COVID-19 has created obstacles to traditional programming, but Dr. Chanley Rainey knows it is also an opportunity for creative, national engagement.
The Coronavirus pandemic forced Rainey and Mississippi University for Women to cancel the 2020 National Education for Women’s (NEW) Leadership in Mississippi program, which is modeled on the national program developed by Rutgers University.
Now Rainey, an assistant professor of politics at The W, is collaborating with other NEW Leadership program directors around the country to create a national 2021 NEW Leadership program. Virtual sessions will take place June 9-10 and 14-16.
“With so much uncertainty remaining, having a virtual option is essential,” Rainey said. “If we must interact digitally, we want to take full advantage of the platform to connect our students with speakers we would never be able to bring to campus. This year’s cohort will learn from women leading at the highest levels of national politics and will have an opportunity to network with women across the country. That is something we have never been able to offer before; the combined national membership can draw speakers whom individual programs just cannot, and the cost of travel and lodging is eliminated in a virtual space.”
NEW Leadership is a national, bi-partisan program to educate college women about the political process and to teach them to become effective leaders in politics. The W’s program, which will be in its ninth year in 2021, remains the only one of its kind in the state of Mississippi, and one of only four NEW Leadership National Network partner programs in the South. NEW Leadership Mississippi brings together women from all public, private and community colleges in the state of Mississippi.
In a normal year, NEW Leadership Mississippi brings together undergraduate women from across the state’s colleges for a six-day residential program designed to enhance their understanding of politics and prepare them to seize leadership roles in politics and public service. The program is a unique opportunity for young women to increase their understanding of policy making processes, to identify a range of careers in politics and public service, to network with a diverse group of professional women in those careers and to nurture their ambition for a life of leadership.
Rainey, who is the director of the Center for Women’s Research & Public Policy at The W, said many college women are active in community and volunteer organizations but rarely consider a career in political life. She said studies have shown that while small children display similar levels of political interest and ambition, by young adulthood women are significantly less likely than men to express confidence in their leadership abilities or to view political involvement as a priority.
As a result, Rainey said NEW Leadership Mississippi is focused on educating and inspiring a new generation of women to be leaders in government.
NEW Leadership Mississippi teaches the value of civic engagement and the importance of having women in positions of political leadership. The program provides opportunities for college women to prepare for roles in public office and helps them develop the skills and confidence necessary to join the next wave of women leading at local, state and federal levels. Rainey said it is the sort of organization researchers have credited with recent increases in women’s representation around the country.
The program has received outstanding feedback from students throughout the years.
“I would encourage them to participate,” said Yasmine Harper, who participated in the program in 2019.
“The experience was unmatchable by any other leadership program I’ve had the privilege of participating in.” Said Nya Anderson, who also participated in the program in 2019,
“Prior to NEW Leadership Mississippi, I had no connection or idea of how to fit myself into politics … Yet, my time in the program revealed how much impact each individual has in politics and how not participating and making the effort to vote on ALL matters means you are letting others, often strangers, dictate important things in your life.”
The institute’s intensive programming features scholarly experts in women’s history and politics as well as women shaping public policy in their positions as elected and appointed officials, public servants, lobbyists, journalists, community leaders and issue advocates. Learning takes place via a range of pedagogical techniques, including interactive presentations and panels, small group discussions and hands-on workshops. One activity is the “Action Project” in which students are assigned to represent fictional advocacy coalitions, research the policy position of the coalition and then present testimony in a mock legislative committee hearing.
Program graduates receive two hours of college credit in political science or women’s studies, and the only cost is a $20, non-refundable application fee. All learning materials, meals, housing and transportation to and from program events (including a typical year’s day in Jackson, at the Capitol Building) are provided at no additional cost to students.
Rainey, who is in her fifth year with the program, said the goal every year is to facilitate engagement among a cross section of women from all walks of life, fields of study and political viewpoints.
“I am really proud of the mentorship we offer with professional women in a range of different fields and on all sides of the political spectrum,” Rainey said. “Many students develop long-term working relationships with the Faculty in Residence.”
The Faculty in Residence is a group of four women that lives on campus during the program, guides student groups in their Action Project work and helps participants network during the visit to the state capitol. In 2019, the Faculty in Residence were Judge Adrienne Wooten, 7th Circuit Court (and former Representative in Mississippi House); Amy Tate, government relations manager for the Tennessee Valley Authority; Lisa Shoemaker, government relations specialist for MS Cable Telecom Association; and Kristie Metcalfe, Mississippi Senate Attorney (and former law clerk at Mississippi Supreme Court).
While many programs around the country are offering only the virtual sessions this year, Rainey was determined to offer some in-person programming so Faculty in Residence and the Action Project could remain part of the institute. That desire led her to a hybrid model in which students will participate in additional face-toface programming on The W’s campus June 13-17.
“They’ll have unprecedented access to peers and leaders across the country, but they’ll be able to turn to their new friends and mentors after a session ends and talk about what they’ve learned,” Rainey said.
Virtual sessions will be limited to four hours of instruction each day, leaving plenty of time for face-to-face sessions in the mornings and evenings.
“Anyone who has experienced video conferencing knows how exhausting it can be,” Rainey said. “No one wants to sit at a computer all day, but we would lose so much content if we were limited to five four-hour days. Being able to work with the students before and after the virtual sessions enables us to provide the personal instruction we have always prioritized.”
While students will have the option of attending only virtual sessions, Rainey believes many will take advantage of the hybrid format. Besides women active in politics — as elected leaders, campaign managers, government relations specialists and civil servants, speakers will include internationally known scholars of women’s political behavior and history. Students also will have a chance to network with college students outside of the state.