League of Women Voters looks to embrace next generation of leaders | TheUnion.com

League of Women Voters looks to embrace next generation of leaders

Members of the League of Women Voters moderate a candidate debate at the county's Rood administration building in October 2014. The nonpartisan organization has worked within the county since 1984 to educate citizens on political issues and encourage voter participation.
John Hart/jhart@theunion.com | The Union

Know & Go

What: League of Women Voters meeting on Nevada County Health Services

Who: Guest speakers Sharyn Turner, RN, Nevada County Superintendent of Schools; Cindy Wilson, RN, Nevada County Public Health Department

When: 9:30 a.m. Saturday, April 11

Where: Peace Lutheran Church, 828 W. Main St., Grass Valley

Info: http://www.lwvwnc.org or call 530-265-0956

MaryJane Huenergardt wanted to get involved with a politically-minded, local organization — as a volunteer organizer for the Gold Country YMCA, she was often involved in conversations about community issues.

Last August, she decided to attend a meeting of the League of Women Voters; at first, she remembered, she didn’t seem to connect with the organization.

The 36-year-old noticed the membership was a much older demographic, and the topic of the meeting — voter access — wasn’t particularly applicable to her work.

But, upon looking deeper, she was drawn to the diverse backgrounds of the organization’s members, and found the conversations the league members were having about community engagement to be useful to her as an organizer, parent and resident in Nevada County.

“I think the weakest thing about the organization is our average age … we need young people to learn what we’re doing and to improve on it, and take it over and do it in the future.”League of Women Voters President Anne DeWitt

The league is a group “looking to be informed and to inform people,” Huenergardt said. “That’s really powerful and really helpful in whatever you’re trying to do, whether it’s to start a business, lead a nonprofit, anything.”

Huenergardt is now helping the league communicate that message in an effort to attract the next generation of leaders to the organization.

The Nevada County chapter of the League of Women Voters boasts around 70 members — and the majority are well over the retirement age.

So the league is turning its attention to a new task — bringing younger members into the fold to help the organization thrive and remain relevant within the county.

“I think the weakest thing about the organization is our average age,” said Anne DeWitt, the league’s president. “We’re old. And we need young people to learn what we’re doing and to improve on it, and take it over and do it in the future.”

The League of Women Voters dates back to 1920. It was established about six months before the 19th amendment granted voting rights to American women; the original goal of the organization was to prepare women to capitalize on that newfound responsibility at the polls.

There are over 800 state and local leagues in the United States; the western Nevada County league was established in 1984.

Though the league is political, it is nonpartisan and is open to both men and women of all ages, said league member Joey Jordan. The league’s focus is on educating community members on local political issues and encouraging citizen participation in government without promoting a particular political stance.

For instance, the league will publish literature outlining the pros and cons of a particular ballot issue, or moderate candidate debates for upcoming elections.

The league also hosts forums on topics of interest to the community, such as charter schools, public safety or health services.

“We do provide that safe place for respectful dialogue and the ability to really learn form an unbiased group that’s not trying to tell you what to think,” Jordan said.

While the league’s role in the community is crucial, Jordan said, its work isn’t particularly flashy — and that’s part of the challenge of marketing the league to prospective members.

“The League of Women Voters is not, in any way, shape or form, sexy,” Jordan said. “But the underlying basis of the league is so vitally important. If people aren’t educated about what’s going on, on topics that matter to every one of us, then we’re kind of in trouble as a community.”

Huenergardt, who has taken a lead role in the league’s publicity efforts, noted that participation in political organizations can be intimidating for her peers — but she stressed that the league can better connect them to the community where they work, volunteer and raise families by giving them a forum to learn about and act on the issues that affect their daily lives.

“It gives you a tool to make sure that you are plugged in politically in order to guide what you’re doing,” Huenergardt said.

And a younger generation of members provides value to the organization as well by contributing diverse skills and viewpoints to help the league evolve, said Karen Schwartz, a longtime member of the county chapter of the league who served as the organization’s president for three years.

“The current league’s membership has a great deal of information about what’s important to the community, but to leave it with us is not sufficient,” Schwartz said. “We need to pass this on so the community continues to be aware, involved and knowledgeable,”

In order to do that, Schwartz said, the league needs to expand the way it communicates.

The league has been relying on several of the younger members they’ve added over the past year to help guide efforts to increase its reach.

The league has become more active on social media and is working on updating its website (www.lwvwnc.org); new members can now sign up online and pay the league’s $60 annual dues via PayPal.

“What’s been very helpful to us is having some of our members who are tech-savvy to talk to us about what do we need to be doing so that we can start communicating with younger members of community and let them know about what we do and see if they’re interested in getting involved,” Schwartz said.

Huenergardt and Jordan said several of the league’s members are working toward developing an outreach plan to generate new membership; among their ideas, they’re hoping to organize future mixers for young professionals and establish an internship program with Sierra College.

Jordan said the league is eager to capitalize on the experience of both established and new members to strengthen its mission.

“We have this golden opportunity in time where we can blend the mentors and the youth coming in and everyone can benefit from that,” Jordan said.

Schwartz said she feels confident about the league’s future in Nevada County, noting the organization’s members have always embraced growth and change.

“They’re very good at making the league relevant to the current times and not just staying put with what worked 10, 20, 30 years ago,” Schwartz said.

“They’re open and receptive to new ideas, to new people, and to thinking about how to deal with new problems.”

To contact Staff Writer Emily Lavin, email elavin@theunion.com or call 530-477-4230.

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