As more women have gotten elected to city and county offices, local governments have increased attention to family issues like health care, childcare, and domestic violence. Women also have shown a willingness to cross party lines to work on those issues.
But because they still make up a small percentage of elected leadership, women officeholders face more challenges in influencing legislation. A groundbreaking initiative by the Susan B. Anthony Center for Women's Leadership at the University of Rochester will connect women to information and resources to support them in policymaking.
The Women Leading Local Governments Policy Summit kicks off on Friday, Nov. 12, and Saturday, Nov. 13, with the first-ever conference for women holding offices in county and city governments across New York State. The program includes workshops and panels presented by public policy experts and business and community leaders. Participants also will draft a plan local governments may use to improve the lives of New York women and their families. The sessions are open to anyone in the community who is interested.
"Of 1,087 seats in county legislatures and the five largest city councils in the state, less than 18 percent—only 194 seats—are held by women," noted Nora Bredes, director of The Anthony Center. "But elected women do make a positive difference, especially when they're not isolated. By coming together at this conference, they will get a stronger sense of how their 'critical mass' can change the substance and style of political work. They will also receive public policy information from the speakers that will help them address issues that are important to the lives of families in their communities."
The conference program includes opening remarks by Lois Giess, president of the Rochester City Council, and a keynote address by Jody Heymann, associate professor of society, human development and health at Harvard University's School of Public Health. Heymann also is the founding director of the Project on Global Working Families and chairs the Work, Family, and Democracy Initiative. She will discuss "Creating a Better World for Women and Their Families."
Friday's morning session will focus on "How Women Govern, What Political Scientists Say and Find, " with remarks from Georgia Duerst-Lahti, chair of the political science department at Beloit College and co-editor of the book Gender Power, Leadership and Governance. The panel of respondents includes Ithaca mayor Carolyn Peterson; New York City councilwoman Gale A. Brewer; Elise Cusack, a member of the Erie County Legislature; and Lynn Rollins, senior advisor in the New York State Office of the Governor.
In the afternoon, participants will have a choice of three concurrent workshops. Lois Gibbs, who spearheaded the struggle to relocate families from the toxic waste dump in Love Canal, will headline a session on "Safe in the World: The Environment and Women's Health." Gibbs currently is the executive director of the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice. Respondents include Judith Enck, environmental policy advisor for New York State Attorney General Elliot Spitzer; Patricia Hysert, director of the Task Force for Tobacco-Free Women and Girls at Roswell Park Cancer Institute; Holly Anderson, executive director of the Breast Cancer Coalition of Rochester; and Suffolk County legislator Vivian Viloria Fisher.
Ruth Brandwein, director of the Center for Social Justice at SUNY Stony Brook University School of Social Welfare and a former commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Social Services, will lead a workshop on "Safe at Home: Working Against Domestic Violence." Panelists include Catherine Cerulli, director of the Laboratory on Interpersonal Violence and Victimization at the University of Rochester Medical Center; Ithaca police chief Lauren Signer; Catherine Mazzotta, director of Alternatives for Battered Women; and Rockland County legislator Harriet Cornell.
The third workshop, on "Secure in Life: Building Women's Economic Strength," will be led by Ann Crittenden, a former reporter for The New York Times, Fortune, and Newsweek. She also is the author of The Price of Motherhood and Killing the Sacred Cows: Bold Ideas for a New Economy. Respondents include Trudi Renwick, senior economist at the Fiscal Policy Institute; Cindy Hounsell, executive director, Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement; Westchester County legislator Lois Bronz; and Heymann.
On Saturday, all participants will attend a plenary session drafting a "Local Action Plan for New York Women" that local governments can use to guide actions improving the lives of women and their families. The document also will shape the future work of the Women Leading Local Governments Initiative. Participants will be able to strategize about the plan and support each other's efforts after the conference through a Web-based "Women Lead Resource Network" coordinated by The Anthony Center.
Sponsors for the two-day policy summit include the American Association of University Women—New York State, Citigroup, Civil Service Employees Association, Family Planning Advocates, General Code Publishers Corp., Rochester Area Community Foundation, Rochester Gas & Electric Corp., the Task Force for Tobacco-Free Women and Girls at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, and J. Christine Wilson.
Program panels will be held at the Strathallan Hotel in Rochester. For more information, contact (585) 275-8799.