Lily Herman on Electing More Women

Nasty women are fed up and heading to the polls. Lily Herman, a freelance writer and editor, is taking them one step further: getting them elected. Herman’s organization, Getting Her Elected, has more than 1,000 volunteers helping 75 progressive, female candidates run for office. Herman spoke to She Spends about her mission to elect progressive, female candidates and how you can help, regardless of where you live. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Tell us about Getting Her Elected. Why did you create it?

I started this initiative, which we internally call Getting Her Elected, back in January 2017. The idea sprouted from a couple of different things. There was a lot of talk coming out at the time that these organizations — EMILY’s List, She Should Run, Run For Something — were getting beyond record numbers of women saying they wanted to run for office. EMILY’s List at one point had said its record year was 960 women reaching out to them; now, they’re dealing with about 20,000 women. In all the organizations we’re seeing the same thing. A lot of them were not really supposed to be helping so many women with all these things all the time. A lot of organizations serve as a great empowerment tool, a great tool for the beginning of campaigns, but they’re not really meant to help with every single part of that pipeline. There's a real pipeline issue there. On top of that, running campaigns is really expensive, so it limits the number of people who have access and can run. For instance, one of the earliest candidates we started working with last winter said she was looking at getting some PR help — which is getting her name out there, help with press release writing, basic things for a campaign — and a PR firm wanted to charge her $15,000 a month, and that was on the cheaper end. That’s just for one part of the campaign, let alone everything else that comes in. That's why you don't get a lot of first-time candidates.

Obviously there's a lot that can be said about women and the sociology of women and why women feel like: “They’re not ready to run.” “It’s not the right time.” “They’re not qualified to do it.” After that, I had a basic idea: What if, to cut out part of that issue in the pipeline, we just had professionals who have these random skill sets: writing, editing, graphic design, fundraising, political knowledge. What if they offered their skills pro bono to these candidates? Hopefully then women can spend more of their time fundraising and being out in the field and meeting with constituents and less time trying to write their own press releases or do their own PR or try to pinch pennies to find people to do it for them. That initiative has grown to 1,000 volunteers and we are actively helping about 75 women candidates, all progressive, who are based all around the U.S. in most states, and they’re running at all levels of government: everything from local school board all the way to House of Representatives. I think we have a Senate candidate or two who are talking to us.

You have a lot of experience managing workers remotely. How do you organize volunteers?

I’ve done a lot of organizing and community building through various means over the last five to seven years. In that regard, it’s pretty easy for me to set up a couple of Google spreadsheets and send out a couple of tweets. I wanted something really simple, really lean and really results driven. What’s so great about the Resistance post-election, you have so many people who want to get involved in these things.

The flip side of that is that you’re trying to find the right organization, a lot of things sound alike, and people get bogged down in the details as opposed to the broader mission and idea. For instance, our initiative doesn’t have a website. It’s really bare bones and it’s completely word of mouth and through social media, but what that actually does, and it’s a very intentional decision, is candidates trust us a lot more because typically a friend has referred them or they saw my status and they had to look me up to see who I am. That means we’re getting a lot of trust coming in, and volunteers also trust us a lot more. On my end, I’m recruiting a lot higher-quality volunteers. Instead of someone having to submit some Google form with their information and they don’t know who’s getting their information, now they actually have to email me to get on this email list. That means you actually have to have contact with someone, which actually makes a huge difference. It was easy, it was in my wheelhouse, and my whole idea is to help as many women as possible. It also seems to have hit a nerve.

I know a lot of my friends who are young professionals want to find cool volunteer causes and want to put their skills to the test and use their skills for good, but are not sure how to do that. It’s been really cool seeing a lot of people who were looking for that thing to do. There are a lot of different parameters and hours, a lot of them are in random places in the U.S. This is pretty much where even if your skill is you can enter data and make a few phone calls, it’s something where if you have more than 30 seconds of time, you can do.

What does that process look like?

Volunteers will email me, typically just a short email saying hi and what their skills are. I input them into a database and then from there, roughly one to two times a week — sometimes more if we’re close to a primary season cycle or a general election cycle — we’ll email out a list of opportunities. They’re sorted by different skill set types. People can take a look at what those candidate needs. From there, candidates will email me separately with just a couple of materials. If you wanted to work on a graphic design position, they would email me a portfolio and some examples. From there, there’s always deadlines for when you need to email me to volunteer with these candidates or for these specific tasks that they want done. We email all that information off to the candidates. They have a certain amount of time to get back to us, just to make sure we’re not leaving a lot of volunteers in limbo. The candidates get to decide who they want introductions to; that’s what I facilitate.

Once a candidate and a volunteer are introduced to each other, I lead the process and check in periodically with everyone. It’s up to the candidates to make sure they are utilizing the volunteer the way they said they would, and it’s up to the volunteer to obviously get that work done. We have a lot of volunteers who work on multiple campaigns at any given time. A lot of them “apply” to work for a bunch of campaigns at any given time just because some are really selective with who they are introduced to. It’s a lot of work just making sure everyone is set up and ready to go.

Can volunteers be hired from this volunteer effort? Have you reached that point?

No, we haven’t been around long enough to get to that point. A lot of these are first-time candidates without much money. We’ve definitely had volunteers who have signed on to do more work with candidates. It’s always good when a volunteer finishes a task and a candidate reaches out to me and says, “Hey would it be weird if I asked them if they were available to do more for us?” It’s always awesome when they sign on and find a candidate they want to support.

A lot of women don’t think they’re legitimate enough. Do you feel like you’re pushing up against the same thing by purposely not having a “legitimate” footprint?

When I first started doing this, I had a bunch of people email me and ask, “What qualifies you to do this?”

You can just easily counter with, “Have you seen who our president is?

They would immediately go, “Fair enough.”

Honestly, a lot of people just as questions. We’ve had numerous volunteers offer to help me build a website. I know how to do it. At this point, I do have a higher profile on social media than I did or that other people do, so I think that helps add an air of legitimacy that I don't have to worry about. Also because this isn't my full-time job, it’s just a volunteer thing I do; my income and my self-worth isn't based on this one thing. I think the people who are more successful are those who take a little bit of that pressure off when you don't need to have that. I kind of avoided that because I didn’t know what this was going to turn into. Even if it fizzled out after two months and we only helped three women, that would be awesome. At this point it’s cool and interesting and kind of weird. I think you can look at imposter syndrome as, “Oh no, are we doing this right?” But I think it’s kind of fun to be this weird, funky, offbeat and almost sort-of rogue initiative that people hear about through social media or hear rumblings of.

We, as women, tend to define ourselves by what we do and that's what our self-worth stems from. Do you think, because you’ve been working on this, you have shifted your self-worth and how you can help other women find theirs?

Getting Her Elected is a product of me getting to that point. I’ve always been someone who has always had trouble labeling themselves. I do believe that at the end of the day, labels are there for a reason, but also we need to question them and question why we have them. The thing about this is that I’ve never thought of myself who does one thing or has one label. I always say I’m a freelance writer and editor, and then I tack on 12 things to that. People who know me say, “Lily does stuff on the internet.” That's the only thing that unifies what I do. It’s actually been helpful just to have that mentality at this point. I hope it rubs off on some people. I think once you get over the “Can people define it well?” a lot of stuff works itself out. In this day and age the personal brand and all of that, which again you can make fun of, but there is a lot of legitimacy to the idea of branding yourself. How do you brand yourself if you don’t have a very specific title? How do you define yourself? Hopefully, too, people can see that I’m in that much more values-driven space than moreso what my job title is.

It’s a millennial mindset, but it’s also what other generations think of millennials. With your volunteers and with the people who are running, do you find that the older generations see millennials as valuable for branding help?

What's been really cool and speaks to the vision and the vibe we’re giving off, we do have people from all over, from every demographic you can imagine. A lot of times diversity is, if you have to think about it, you’re not doing a good enough job. Knowing that all those people think that this is a cool thing is awesome and empowering. We do have a mix, especially in terms of volunteers and candidates, who are younger and older. It’s definitely been cool for older women to see how the internet can be empowering and not just social media. They’re able to use the internet to find an opportunity is pretty interesting, which for people my age is pretty standard. In terms of candidates, it’s really run the gamut in terms of what candidates learn from each other. It’s fascinating to see what asks are or where people are at. Overall, it’s been a really cool meshing of people from other backgrounds and identities that’s creating a new way of doing things.

We saw the Tea Party rise to prominence during Barack Obama’s first term, signaling the discontent of many Americans. The election of President Trump mimics that populist movement. Do you see any trends following the 2016 election?  

First of all, there are a lot more women running, which hasn’t happened before in a lot of cases. I think there’s a certain fearlessness now that didn't exist. Even if you think about who was running with the Tea Party, a lot of it was white men, so these are people who are already fearless; men, especially white men, are very privileged. They never had anything to fear anyway except maybe losing the race whereas with women — what I've seen from candidates — they’re at a point where they care but they don't care. They go into these things head on and ready to take anyone on. They are also a lot more savvy about what the campaign tactics are. One women felt like the incumbent interrupted her during a debate and she was able to call him out, and everyone in the audience kind of understood he was interrupting her and what that means from a gender standpoint. I’ve talked to women who felt like they were mentioned in articles and were totally erased by male incumbents and male candidates or opponents, and that’s been interesting watching these women who are fearless not only in terms of running but also in calling things out. They’re taking on not just the race itself that they're running for but also societal expectations and societal norms.

At the end of the day, the success rate for first-time candidates is 10%. A lot of these women are not going to win the first time around. The important thing, though, is that through their campaigns and through their speaking up, they’re making it so much easier for women who come after them. Or if they run again, they’re making it so much easier for themselves the second time around. That's the bigger takeaway: It’s not just that people are angry and so disillusioned by the political system, but they also don't have any qualms in calling out what they see, and in plain English though.

Do you find that the populous is willing to have these conversations? A lot of Americans are unaware of politics skewing in favor of white, cis men.

If you're unaware, then you don't even think to call things out. I think calling people out or explaining things as they are happening is a good first step. Even if a person is well-intentioned, being able to sit there and say, “Hey what you did there is not good. Let’s unpack that for a second.” It doesn’t necessarily always have to be an angry, rousing discussion. I think that’s kind of the first step is having people talk about this. No one in power or no one with power ever willingly wants to be told that they shouldn’t have some power. There’s a great quote and I’m paraphrasing here, but essentially if you live with the ultimate amount of privilege, then equality feels like oppression to you. That’s why we have guys who freak out when they’re told they’re being sexist because to them, they got to do whatever they wanted for ever. Somehow, not saying that sexist remark that wasn’t funny or interesting is so terrible to them. I think speaking up and speaking out is just the first step; I don’t think it’s the only step and nor should it be. I think that’s where the challenge lies. Who’s speaking up, and making sure it’s not the same couple of people. The more people who do, the easier it gets for everyone.

Have you seen a correlation between the onslaught of sexual harassment and assault claims in the recent weeks and the number of women running for office?

A lot of women have been thinking about their runs for a very long time. When you’re running for office you need to file all this paperwork and it’s hard to do it on a whim or on the fly. I’m not surprised that a lot of women are running. I get a lot of press releases of candidacy announcements right about now, not because it’s prime time to do that right now before primaries but also this specific time, everybody is angry. Right around the time that Al Franken’s announcement went out about how this woman accused him of groping her and kissing her without her consent, I got six press releases about women running for office. I’m hesitant to say it’s all because of that specific thing, but everyone then gets angry directly after that and more people want to get involved. As soon as that happened I was really pissed about that, so I tweeted out an earlier version of the thread about my initiative and got a ton of volunteers. People are just thinking about it, so it’s an opportunity to say, “Hey, if this thing is really pissing you off and it’s really bothering you, here’s something you can do about it that’s easy enough to do and doesn’t require you to get up and go somewhere or do something not on your own time.” That’s what I’ve been seeing more of, actually, from the volunteer side rather than the candidate side.

Where do you see this going?

I have absolutely no idea (laughs). I am by default someone who never has a one-year plan, three-year plan, five-year plan, 10-year plan. We’ll just see how it goes. If it fizzles at some point, that’s fine. If it turns into a bigger thing, that’s fine. It’ll probably never be something full-time for me because I never do any one thing full time. I really try not to put on too many limits. With something like this, the goals are based around getting more volunteers and helping more women. Even if we help a few women get elected, that’s pretty darn cool in my book.

Email Lily Herman at lily@lilyherman.com with your name and skill set if you would like to volunteer with Getting Her Elected.

-Amanda Eisenberg, She Spends Issue 31

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