The Harward Center for Community Partnership in collaboration with Women of Color and the Feminist Collective hosted a panel discussion Wednesday, September 20th during which three women who hold public office spoke to their experiences and the importance of civic engagement for young women. As of 2014, the United States ranks 98th in the world for percentage of women who serve in the national legislature, according to a study by Representation 2020.

Peggy Rotundo, a Maine State Legislator, started her career in politics serving on the local school committee. She was encouraged by a friend to run, and driven by a desire to influence educational policy and halt the dropout rate of Lewiston students. Since her start 22 years ago, the opportunity to make a difference is “still the motivation that I get up with every morning to do my duty as an elected official,” Rotundo said.

To the women in the audience considering running for office in the future, Rotundo emphasized that each women “[has] qualities by virtue of being at Bates.” Holding public office is an opportunity to do something about something you care passionately about.

Kristen Cloutier is the Lewiston City Councilor, Ward 5. She grew up in Lewiston. After 9/11 she moved back home from Boston/New York to Lewiston to feel closer to her community. Cloutier notes that Lewiston has changed a lot over the years and that there were not as many opportunities for young people at the time. But after the 2012 mayoral election, she was excited to be part of the city council and change the way vulnerable populations were being talked about, and help those whose education is impacted by poverty.

Her time as a city councilor has been “the most rewarding work I have ever done” and “some of the hardest work I will ever do.”

Holly Lasagna serves on the Lewiston-Auburn Joint Charter Commission, which is working to join the two cities together. She spoke to her election and how she was told by people that they just wanted a woman on the commission.

The panel then broke up into small group discussions, centered on three questions examining obstacles for women seeking office, what’s exciting about this work, and how can we support women in office and in leadership.

The discussions turned into a conversation about Bates students voting in past and upcoming Lewiston and Maine elections. There is often a perception of students as “temporary citizens,” as many are only here their four years at Bates. Rotundo, Lasagna, and Cloutier offered some additional perspective.

“Your vote is incredibly precious,” Lasagna said.

“We know that the Bates vote matters,” Darby Ray, Director of the Harward Center for Community Partnerships added.

Students who are involved in the service work – through the schools, Tree Street Youth, or other volunteer opportunities in Lewiston-Auburn – have a connection with the community. Therefore, their vote matters as they are invested in helping the community. Informed, invested students should consider voting, according to the panelists.

To close, the panelists noted that Legislatures, councils, and committees are “hungry for young voices.” And the women’s voice matters.

“It is very important for women to run for office because women are typically an underrepresented group and will provide a missing perspective in many public offices,” Nicole Bermudez, Senior Class Senator said. “If more women are in office, young girls become used to seeing women in positions of power and may be inspired to run for office in the future.”

The three panelists did not just wake up one morning and decide to be a legislator, city councilor, or committee member. The opportunity to make a change presented itself or they were encouraged by friend. Rotundo comments that women often wait for an invitation to participate.

“This is your invitation,” Rotundo said.