When 26-year old entrepreneur Brandy Oswald of South Burlington began her training this year with Emerge Vermont—a five-month program dedicated to increasing the number of Democratic women in public office—she wondered if she belonged. She was surrounded by women of various ages, backgrounds, and experiences. By May graduation, her biggest takeaway was that she was exactly where she needed to be, and she most certainly belonged.
“The program taught me that regardless of what anyone might say, I belong in the political world,” she said. “I am allowed to stand up, to be loud, and to advocate for my community.”
Launched in 2013, Emerge Vermont identifies, trains and encourages women to run for office, get elected, and seek higher office. The program offers instruction from expert trainers in strategy, ethics, public speaking and communication, fundraising and finance, media and messaging, networking, field organizing, and women’s political leadership.
Oswald was among one of the 17 women who graduated from the campaign training program on May 7, bringing the overall alumnae count to 29.
Emerge Vermont is a chapter of Emerge America, which accounts for over 1,500 alumnae across 16 states. Vermont became the 14th state to affiliate with Emerge America.
While the Emerge Vermont training in itself is rewarding, the results are even more impressive; 52 percent of women who participated in the program have run or been appointed to office, and 70 percent have won. However, the work is far from over, as women are still an underrepresented voice, not only in Vermont, but nationally and internationally.
In Vermont’s 225 years of statehood, no woman has ever been elected to Congress, and only one woman has served as governor, former Gov. Madeleine Kunin. Among the state’s eight cities that elect mayors, only one is a woman, Saint Albans’ Mayor Liz Gamache.
Vermont is a national leader of women’s representation in its state legislature, and women account for 41 percent of the 180 state legislators. Women account for only 20 percent of the over 1,000 local selectboard members.
According to Representation 2020’s “The State of Women’s Representation 2015-2016,” Vermont earned a state ranking of 41 out of 50, and a gender parity score of 11.5 out of 100 points.
Nationally, women make up 19.4 percent of the 535 seats in Congress and 24.6 percent of state legislature, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Globally, women account for 22 percent of Parliament/Congress.
These statistics shed a stronger light on Emerge Vermont’s cause, but numbers aside, the program stresses that women in politics bring different perspectives on policy issues and decisions that are currently being dominated by their male counterparts.
While Emerge Vermont alumnae have demonstrated interest in politics, the political path is not the only outlet for experience.
Take Oswald, for instance. Politically, she recently volunteered on Rep. Kesha Ram’s, D-Burlington, campaign launch event for lieutenant governor and Williston Selectboard member Debbie Ingram’s campaign launch event for state senate. Prior to that, Oswald volunteered as a legislative intern for Ram’s 2012 re-election campaign, as well as a number of local races.
Oswald also assumes the role of founder and CEO of Body Love Tribe, an organization that promotes body positivity for women of all ages through events, retreats, online programs, and a virtual community. Additionally, she’s assisted in creating Nandi Animal Rescue, instructs yoga at Sangha Studio among other locations, and has contributed to a variety of publications.
Then she added Emerge Vermont to her list of priorities. Oswald heard of Emerge Vermont through Ram months before its inception. She volunteered at Emerge Vermont’s launch event at Hotel Vermont and other Burlington-based Emerge Vermont events.
“Emerge helped me find the confidence to stand tall and proud as a female entrepreneur, and to recognize the unique approach that women offer to the world of business” she said.
“[It] demonstrated the importance of surrounding myself with powerful women. It also reminded me of the importance of empowering women to be leaders.”
Since graduating, Oswald has launched a virtual course to connect women from around the world and provide them with confidence-boosting tools. In June, she hosted a three-day women’s retreat designed for connection, support, and empowerment.
During her training, Oswald found inspiration in one of her colleagues, Heidi Remick, a mother of two with a career in criminal justice, who ran a successful write-in campaign for Weatherfield School Board months after Emerge Vermont.
“She proved to me that women can simultaneously be effective leaders, mothers, employees, supervisors, and more. She also reminded me that often the best time to start your next great adventure is before you think you’re ready.”
In Chittenden County, two Emerge Vermont alumnae are running for a state senate seat: Ingram, Williston Selectboard member and Executive Director of Vermont Interfaith Action (Class of 2016), and Dawn Ellis, President of Dawn M Ellis and Associates, LLC and a Vermont Human Rights Commissioner (inaugural Class of 2014).
“The idea that we can, through education, develop new pathways to political leadership, is a powerful one,” Ellis said of Emerge Vermont. It breaks away from the “old way” of entering politics.
“To have those perspectives allows us to develop a skillset and gives us the opportunity to make better decisions.”
“I’ve had connection with a number of people who have gone through the Emerge Program,” explained South Burlington Rep. Helen Head. “I am enormously impressed with them. I think women often need a little extra information and encouragement in order to run for office and participate in public service, and the Emerge program provides that.”
Oswald has advice for future Emerge Vermont students and politicians.
“Start before you’re ready. You belong in the political world right now as you are,” Oswald said. Other tips: network, volunteer, and connect with Emerge Vermont.
“Reach out to campaign staff for state and local candidates and offer your volunteer efforts. Go to school board meetings, selectboard meetings, city council meetings, and any networking events in your area. Walk in there like you belong to be there...because you do.”