The first Junior League was founded in New York City in 1901. Inspired by a lecture on social reform, Mary Harriman Rumsey created the League initially to promote the Settlement Movement, with a goal of providing resources and education to help break the cycle of poverty in poor urban areas. Junior League chapters have since evolved as charitable women’s organizations, with a shared focus of voluntarism and advancing the causes of women. As shared in its Mission Statement, The Association of Junior Leagues International, Inc. (AJLI) works to improve its communities by “promoting voluntarism, developing the potential of women and improving communities through the effective action and leadership of trained volunteers. Its purpose is exclusively educational and charitable.”
From its inception, The Junior League has been active in social issues. In 1901, women had legally been able to own property for only one year, still did not have the right to vote, and domestic violence had yet to be outlawed in all 50 states. Given the sociopolitical environment of the time, it is no wonder that The Junior League was developed hand in hand with activism.
The Junior League of New Orleans has recently formed a Legislative Affairs/Advocacy Committee, which is currently in its second year. Vice-Chair Candice Caccioppi said she believes, “this committee, at this moment in time, elevates and leverages the work JLNO is doing to advance the wellbeing of women.” The primary goal of the committee is to serve as an arm for policy education. Candice notes that when we “leverage our collective voice by educating our membership and community on policy issues, it offers a really great opportunity.”
Although the committee is non-partisan, it will focus on those issues that advance the wellbeing of women, and directly impact women, children and families. President-Elect Alice Glenn agrees that before taking a position on a particular issue, “we need to do our homework and due diligence and make this a very carefully thought out and crafted exercise.” She believes the rule should be to educate on issues. “It is unfortunate that so many issues have become partisan in nature, and you find out that’s not really case when you sit down and talk to someone. It is really only in the solutions that our opinions differ.”
With a secondary goal of advocacy, the committee wants to represent JLNO interests, which would require conversations with members and engaging them about issues. “We need to start a dialogue with other [Junior] League members to determine what issues we care about,” Candice suggests.
Alice also believes that “female leadership in the government affairs realm is a hot button issue, and really reinforces the relevance of the League and the work that we’re doing.” Given JLNO’s mission as an organization for women’s training and community service, Alice suggests training female leaders becomes even more important “coupled with the point in time where we’re at.” Alice hopes the committee eventually broadens its scope to include more than a legislative focus, and will serve to “make sure members are aware of opportunities that exist for them as advocates for government officials and potential candidates, or even as officials themselves. Training can help prepare for a role in both public and nonprofit service.”
Even though the Legislative Affairs/Advocacy Committee was only formed last year, much was accomplished and it has now taken a position we hope will continue into the future. The committee organized and hosted a historic Mayoral Forum between Desiree Charbonnet and LaToya Cantrell, the two run-off candidates for first female mayor of New Orleans. Candice noted that although the forum had to come together quickly, she was “really excited to work with both camps to have a forum at the League for membership, and to ask the candidates to speak to our mission and our issues.” Members were invited to email potential questions, which were then distilled into the areas that generated the most interest. Alice, who moderated the forum, emphasized that a “second filter was JLNO’s mission and how does this platform advance the well being of women, which included a broader discussion of education and crime, and then infrastructure like streets and the water board.” The forum was very well attended and served as a throwback to earlier days of JLNO history when we regularly hosted political forums.
Committee members also organized a standing-room only screening of Five Awake, a documentary that won Best Louisiana Feature at the 2016 New Orleans Film Festival. Five Awake chronicled the efforts of five Louisiana women who worked to pass historic bills against domestic violence. A forum followed, with State Representative Helena Moreno and State Senator JP Morrell attending, along with the advocates from the film. Candice believes there were broader lessons from the film, in that “laws are only able to be passed by people getting educated and traveling to Baton Rouge.” Alice credited those advocates’ success to doing their homework, and “not just that they were educated on the issues, but prepared information on domestic violence instances in every legislator’s district. Having real data and real information to provide that would be interesting and compelling to each individual legislator.”
The committee’s current goal is growth and development as they move forward working on member engagement and education. In addition to putting together a speaker series, JLNO will also sponsor a Capitol Day when the legislature is in session. This will be an opportunity for members to meet with legislators and monitor legislation as filed to determine if the League wants to follow particular bills. Alice also hopes to see more forums, as well as more engagement in local politics, including the city council and school board.
Both Alice and Candice stress the importance of advocacy at this pivotal point in history, for women in general and for The Junior League, and Alice is particularly “excited that members have an interest in dipping their toes into advocacy.” Candice emphasizes that with “2000-plus members, our collective voice is really powerful.” By “pulling together facts and resources, and bringing boots on the ground, it is an opportunity for us to learn and really put our voice behind an issue.” Ultimately, Candice views the Legislative Affairs/Advocacy committee as “a learning opportunity for community conversations within The [Junior] League. It is also an opportunity to engage the community outside The [Junior] League, and show that we are a volunteering army. This advocacy committee is another way to elevate that.” •