“If a woman can connect with why it’s so important, and how it’s so important that she serve, then she starts to become a leader.“
Sally’s List was founded in response to two alarming trends: 1. Oklahoma ranks 49th nationally in female representation at the state legislative level, and 2. Oklahoma ranks as one of the unhealthiest states in the country for women’s health.
Its mission: to recruit and train progressive women to run for the Oklahoma state legislature.
Talking with Sally’s List’s founder, Sara Jane Rose, about her work, her experience attending Rockwood’s Art of Leadership training two years ago, and life in Oklahoma was totally inspiring. I hope that you enjoy this edited transcript of our chat.
Britt Bravo: How does Sally’s List train progressive women to run for the Oklahoma State Legislature?
Sara Jane Rose: We originally started three years ago, and my goal was to work on the State legislature because our representation in the State legislature is very small. It was 12.8% then. It’s about 13.6% now. The first thing we had to do was to identify the problem. All of the states that surround us have higher percentages. Twenty two percent, and up for every state that touches Oklahoma geographically. The research had already been done, it was just a matter of finding it, and taking a look at it.
Basically, the research said that women don’t instinctively see themselves as political leaders. That’s the bad news, but the good news is, it’s very easy to provide them with the resources they need to see themselves in a different light, which is basically as simple as saying, “You can do it. This isn’t rocket science. This isn’t a mystical world that only men understand. It is a world that is easily understood.” Women generally respond to support and encouragement.
We had a young woman in our office a few weeks ago who works at the Girl Scouts. She’s young. She’s in her late 20’s, I think. When she came in for a meeting, she thought she was coming in to meet with us because we were interested in her work with the Girl Scouts. For about the first 20, or 30 minutes we chatted, and finally she said, “You want me to run?” I looked at her and said, “Isn’t that why you’re here?” She said, “I thought I was here to talk about the Girl Scouts.” By the end of the meeting she said, “I would love to do it, but I have to check a few things out. I have to find out if the Girl Scouts will let me run for political office, and I want someone to drive me around the district, so that I know what it looks like.”
These are all things that women want to do, but men just sort of wake up and say, “I’m going to run for office. I want to run for office.” Women need information. They like to know who they’re going to be representing, what the odds are, what it’s going to cost, and what the calendar is going to look like. If the election is in a year and a half, what does the next year and half look like for them? When do they need to raise money? When do they need to start knocking on doors?
We have found that the more information we can give them, and the more resources, the better. For example, we say to them, “If you want public speaking help, we will hire a speech coach, or a debate coach to come in and work with you. If you don’t feel comfortable with how you dress, and would like a little help with what kind of wardrobe will work better on the campaign trail, we’ll take you shopping.”
And this is the most important thing, which I learned at Rockwood: During the Art of Leadership training you spend probably an hour, or so with a partner distilling the reason you are working for the cause you’re working for. What is it about that cause that connects to your heart, and how do you present that to people in a way that they feel your passion, and feel inclined to join you on the journey?
In politics, that is called messaging, and in the work we do, it’s a bit more emotional, in a healthy sense, than it is for a lot of other people. We sit down with these women, and we spend a lot of time talking. It can take hours sometimes over several meetings. We’ve sort of gotten to the point where we know what questions to ask, but my question is always, “At what moment did you realize you had to run?” Lots of times we will ask, “Why are you running for office?,” and they’ll say, “Well, you know, I’m a teacher, and I don’t like how educators are treated,” or “I’m a nurse and I don’t think people are getting proper medical care, or “I’m a judge, and I see case after case with people who just aren’t getting the support they need.” These are things we’ve heard many times sitting in our office.
We say to them, “That’s great. Those are great reasons, but why are you running?” Running for office is tough. It is thankless. It is nasty. It is hours and hours of hard labor. It is knocking on doors in the summer when it is 108 degrees here. It’s a hard path to take, so, what is it that is so strong in you that makes that path doable?” Eventually we get there.
My favorite story is a woman who was a nurse. After several meetings she said, “I was a first responder after the Murrah Federal Building bombing sixteen years ago.” (At that point it was 16 years ago, when we had this conversation, now it has been eighteen years). She said, “I went there right after the bombing. I saw an Oklahoma for a short time that was united. It didn’t matter what your political beliefs were. People came together, and they worked as one towards a common goal. She said, “That Oklahoma doesn’t exist anymore. That’s the Oklahoma I want, and that’s the Oklahoma I want to work towards.”
That was her power, right there. When she would give that talk to people, be it a twenty second-talk, or a five-minute talk, people saw and heard the energy, the power, and the passion that convinced them she could lead.
For us, it’s a lot of ancillary things, like I said, speech training, wardrobe, and how to fundraise, but what it really boils down to is the thing in their heart that connects them to wanting a life of public service. If they can learn how to communicate that, and stay connected to it, it makes them a leader.
When we did that at Rockwood, we had this hour where you had to come up with a two-minute speech where you got up in front of everyone, and you said, “This is what I’m doing, and this is why I’m doing it.” When everyone stood up and gave their speeches (there were about 20 people in my group made up of people from the Southern states involved in social causes), I thought, “Oh my God, I feel there is hope for the world. If this is how passionate they each are about their causes, then I am comfortable that the future is bright.”
If a woman can connect with why it’s so important, and how it’s so important that she serve, then she starts to become a leader right there.
BB: It sounds like that exercise you did at Art of Leadership was very powerful for you to take back to your program, and for yourself.
BB: Were there other parts that were helpful?
SJR: There were loads of parts. There was this thing that they called Meshing. It was a very emotional time for me, for reasons outside of Rockwood. I landed on Rockwood’s doorstep very emotional, although everyone seemed to cry over the course of the training. Part of it was learning what your hot buttons are, and then practicing having people push your buttons, and just letting it — I’m saying meshing because I think you were supposed to be like a screen door — flow through you. Learning where my weaknesses were, and what people could do to push my buttons was great because I could then, in the future, watch out for that. When I felt the heat turning on, I could say, “OK, my buttons are being pushed right now. Time to step back. Time to not take it personally, and to find a different way through it.” I found the whole training incredibly inspiring. I’d never done anything like that in my life. It was really, really wonderful.
BB: I think it’s so interesting that one of the things you took away from it was not only learning about your strengths, but also about your weaknesses, and how to work with them to become a stronger leader.
SJR: When I started the organization, I was doing everything by myself, but I needed a Board, so I called six women, and I said, “Please be on my Board. You don’t have to do anything. I’ll do all the work,” which was fine with me. I realized while I was at Rockwood, it suddenly hit me, that these people wanted to do more. I felt like I was sparing them the work, but they were feeling shut out. So, I came back and I sat down with each of them, and I said, “OK, I had this training, and this is what I understand about myself: I don’t delegate well. In the jobs I’ve had in the past, I’ve learned to really rely upon myself, but I really want you to be involved at the level you want to be involved, so tell me what it is, and tell me how I can help you get there.” Some of them said, “I don’t really want to do much,” and some of them said, “I want to do more.” It was different with every person, but at least I could sit down with them and say, “This is what I found out about myself, I realized I’ve probably been shutting you out a little bit, and that was not my intention. It wasn’t because I didn’t trust you.”
BB: How are you doing since the tornado? Were you affected at all?
SJR: No, it was about 15 miles south of us. It’s a different area. Basically, what’s happening with all of the nonprofits here is that they’re all directing their membership where to give. Mostly people are donating money, or they have lists of what they need (e.g. bottled water, diapers, gloves). Oklahomans really step it up when there is a disaster.
My younger daughter is going into the eighth grade, and they had the class party today. They asked people to write checks, or to bring stuff. They had an entire trailer of supplies, and $2,000 by the end of the party. That’s pretty normal here.
BB: Is there anything else you’d like to add about the work Sally’s List is doing, your experience at Rockwood, more about living in Oklahoma, or anything else?
Whenever I meet women leaders from outside of Oklahoma, I say, “Give me some names of people to contact.” I contacted a woman founder of a high profile, progressive organization, and sent her my usual, “I live in Oklahoma, this is what we do, this is how we do it, and would you consider giving me some advice on fundraising, or helping with fundraising?” I got an email back that was so pessimistic. It said, “Oh my god, you’re just wasting your time. I can’t believe you’re trying to do this in that state. Good luck. It’s a lost cause.” I emailed back, and said, “If I thought this was a lost cause I wouldn’t be doing what I do. This isn’t a two-year project, or a four-year project. This is a twenty-year project.”
People think we’re a lost cause. We’re not a lost cause. There are so many more progressive people here than anyone imagines, it’s just that people have been marginalized for a long time. There are a lot of people outside of the major urban areas who think that they are the only ones. I’ve talked to women in the past who say, “I thought I was the only one. I didn’t realize there were other progressive people.” You can get them in a room together, and they’ve never been in a room full of progressive people before. They may be hanging out with them, but you just don’t talk about it.
My message to the outside world is: We are not a lost cause. Don’t give up on us. Don’t judge us by the crazy people. It’s a state of big givers, be they progressive, or not progressive. Everyone’s very charitable here. We’re not a no man’s land for love and respect. We’re thriving. Come visit!