For this week’s ‘Friday Feature’ I had the chance to speak with someone who is currently going through Emerge’s signature training program. Olivia Peña will graduate with the Emerge Vermont class of 2020.
Liv grew up in a small town and was drawn to the University of Vermont and Burlington for its sense of community. While she originally wanted to become a veterinarian, Liv found a passion for food systems and pursued her degree in that. Within the food systems world, Liv was particularly interested in the environmental and economic impacts of food systems, and this drew her attention to the importance of policies and politics. Coupled with Burlington’s accessibility to be civically involved and an urgency to take action after the 2016 presidential election, Liv and a group of her UVM peers gathered to discuss a plan of action. They wanted to protest, write letters, contact representatives—anything to combat the impending casualties of the newly elected president. While this group eventually dissolved, the passion for action that it sparked in Liv never died. Her first position within the political world was through an internship in Senator Leahy’s office. Through this experience, Liv gained insight about both the federal and state government. She saw policy in action across Vermont and continued her involvement on a local level. As the commissioner of the Housing Board of Review for Burlington, a member of the advisory board for Burlington’s Community Development Block Grant, and a member of Burlington Democrats, to say that Liv is an involved and passionate member of society would be an understatement.
Liv was introduced to Emerge Vermont in 2017 by someone directly involved in Vermont politics. She knew she wanted to hold a position in office eventually, and since Emerge Vermont encourages women to go through the training when the time is right for them, Liv decided to give it a shot this past year. For the past six months she has been working with campaign and election professionals to develop and sharpen the skills of running a campaign. Along with the tools of campaign strategy, networking, and voter contact, Liv admits that her most improved upon skill has been public speaking. Her favorite training exercises involved refining her speech skills by being taught the tools to present herself confidently in front of an audience by the Emerge trainers.
Reflecting back on the past six months, Liv concedes that her “campaign toolkit” has grown exponentially, but that the most impactful part of the Emerge program has been the relationships she built with her classmates. The network that Emerge Vermont builds for women is something that they carry with them for the rest of their career. The connections Liv has made over the past six months—both with her classmates and her trainers—are lifelong and expand her network for future opportunities. When I asked Liv what she hopes to do with her training, she replied confidently that the ultimate goal for her is to run for U.S. Senate. She wants to use her voice, her passion, and her platform to represent the people of Vermont on a national level.
As a parting question, I asked Liv, “what is the largest barrier that women face in politics today?” Reflecting on her own career and experiences, she admits that a general underrepresentation of women of color in politics has been difficult—but it’s also one of the reasons why she wants to run for office. “As a young woman of color, there are far and few between who look like me in politics,” she said. This underrepresentation is just another factor that motivates her to be involved because if she can use her voice to be a representative for women of color, she can inspire the future generation of women politicians. Liv is someone who is able to communicate her message thoughtfully and poignantly. She speaks from the heart and recognizes the impact she’s already making on the world. She sets goals for herself and continues to navigate her career path through experience, and while our conversation only spanned about 30 minutes, I can tell that her future in politics is bright.
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.