Changing The Face Of Politics Podcast
Episode 16: Philomena Wankenge interviews Governor Kate Brown
Introduction: Welcome to the National Democratic Institute’s Changing the Face of Politics Podcast Series. In these candid conversations recorded from home, politically active women from around the globe interview each other about the male dominated world of politics. They're the best examples of why we need to move faster to reach political parity between men and women before the middle of the next century, and change the face of politics. In this special episode for Pride month, Philomena Wankenge, racial justice activist, interviews Governor Kate Brown, Governor of the state of Oregon, about her experience as a feminist politician and what it takes to get more women, particularly LGBTQI women, into politics.
Philomena Wankenge: Hello, welcome to this episode of the Changing the Face of Politics podcast series. My name is Philomena Wankenge, and I'm an activist and co-founder of Freedom Fighters DC, a group of activists fighting for change through organized actions and mutual aid. June is Pride month, and we are very excited to be featuring the Governor Kate Brown as a guest in this episode. Governor Brown is the Governor of the state of Oregon and is the second woman elected Governor of the state. I'm looking forward to this conversation because I've honestly appreciated the effort that you have made for marginalized people to have access to voting, with Stacey Abrams. And I can't imagine what it's been like to take the risks you’ve taken and successfully have achieved high office.
Governor Brown: Philomena, I'm just delighted to be here with you today and looking forward to our conversation. And I too, am inspired by you and your amazing activism and literally putting principle into action. So keep up the really great work.
Philomena Wankege: Thank you. So this month is Pride month and we are celebrating LGBTQI people around the world. And as the first openly LGBTQI governor in the US, what do you think is necessary to get more women who identify as LGBTQI into politics and leadership?
Governor Brown: Well, let me talk a little bit about my path and what I see as incredibly important. I think to get more women and particularly more women who identify as LGBTQIA into political office, it's gonna require commitment, it's gonna require building a pipeline and it's gonna require all of us to work together to really create culture change. So, let me talk a little bit about building the pipeline. There are two organizations that I am most familiar with. Let me focus on Victory Fund because of your question. And they are working very hard in communities around the United States to identify leaders in our community that might be ready, willing, and able to run for office. And they hold leadership trainings to help folks get prepared to run for office. And that includes basics, communication skills, learning how to fundraise, but also talking about issues. It also requires building the pipeline and organizations like Victory Fund help create a pipeline for the future. There are other organizations out there that I'll talk further along. But the other thing that I think is incredibly important is, I have a saying, “you can't be what you can't see.” And it's so important for LGBTQIA kids across the country to see role models, folks like Secretary Pete Buttigieg, US Senator Kyrsten Sinema, and others across the country. Folks that might look like them-- that is also incredibly important. And I think it's all of these pieces. And then obviously it's continuing to build a network, creating community connection and helping others. All of those pieces are instrumental to diversifying the pipeline and making sure that more LGBTQIA women move into office, political office.
Philomena Wankenge: That's so inspiring because it's such a beautiful thing to see you advocate and give people a platform that identify with your path. And so I definitely wanted to know what motivated you to get politically involved? Was there a personal connection to an issue, a political party or a family member that motivated you to take this direction?
Governor Brown: Well, there's a couple of things. Let me be absolutely perfectly clear. I've been a feminist since the day I was born. I remember convincing my mother that Roe vs. Wade, the Court decision in 1973, was a good thing. And I've been fighting for feminism for as long as I can remember. But it was really my experiences as a young lawyer that created the momentum for me to come to the State Capitol and fight for justice and equality. And that was experiences I had as a young lawyer when I went to work every single day, afraid that I was going to lose my job because of who I was in love with at the time. And I vowed that if I ever had a chance to right that wrong and to end discrimination against LGBTQIA people in Oregon, I would take that shot. And fortunately, a few years later, I had an opportunity to come to the Oregon State Capitol as an advocate on women's issues and had an opportunity to work, to tackle discrimination and to end discrimination in this state. And I've been fighting ever since.
Philomena Wankenge: And keep up the good fight! And I heard you mentioned that you've been a feminist since the day that you were born. Why is having more women and girls engaged in politics important? And what impact of their engagement have you seen throughout your career and development?
Governor Brown: Oh my gosh. So I truly believe that when our leadership table, the people making decisions, is diverse, and that obviously includes the voices of women and women of color, that the public policy that develops as a result of that table is more reflective of our communities. It is more respectful and it is more resilient, that is much more likely to last, because it does reflect the community so much better. And I will just tell you in my 30 years, if you can believe that, in the State Capitol and Oregon, and as I see more women, and particularly more women of color, it really changes what the agenda is and the agenda becomes what is so important to our communities of color and our women and our families across the state. And that's a really, really good thing.
Philomena Wankenge: And so do you think that now it's becoming easier for women to engage in political leadership positions? Or do you think it's still fairly as hard?
Governor Brown: I would say yes, it is easier, but change takes time. And as I reflect back, one of the bills that I worked on as an advocate, as a lobbyist in the ‘91 session, was legislation that allowed parents to stay home if their children were sick, without fear of losing their jobs. We now call it family medical leave. And Oregon became one of the first states in the country, in the entire country, to pass family medical leave. And I realized that I could make a difference. But I have to tell you, our sort of holy grail around this policy, family medical leave, was to make sure it's paid, because we know that for middle-class families, they could take the time off, it was just lower income families that really struggled. So we've been working since 1991 to pass paid family medical leave. And we finally passed it. As Governor, I signed it into law in 2019. So, change is hard. Change takes time. It requires passion and patience and persistence, but it’s absolutely worth it. In terms of, is it easier for women to get elected to office now than it was 30 years ago? I would say so, yes, because voters are more used to seeing women in these elected offices. However, I would just tell you that women being elected to executive posts, particularly women of color, is extremely challenging. And we know this, right? Because we see very few women Governors across the country, a little more than a handful. And obviously we just saw our first woman Vice President. And yes, it's very, very, very, very exciting. Voters see women in elected office, in legislative positions because women are - they see women as culturally more able to deal with the legislative process, right? Women tend to be more collaborative or congenial, and they see that as a very comfortable space for women, a more natural space, if you will. In terms of executive office, this has been a huge change, a huge challenge to elect women to these posts. And we still have our work cut out for us, but change is coming, that I'm sure of.
Philomena Wankenge: And to follow up with what you just said actually preferably. So do you think there is a difference in the way women and men lead and engage with others?
Governor Brown: I think so, yes. When you ask someone just on the street what their description is of a leader is, it's generally a male person riding in on a horse to save everyone, right? My vision, and I think a lot of women's vision of leadership is very different. We roll up our sleeves, we bring people to the table and we figure out how to, we call it GSD, “get stuff done.” And it's a very collaborative collective effort. But when you do that you lose your focus on one person and it's more a ground-up movement. And it is less likely that the woman elected official at the table will get credit. And we're seeing this very, very realistically play out nationally right now throughout the pandemic. If you were to ask most folks who they see as leaders throughout the pandemic, they're likely to name a couple of key male governors, some Republicans, some Democrats. But as I look to the work that my women, my fellow women, Governors have done, both Republican and Democratic, it's absolutely phenomenal. You know, you look at what governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has done in New Mexico. She's dealing with a very vulnerable population, a very diverse population. She's number one in terms of getting vaccinations into arms. That's extraordinary. And I rarely see national articles giving her credit. Governor Gretchen Whitmer, done an amazing job battling her Republican legislature and people who literally want to kidnap her. She's getting great press. But it is the men that you hear about, the male Governors that you hear about, and that has to change. And I absolutely believe it will change over the next few years as more women come into these posts, and as folks across the country begin to appreciate and begin to really sense the critical importance of a collaborative, collective style of leader.
Philomena Wankenge: Thank you for that. Yay women! Definitely always yay women. And I appreciate you and all the Governors and the work that you guys are doing during this crazy, crazy time. I see you and I appreciate you, just wanted to let you know.
Governor Kate Brown: Thank you.
Philomena Wankenge: So, what surprises you about being in the public political office? I know you've been in it for about 30 years, but are there any surprises that still come up?
Governor Kate Brown: Philomena, absolutely, every single day. But I think for me, the, sort of the biggest eye-opener for this past six years that I've been in the Governor's office has truly been the impact of emergencies, natural or other, on our most historically underserved communities of color and low income communities. So, one of the first tragedies that I saw was a mass shooting at a local community college in Southern Oregon. Very small community, lost nine students and a faculty member. It was horrific and the impact on the community was devastating. And to this day, the pandemic and the impact on our communities of color and our low-income communities have been horrific. We had the historic wildfires last fall, we had 4,000 families lose their homes. And of course it wasn't the wealthy mansions that were lost, it was the mobile home parks. So, what this has taught me is that we have to reinvision and co-create emergency management and preparedness systems that really respond to our communities of color and our historically underserved BIPOC, low-income, and rural communities. And that is going to be revisioning, co-creating emergency preparedness by centering their voices in such a way that we have systems in place that will be responsive and meet their needs, provide the tools that they need to thrive and be resilient and adaptive. And that for me has been the biggest lesson through all of this.
Philomena Wankenge: And so do you, when you talk about underserved communities, especially within the time-frame of COVID, do you feel that your colleagues share the same view in seeing it as something that's imperative and implementing laws that actually catered to these communities so that if something unfortunately does happen like this again, that they're not underserved and that they are taken care of?
Governor Brown: Well, here's what I would say. Throughout the pandemic, Governors across the country, particularly under the prior administration, we didn't have a federally coordinated response and we were literally - there was no playbook, there wasn't a guidebook on how to handle a pandemic. We were literally being innovative and creative and pragmatic with what we had at the time. The issues around racial justice and how we worked to eradicate racism in our systems and our tool - in our cultures and our institutions, is very much the same way. We know how racism was built, brick by brick. We don't really have a good sense about how you systematically eradicate it. And so I am working with a racial justice council that I created to center the voices of Black and brown, indigenous communities, community members and center their voices as we work to develop budgets and policies to eliminate racism. I see this as a moral imperative. It is absolutely the right thing to do. I'm not sure that more conservative Governors see it the same way, but I'm guessing they see it as an economic imperative. And so I think that's how we can align and how we can continue to move the country forward in terms of tackling all the issues that we have to tackle with a racial justice lens at the very forefront.
Philomena Wankenge: How do gender equality, inclusion, and democracy work together in your mind, and how do you see this interacting with the movement for racial justice?
Governor Brown: So, there's absolutely no question that the women's movement has primarily been a white, middle-class movement. And I think I see that it is incumbent upon those of us and I would put myself in that category, our good intentions are not enough. We need action. And again, for me, that means centering the voices of Black and brown and indigenous women in our work moving forward. So what does that look like for me? That looks like investing in candidates who are members of these communities. It means mentoring these candidates. So for example, I invested in and am mentoring an African-American woman who's running in a very challenging primary election for Governor. That's the kind of work that needs to happen. It means investing in candidates of color early on and providing both the support and the mentorship that they need to be successful. And it means as we are developing, whether it's a feminist platform or a racial justice platform, that those of us who have had an opportunity to lead, that we let others, younger generation, more diverse generation, step up. Philomena, leadership is a muscle. It only works when flexed, anybody can do this. And it's so important that we develop the support systems and the networks to allow our younger sisters to lead this country moving forward.
Philomena Wankenge: What would you say is one of the biggest challenges that you faced in your leadership and just finding yourself as a leader, as a woman, as one could say, an activist, in some form. And I just wanted to know that, because I know it hasn't been easy and it's challenging.
Governor Brown: So, I think the biggest challenge that we face and that I have faced, is how do we let folks know, the majority population know and understand, that diversifying the state workforce, that ensuring that our agency directors reflect the communities, that our boards and commissions represent the diversity of Oregon, that our judges are a diverse group of people? How do we help those in the majority population understand that this will make the world a better place? The question really is what's in it for me? And I both understand intellectually and feel that by making the pie bigger, that that is a good thing for this country and for this world. But other folks feel that they're taking their piece of pie away from them. And that is the challenge I think we face, not only as a state, I face it as a leader, but as a country.
Philomena Wankenge: And what will you do to accelerate the pace of change on women's political empowerment in the next 10 years?
Governor Brown: [Laugher]. Let’s see. So I mentioned Victory Fund and their work to grow the pipeline. The other organization that I see happening around the country that is really helping women is Emerge Oregon. And I know there are Emerge programs in states across the country, but literally you apply and you get accepted into Emerge and it's like bootcamp for folks who want to run for office. It gives you basic tools, communications, learning how to fundraise, and most importantly, it builds a network. Just to give you a sense, the majority of women Democrats in the legislature are from the Emerge program, and that tells you how instrumental it is to giving women the skills and the support they need to be successful in elected office. It's for the first time ever the Statehouse has a majority of women out of its 60 members and that's a really good thing.
Philomena Wankenge: Again, go women! So what are you most optimistic about in regards to women empowerment, what our future is going to look like as feminists, as womanists, going forward?
Governor Brown: I am most optimistic about the next generation. Your level of confidence, your communication skills, your tech savvy. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind, you're not going to only shatter the glass ceiling, you're going to break it into millions of pieces and create a whole new level. And that's what gives me hope for the future of my state and for the future of the world.
Philomena Wankenge: Well, thank you, Governor, it's been a pleasure to not only speak to you, but to get so much insight on what it's like to be you as a politician, as a Governor, and as a member of the LGBTQI community. And we thank you for all that you do, and for advocating for us and fighting for our rights to vote and good luck!
Governor Brown: Thank you, Philomena and we didn't even talk about voting access! We can do that next time.
Philomena Wankenge: Yes!
Governor Brown: Thank you for your great work. Keep it up!
Philomena Wankenge: Thank you!
Governor Brown: We can do this!
Closing: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Changing the Face of Politics Podcast Series. To learn more about the series and NDI's initiative, please go to NDI's website at ndi.org.