At a women's issues forum earlier this fall, Rep. Winnie Brinks, Democrat, 76th District, observed that women continue to be vastly underrepresented in our government.
While women make up 50.8 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Census, women only account for between eighteen to twenty-five percent of our elected officials, from the U.S. Congress down to state and local offices, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Until women are represented more equally, Brinks said, women's issues aren't likely to get the attention they deserve.
While many women serve their communities through volunteer work and in their professional lives, how can women be encouraged to serve their community by taking an active role in government? For Brinks, the opportunity came in 2012, when incumbent Rep. Roy Schmidt unexpectedly left the Democratic Party and became a Republican. Brinks was recruited by the Michigan Democratic Party to run for the seat in the Michigan House of Representatives because of her experience working with nonprofit organizations, business, and government. Her résumé includes experience as a caseworker at The SOURCE, a paraprofessional with English Language Learners at Godfrey-Lee Public Schools, a committee member and past chair of the East Grand Rapids Public Schools Legislative Committee, and executive director of One Way House, Inc. While she was already serving her community in each of these roles, running for representative appealed to Brinks. "It really was an opportunity to have an impact on a broader level. My voice could be valuable to the conversation."
Bringing her constituents' concerns to Lansing is one of Brinks' primary goals. "I want to be their voice. It shouldn't just be those who can afford a lobbyist who have a voice." To that end, she has spent a tremendous amount of time meeting with the citizens of her district, knocking on doors, and talking to them about their concerns. (The week we met for this interview, she had logged more than forty miles of walking in her district's neighborhoods, and estimates she's knocked on more than ten thousand doors since she began campaigning for re-election in April.) "Good government should be about people," she said.
As a freshman representative, Brinks finds listening to and learning from her constituents and her colleagues in Lansing is of great importance. Paying attention to the opposition's concerns, looking for common ground, and being open to listening to the reasons why someone sees things differently can help overcome partisanship. She's proud that her voting record reflects the diversity of her district. "It's important to me to work with people," she said, noting her support of a bill introduced by Dave Hildebrand, a Republican senator. His bill would require radiologists to inform women if they had dense breast tissue, which often requires imaging beyond a mammogram to detect the presence of tumors. Brinks had introduced similar legislation in the House, but opted to act in support of Hildebrand's bill. "It's not about political credit," she said.
In terms of increasing women's voices in Lansing and on the national level, Brinks says, there are a variety of ways for women to expand their representation. Communicating with legislators about specific bills and issues, especially if you have expertise in the area, could help them to more deeply understand issues. Joining organizations that advocate for causes you feel strongly about and getting involved in political campaigns could also help to extend your influence. If you are interested in candidacy, become familiar with the political process, and make as many connections as you can, Brinks advised. "Be familiar with proceedings and leaders, and watch effective leaders—learn from them."
Regarding her experience as a representative, Brinks has a lot of gratitude for the opportunity. "It's really demanding, but really rewarding. It's a great honor to be in this position."
Written by Jennifer Reynolds, staff writer for West Michigan Woman.