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Women in Motion: Luther students intern with influential women in D.C.

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Women in Motion: Luther students intern with influential women in D.C.

The number of women as a percentage of total Congress members has steadily increased over the last 100 years.

The number of women as a percentage of total Congress members has steadily increased over the last 100 years.

Photo courtesy of pewresearch.org

The number of women as a percentage of total Congress members has steadily increased over the last 100 years.

Photo courtesy of pewresearch.org

Photo courtesy of pewresearch.org

The number of women as a percentage of total Congress members has steadily increased over the last 100 years.

Aidan O'Driscoll, Staff Writer

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Four Luther students participating in the Washington, D.C. semester program are working for women in leadership positions as women are moving into more positions of power across the country. Three of these students — Martin Donovan (‘20), Dirk Umbanhowar (‘20), and Lauren Bruneau (‘19) — are working on Capitol Hill. Donovan and Umbanhowar are working with Democratic Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota, and Bruneau is working with Democratic Rep. Abby Finkenauer of Iowa’s 1st congressional district. In the area of economic reform, Faye Lee (‘20) works with Campaign Director Kate Zeller of Jubilee USA Network, a nonprofit organization.

Smith and Finkenauer are part of the new Congressional class that consists of 41 women: 36 from the House and five from the Senate. It is a new look for Congress with more diversity in gender and racial identity.

Umbanhowar believes this influx of women onto the political scene bodes well for American politics.

“Women are one of the groups who have been underrepresented in Congress and politics in general — even at the state and local levels — so I think it’s a really good thing that there’s more representation relative to the population in Congress, but obviously it still can get better,” Umbanhowar said. “Also, it is offering new perspectives. For example, [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez is more liberal and Abby Finkenauer is more of a moderate, so different views all around, and that is good for the political discussion.”

Umbanhowar has spent the semester working as a Press Intern in Smith’s Washington, D.C. office. He is joined by Donovan who works as a Legislative Intern.

Within Smith’s office, Donovan notes that there is the kind of diverse representation that American politics should try to emulate, on a larger scale.

“What I think is important with Senator Smith — 15 of her 26 staff members in D.C. are women, women in leadership roles within her office: the legislative director, policy advisors, and they tend to be younger,” Donovan said. “That’s not necessarily a representation of a lot of staff in D. C. A lot of staff are men, and I think that is important because eventually you would like to see that translate into policy, right?”

Bruneau, an intern in Finkenauer’s Washington, D.C. office, also realizes the immensity of this demographic shift in politics. The night of the State of the Union Address, Feb. 5, 2019, many congresswomen in attendance dressed in all white as an unambiguous symbol of women’s rights, and Bruneau sees this display as an indicator that American politics are changing.

“I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, I can see my representative who I also work for, in white, sitting there,’” Bruneau said. “There are moments that remind you how cool the opportunity is and looking back two or three years from now I’ll probably be like, ‘Wow. This is pretty big.’ So I’m trying to stay humble and be grateful for this opportunity because I know it is historic.”

Outside of Capitol Hill, Lee interns as an Outreach Associate for nonprofit Jubilee USA Network, a coalition of different faith groups across the U.S. According to the Jubilee website, the company goal — inspired by different religious scriptures and universal faith traditions — is to work on “debt, tax, trade and transparency policies that help end poverty.”

When searching for internships, Lee looked for an organization that advances interfaith relations. She found this in Jubilee — and in her supervisor, Zeller.

Zeller is another young woman in Washington, D.C. looking to make changes. Lee feels Zeller has really shown compelling interest in advancing the goals of Jubilee as well as the career of her interns.

“She is professional and she doesn’t drill too hard on her interns and she is always trying to help us grow to our potential and is always trusting us with a lot of big tasks,” Lee said. “In our office it is just me, her, and this other intern in the program with me. Many times she just lets us join the meetings that she usually joins and she would send us to [Capitol Hill] once in a while to communicate with the staff of Congress.”

Working with Jubilee and Zeller has inspired Lee to continue similar work after she graduates.

“In the future, I am hoping to be able to help the underprivileged abroad or in the U.S. with scholarships,” Lee said. “I am planning to build my own scholarship foundation as well with the skills I have learned from Jubilee and the mechanism and connections that are happening here — and the power of faith relations as well.”

According to the Pew Research Center, the new Congress has the highest percentage of women in history at 24 percent. Donovan, Umbanhowar, Bruneau, and Lee have all personally witnessed the differences that women are making.

“[Diversity] expands the focus of an office,” Donovan said. “You can have different perspectives which is important in policy. It’s hard to have an intelligent or well-rounded piece of legislation get passed in this congress. The political reality is that it is not going to happen. But I do think in the future it is going to become increasingly more prevalent and I hope it’s going to become a political reality.”

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