This week I had the opportunity to sit down with Emerge Vermont Chair and former state representative Joan Lenes. While I anticipated our meeting to play out more like an interview, I walked away feeling like I had just had a chat with a longtime friend. We delved into her background, what led her to take the path that she did, and our thoughts about the future for women in politics.
As a college student during the height of the Vietnam War, Joan witnessed her peers fighting for peace and in opposition to the police. As this movement spread across America, Joan wanted to learn more about why people were fighting for what they were, and she wanted to grasp the views of everyone involved. Starting small by getting hands-on experience in her community, Joan learned to listen and take action for the beliefs of others and herself. With her education background in sociology, Joan’s strengths include connecting with people and articulating the needs of those who cannot speak up.
Relatives in Vermont drew her up north, and she settled in Burlington working for the Center for Service-Learning at the University of Vermont. As an advocate for learning through experiences, Joan placed students with jobs and internships within the community. After a few years of expanding her network and establishing a reputation as a hardworking and reliable member of society, Joan got a call from the governor of Vermont. Joan’s contributions to the community did not go unnoticed, and she was asked by the governor to run for state office. While hesitant at first, her passion for her community and upholding policies of fairness to those who do not have a voice led her to run for state representative. During her 10-year run as a state rep, Joan made countless contributions to her community and touched the hearts of even more. Her involvement on the Chittenden local school board, Board of trustees at UVM, Shelburne rotary club, and Emerge Vermont Board of Directors (just to name a few…) are a testament to her commitment to using her voice and platform to make a change. When asked, “Why do you do it all?” Joan replied simply, “I want to stay useful.” As she held back tears reflecting on a lifetime of accomplishment and involvement, I felt the deep love she has for her job radiating from her character. Joan has a tangible personality; you feel a sense of warmth and importance when you talk to her. When she speaks, she looks you in the eye like you’re the only person in the room, and you can tell she treats every human being with kindness and respect no matter who they are or where they come from.
We discussed the shift in the climate towards women in politics, trying to pinpoint the catalyst for change in recent years. We came to the conclusion that there was no specific moment or event that spearheaded the women’s movement, rather it was a realization that in order to protect the future of women’s rights, we have to stand up for ourselves. The need to take action was only fueled by the 2016 election, and with many women passionate about being the change, the trend of women in political office is only headed in the upward direction. I asked Joan how women can start to get involved if they are intimidated by the process as a whole, or if the stigma and judgement that can be associated with women running for office is holding them back. She emphasized the importance of starting small, doing your research, and keeping your attitude in check. According to Joan, the key to being successful in your field is to, “have a passion, but not an agenda.” Those short and sweet words of advice, in my opinion, capture the spirit of Joan Lenes as a person and as an activist for her community. With a true, tangible love for the work that she does along with an amazing ability to connect with each and every person she encounters, Emerge Vermont is so lucky to have women like Joan Lenes on our team.
Emerge has one goal: To increase the number of Democratic women in office who are reflective of the incredible diversity of the Democratic party by recruiting, training and providing a powerful network.