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UC Riverside’s wonder women

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With just four full-time staff members, the UC Riverside Women’s Resource Center (WRC) serves its campus population — approximately 13,500 of whom are women — with a comprehensive range of programs and services. But what’s even more remarkable is that the WRC is reaching beyond campus borders to engage the 2.3 million women who make Riverside and San Bernardino counties their home.

A portrait of community

In 2019, the UC Riverside Center for Social Innovation took on an ambitious project: to develop a comprehensive overview of the women who live in the Inland Empire regions of Riverside and San Bernardino counties, considering their diverse backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses and challenges, political representation and more.

Center for Social Innovation researchers realized that in order for their report to succeed, they would need a key partner — one with close ties to nonprofits serving women in their community. Dr. Karthick Ramakrishnan reached out to Denise Davis, director of the Women’s Resource Center, to ask for her support.

“We were excited for the opportunity to participate in this report,” says Denise. “Much of the work that we do here isn’t able to be measured in a data-driven way, so we looked forward to having data around some of the things that we are fighting for — like greater women’s political participation.”

Denise recommended a diverse variety of women in the community, including entrepreneur Ana Lee; Jacque Casillas, Planned Parenthood donor relations manager and vice mayor of the City of Corona; and Janet Bernabe, who focuses on Latinx voter registration and civic engagement, in the community and on campus.

The State of Women in the Inland Empire was published in October 2019 and is available online.

Catalyst for change

One ongoing area of focus for the WRC is the Persist Women’s Political Engagement Conference, which has taken place annually each fall since 2017. The idea to start it came about after Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 U.S.  presidential election. Denise found that students and community members needed an outlet to harness their ability to advocate for political outcomes that would represent their interests and values. Free and open to the public, the Persist conference usually attracts around 400 participants — over half of whom are UC Riverside graduate and undergraduate students. The first of its kind in the region, it has become a cornerstone event in the women’s political engagement scene in the Inland Empire.

Persist keynote speakers have included state senators, assembly members and leaders of national organizations — including A’shanti Gholar, president of Emerge America (an organization that trains Democratic women to run for office) and Surina Khan, CEO of the Women’s Foundation of California. In 2019, UC President Janet Napolitano introduced the event with a video message promoting women’s political engagement. California State Senator Ling Ling Chang and San Bernardino County Supervisor Janice Rutherford offered a personal connection as UC Riverside alumni who went on to become elected officials.

The Persist conference has been a success — particularly as a tool for helping students harness their potential to participate in the political landscape. Conference attendees have an opportunity to have one-on-one 10-minute mentoring sessions with visiting leaders — from such diverse areas as reproductive rights, environmental justice and labor unions. And, as a result of attending the conference, several have gone on to arrange internships with their assembly member, congress representative or local political organizations. And, students of all backgrounds benefit.

 “We want to demonstrate that you don’t have to be a political science or public policy major to get involved in the political process,” says Denise. “We want to make politics open and accessible to everyone — to show ways in which everyone can get involved.”

Persist has been successful in providing an empowering forum for participants who can build a network with like-minded individuals. “Like a lot of people, I was disheartened after the 2016 election — that we’ve never seen a female president; that there are so few women holding positions in elected office. Persist helps show people why women’s political engagement is so important and gives them tools and resources to build this involvement,” Denise says.

This year’s event will take place in October to generate excitement in advance of the 2020 elections —focusing on down-ballot races where women are running, as well as races with candidates who are allies of women’s causes. 

Focused on UC values

“UC is a wonderful institution in the sense that we are very diverse and accessible to a wide variety of students,” says Denise. As a member of UC Riverside’s Strategic Planning Committee for Contributions to the Public Good, she is deeply involved in contemplating the university’s work in educating the next generation, as well as its impact in the larger community. 

“All of the work that UC researchers are doing on a systemwide level are things we’re trying to mirror in the WRC,” she says. “We want to provide our students with the most empowering experiences; those that will support them during their time here and that will also enable them to be change-makers beyond college.”

Learn more about the UC Riverside Women’s Resource Center and Persist Women’s Political Engagement Conference.

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