learning about the hard work it takes to run an incredibly successful nonprofit organization. It requires interpersonal skills, organizational skills, and a proactive attitude. It also requires a belief in the power of systems change, a belief that guides WFRI’s social justice work. Their Women’s Policy Institute is a perfect example of this commitment. This nine-month professional development and mentoring program helps women develop and advocate for policies that advance gender equity in Rhode Island. I was so inspired by this program that I sat down with one of its facilitators, Paula Hodges, to learn more about it’s day-to-day operations and goals.
What does the day-to-day programming at the Women’s Policy Institute look like?
“The Women’s Policy Institute operates from August to May and fellows meet for a full day at least once per month. The first few months of the program are dedicated to team building and setting the stage for where we all come from and our lived experience as women.. It’s critical that we build group understanding and learn how to hold one another accountable because passing policy requires curiosity, inquiry and teamwork. We then move on to unpacking privilege in every facet of how and why certain laws and elected leaders have power and troubleshooting why political and governmental systems create the conditions they do. We hear from guest speakers like formerly elected officials, and ask them tough questions. Eventually, each fellow researches and presents an issue about which they are passionate to the group and the cohort democratically elects one issue to work toward collectively as their policy project. They spend the rest of the fellowship partnering with existing organizations and champions to advance their policy testifying and attending legislative sessions.”
What do you love about this work?
“The Women’s Policy Institute is one of my favorite clients because supporting women who have shared values navigate why we have the political system we have feels tangible. You can practically see the light bulbs go off over their heads by the time we’re half way through the program. I especially value being a coach to real folks, after being in remote/zoom sessions these last 18 months. Since each cohort contains only 15 women, I get to know each of them pretty well. I find this work very nourishing and it keeps me grounded in the home state I chose nearly 10 years ago - Rhode Island.”
What do you hope your WPI fellows gain?
“My goal is to create a sense of belonging and a policy and advocacy home that the network can depend on when they want to seek a career change, join a board, run for office, or engage in more social justice work. I hope that these women will have a bench of people who will be there for them in a heartbeat to support them in their new business endeavors or campaigns.”
What would you say to other women who want to participate in this program or get involved with policy work?
“Women are constantly held to different standards than men. You could be the smartest person in the room, but as a woman you would receive a different level of scrutiny than a man. That’s a fact in politics, in boardrooms and our everyday lives. That’s why women need community and a squad to back them up to stay in the policy game. We don’t just want seats at the table, we want to own the building. This program provides its participants and those we bring as guest coaches with a place to acquire the skills, network and strategy to become a lifelong advocate for gender justice. find a network of alumni and leaders who are willing to help advance our mission. For women who feel daunted, we aim to accommodate them and meet them where they’re at. We are striving to be more inclusive with each passing year and cohort.. Kelly, our CEO, has worked very hard to offer stipends for childcare or to offset the daily wages women would have to give up to do this program.”
It’s been an honor to be part of the WFRI team and I encourage you to join us in our fight for intersectional gender equity. Afterall, when women succeed and lead in public office, we are all better for it.
-Samantha Wilner, WFRI Summer 2021 Intern