In the latest Disruptors column, Milk spoke with Karen Giannuzzi about her success disrupting the male dominated Greenwich, Connecticut town council.
Hi Karen, can you start be sharing a little bit of background on your town, the council, and the state of things before you got involved in 2016.
We have this huge town council of 230 people, which makes it one of the largest legislative bodies in the country. It’s a rather inefficient form of government but it gives representation to a lot of people. The council is subdivided into 12 districts as well as committees that meet regularly to help the entire council make decisions (most of which involve budgetary decisions.
For a very long time, it was dominated by men and a lot of retired people. Before this last election, over 50% of the people who held positions were over the age of 65 and almost 65% of the members were men. . A lot of people have been on the council for 10-15 and even 40 years. overall our town government works pretty well.
But the council isn’t representative of the population of the town of Greenwich. It’s highly skewed to those who have time, mostly retired people. The younger people who are busy working and raising families are not represented.
Greenwich has a certain reputation as an affluent New York City suburb. But it is actually a much larger diverse town than people realize, right?
It is actually a very diverse town. Economically we are more diverse than people realize. Yes, there is a lot of affluence, but we also have subsidized housing and 5% of the population lives below the poverty line. There’s also a large international presence. The high school population is around 75% caucasian, which is still quite high compared to the country, but much more diverse than nearby towns that are 90+% white. It was very interesting that the town council didn’t represent that.
Women are 53% of the town population. Prior to our election on the town council, the body was made up of only around 30% women. It isn’t that bad when you look at other bodies around the country, which mostly are around the same. But it wasn’t representative. Now the town council is 57% women after the election. This finally matches our town’s population.
For you, like many people, the 2016 Presidential Election was a turning point. What changed for you?
People were stunned. A lot of people were stunned. A lot of people realized, as my girlfriend Jennie said, “We always thought the adults were minding the store.” Then we realized what was really going on.
I don’t mean just the anti-Trump people. People from all sides were not happy with what happened in the election. The dialogue was so negative. Everybody was so upset. We wondered, did we let this happen ourselves by not being involved? So you start with, “What can I do?”, and so you went on this March. It was very positive, very uplifting, a very moving experience. Then we came back and thought, “Ok, now what do you do?”
We did what a lot of people around the country did in the beginning. We made phone calls, we sent emails, we posted things on facebook. But we realized, if you aren’t involved in the process then you can’t complain about what is going on.
So we started to examine what was going on in our own backyard.
What actions did you take?
We had created this group, a Facebook group to get organized to go the Women’s March. We organized the busses and then it was a natural progression. We got back and we started having meetings and trying to figure out what to do next. Then someone said why don’t encourage people to get involved by running for the town council.
We thought it was so great, it was something tangible. We’ll learn what’s going on in the local government. A lot of people said it had that kind of an old white men culture. People were thinking we don’t want to deal with that. Then we said what if we do it together. We can support each other. So that’s what we did.
We started devising a way to get people involved. It was first about educating them, we would have cocktail parties and coffees and tell people about the local government. It wasn’t only women, but predominantly women. It was people who had decided to run, or friends who were helping them run, sending out emails and doing all that. It became a support network of people. It was very organic. Then we would get some of the incumbents to come and talk and educate people about how it all works.
You received some backlash from some bloggers and people in town. One blogger called your group a bunch of “Angry women, all suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome”. How did you respond to that?
He was saying these incredible misogynistic things about women. It allowed us to say that isn’t what we are doing. We didn’t have an agenda, we were just trying to get people involved.
It really helped energize people. Earlier this year, there was also n town council member who was arrested for sexually assaulting a town employee. It was evidence of what was going on in our own town and why we needed a voice to speak up against what was going on.
Were you surprised by this reaction to your candidates?
It was surprising to see that it was happening here in Greenwich. It’s a town where you have so many people who are educated and travel around the country and the world, you tend to think people here know what they should or shouldn’t an say out in public.
It wasn’t just shocking that he could say these things, but that he had followers who would say even worse things. But the people who were supporting him, they were all anonymous. A lot of women who were running said they didn’t realize this would happen in their own town, they talked about how they might pass by these people when they drop their kids off at the school bus, or wonder if these could be their neighbors. It’s one thing when you see it happening on a national scale and it’s another when you see these are my neighbors, people I walk by at the grocery story. When you see such negativity, it hits you to the core. It really motivated people to get out and vote and send a message that we don’t like this in our neighborhood.
That blogger was talking about these big philosophical political ideas, and saying we were “pussy hat wearing radicals.” But that’s not who we are. The thing is, this started out as about the March, there was a certain amount of anti-Trumpism. But when we started working locally, we didn’t have an agenda or a slate, we were just trying to get people involved. If you are trying to decide whether to put a traffic light on this street, it really doesn’t matter if you support Trump or not. It has to do with making things better in our town. It is non-partisan, it’s about creating a positive dialogue about things in our backyard.
It sounds like the kind of response we see sometimes, of men trying to sideline women from serious conversations by portraying any woman with an opinion as a radical.
It’s a hard thing to face, and I tend to think a man wouldn’t have to face things like that. Of the people who we had running, there were a lot of left wing people, but we also had unaffiliated voters, Republicans, we had men. You just can’t fit all the people into one category in the way the blogger was doing Greenwich really is is a true moderate, middle of the road town, politically. It voted for Hillary, and our Senators and U.S. Representatives are Democrats, but our State Representatives are Republicans. It is a moderate, “purple” population and our town council should represent that.
Was it difficult for you to convince people to run?
People, especially moms, were reluctant to get involved, because they were involved in so many things. But women said, we have to not just run the PTA, but run the organizations that actually make a difference in this town, like the town council. Once we educated them about the role and the time commitment, they were in.
We recruited over 45 candidates run. About 90% of those people were elected. 98% of all the women who ran were elected (as opposed to 68% of the men who won.) Clearly there was a movement to support women.
Now that you’ve won, what are your goals for the town council?
There’s a learning curve, we have to educate ourselves about what the job entails. We have to put our heads town and get to work. We’re the freshman members so we have to learn quickly. But we also want to support the new members. I’m learning now that men involved in the government in this town get together all the time in some organized way. I realized there isn’t a similar group for women. So we might do something informal, not like a caucus but a way to support each other and help people be more effective on the board.
I’m sure this won’t be for everyone, and not everyone will continue. But I’m hoping that there are some women who get inspired and see this as an opportunity or a stepping stone to run for other offices. Once you get women in and you see that it can be done. You provide a road map of how to do it again.
What advice do you have for other women trying to break into old legislative bodies like these or even other established groups?
I think it’s different in different places, it’s not that formulaic. Here in Greenwich, we really tapped into something, people were looking for a way to make a difference and we gave them a tangible way. Getting involved locally is so important. The reason the Tea Party was so effective was because in 2008 they mobilized and got involved locally. Whether it’s your school board or town council, the advice is to get involved locally. You do gain a sense of empowerment.
It’s also important to get other people to do it with you. Our facebook group is almost 400 people, but you don’t need a big group. Just a friend or two at leas, so you’re not doing it alone. In towns across the country there’s a lot of entrenchment. If you figure out a way to get people involved. There’s a lot to be said for that.
What is next for you? Do you have other political ambitions?
I don’t think so. I have never been interested in something more and find great satisfaction in being engaged in our town and supporting other women. I didn’t even plan to run, but I realized if I am trying to convince other women to get involved, then I better do it myself.
When not encouraging people to get involved in local politics, Karen Giannuzzi is a stay at home mother of four kids. She is a former corporate attorney and professor of business law and legal writing and the founder of the Greenwich charity known as Mothers for Others.
The Disruptors: These are the women who see the male-dominated status quo and envision a different way. They are the entrepreneurs, innovators, and leaders who are creating new systems, organizations, and narratives. Along the way they are also changing perspectives about what is possible. If you know a disruptor, nominate her to be featured by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.