‘You Are Enough’: Women Get a Push Toward Politics at Persist 2017 Conference

Hundreds of students, scholars, activists, policy makers, and politicians came together for the inaugural event, held at UC Riverside

Persist 2017 Women's Political Engagement Conference

California gubernatorial candidate Delaine Eastin (center) meets with conference participants. Photo credit: Carlos Puma

If you’re not at the table, you very well might end up on the menu.

That was the message communicated during the University of California, Riverside’s debut Persist 2017 Women’s Political Engagement Conference, held Friday, Nov. 3, inside the Highlander Union Building (HUB).

Bringing together more than 300 politicians, policymakers, activists, scholars, and students, the daylong event sought to inspire women to enter the political sphere in a multitude of ways, including running for office, influencing or crafting public policy, or advocating on behalf of groups or organizations of their choosing.

Denise Davis, director of UCR’s Women’s Resource Center — the conference’s primary organizer — explained during her opening remarks that “it became clear UCR students are hungry to get involved in the political process” in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election.

“So while we didn’t see our first female president in 2016, we’re certainly hoping she’s sitting in this room right now,” Davis said.

UCR is uniquely positioned to impact politics at the state and local levels, added Associate Chancellor Christine Victorino.

The university is ranked second nationwide in terms of the percentage of its alumni who choose to stay in the area after graduating, Victorino said, paving the way for students and alumni alike to engage with the surrounding community.

Persist 2017 Women's Political Engagement Conference

California Assemblywomen Eloise Gómez Reyes (second from left) and Sabrina Cervantes ’09 (second from right) meet with conference attendees. Photo credit: Carlos Puma

One alumna who certainly took Victorino’s sentiment to heart? State Assemblywoman Sabrina Cervantes, who graduated from UCR in 2009 and now represents California’s 60th District.

During a keynote address, Cervantes emphasized the importance of women having the courage to blaze trails while simultaneously using their successes to elevate the women around them.

“You don’t need permission to live your dream,” Cervantes said, noting her road to the state Assembly involved the challenge of beating a two-term Republican incumbent to become the first Democrat elected to her office since the Civil War.

Themes of sisterhood also were central to Assemblywoman Eloise Gómez Reyes’ address.

Reyes, who represents California’s 47th District, focused her speech on the critical need for older, more established women to serve as mentors for younger generations of women.

Reyes added she has faith that millennials, whom she described as more comfortable questioning the establishment, will heed the call to become more politically engaged through voting and other forms of activism.

“Politics is a contact sport — you have to get involved,” she said.

Rounding out the selection of speakers were Torie Osborn, principal deputy for policy and strategy under Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl; spoken-word poet Yazmin Monet Watkins; and Kimberly Ellis, the first African-American executive director in Emerge America’s national network.

Along with their keynote addresses, the day’s schedule featured a series of nine panel discussions, a resource fair, and a networking reception.

Panels highlighted the need to broaden inclusion in the political process, especially when it comes to amplifying the voices of LGBT women and women of color, who make up just 24 percent of the total 1,844 women state legislators serving nationwide.

State Sen. Connie Leyva, an Inland Empire local since childhood who now represents California’s 20th District, expressed her ongoing commitment to supporting working women and families.

Persist 2017 Women's Political Engagement Conference

California Sen. Connie Leyva speaks to conference attendees.
Photo credit: Carlos Puma

“We live in a man’s world — we’re making progress, but it’s slow,” Leyva said, adding she believes a “boys’ club” has continued to dominate the political arena and other industries because men champion each other in ways women don’t.

Leyva detailed her efforts in authoring and helping pass several key bills, including SB 813, which eliminated the statute of limitations for rape charges; SB 1015, which extended overtime protections permanently to domestic workers, 98 percent of whom are women; and SB 500, which makes sextortion — a form of extortion in which the threatened release of sexual images or other information is used as a means of coercion — a felony.

But perhaps the most vocal proponent of California women, who make up just 22 percent of the State Legislature, was the day’s concluding speaker, Delaine Eastin.

Eastin, a Democrat and fifth-generation Californian who most recently served as State Superintendent of Public Instruction, so far is the only woman slated to compete in the state’s 2018 gubernatorial race.

“Many of the decisions being made right now in Sacramento are not in our best interest,” Eastin said. “Since 1965, California has managed to build six college campuses; in that same period of time, we’ve managed to build 23 prisons. Budgets are statements of values, and if we had more women making policy decisions in the state of California, we would have a different set of values.”

During a rousing 20-minute talk, Eastin laid out her vision for a California where education — a field traditionally dominated by women — is a top priority.

She endorsed a single-payer healthcare system and the construction of more affordable housing, noting California has the highest percentage of homeless people and the oldest children still living at home with their parents of any state in the nation.

“I’m not saying we should elect women because they’re women,” Eastin said. “I’m saying we should elect women because when we elect women, the values fundamentally change.”

Persist 2017 Women's Political Engagement Conference

More than 300 participants attended the debut event inside the Highlander Union Building.
Photo credit: Carlos Puma

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