DU Alumni

Alumna leads nonprofit that trains women for political office

After years of working in the nonprofit sector and immersing herself in issues aligned with her passions, Karen Middleton (MA ’07) decided she didn’t just want to promote change — she wanted to make it.

A former assistant dean at what is now the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, Middleton wanted to write policy and enact laws. She wanted clout.

To that end, Middleton served for six years as an elected official — first on the Colorado State Board of Education and later, from 2008–10, in the Colorado Legislature, where she represented House District 42 and where she was elected majority caucus chair.

“I really liked being able to have an impact,” she says.

That said, Middleton knew she could get more done if she had like-minded allies — in other words, more women in office — with whom she could collaborate.

Today, with that in mind, she serves as president of California-based Emerge America, a national program that trains Democratic women to run for office. With outposts in 10 states, Emerge is hoping to expand its presence across the map. Three new offices are in the works, including one in Colorado.

Two years into the job, Middleton, 46, is delighted by how it draws on her many life experiences — as an elected official, as an administrator and as a citizen concerned about everything from education to women’s issues. (In addition to her stint at the University, she worked with the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, eCollege, the White House Project and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.)

Middleton’s goal at Emerge is to help alter some troubling statistics: The United States ranks 90th in the world in the number of women in elected office; women make up just 17 percent of the U.S. Congress; and only six states are led by female governors.

“The numbers are pretty grim,” she says. “We’re actually seeing a drop in the state legislatures. There’s not very much of a bench in most states.”

The Emerge strategy begins by bringing women together for seven months of rigorous preparation. “We train a cohort of women, so we have women who can support each other as a team,” Middleton explains. Training addresses everything from public speaking, fundraising and campaign strategies to issues that, historically, have kept women from pursuing office.

“Most of the women we encounter got into politics because they had an issue they were interested in,” Middleton explains. But too many women think that single-issue expertise and knowledge gaps undermine their suitability for office. The Emerge plan helps women develop strategies to evaluate material and make decisions.

Since its 2002 founding, Emerge has trained 1,000 women. Forty percent of participants are women of color. In fact, Middleton says, the organization just helped elect the first Latina in the Wisconsin State Assembly.

Of the women who have participated in Emerge programming, 150 are running for office.

“For me,” Middleton says, “it’s all about the election results and making sure that they have a team that wants to help them.”

Eventually, she may run for office again. “I wouldn’t rule anything out,” she says. In fact, she’d relish the opportunity to legislate and shape policy alongside other women — but first, she’s focused on helping them get elected.

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