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Women’s Issues Are Still an Issue

An Interview with Kate Karpilow


Kate Karpilow has been in the forefront of California’s feminist movement for many years, working with and leading groups focused on health, children, family, and election issues. She is the founder and director of the Women’s Policy Summit and serves as executive director of the California Center for Research on Women and Families (CCRWF).

On Friday, March 7, the Santa Barbara Women’s Political Committee will hold its 13th Annual Presidents’ Circle Luncheon featuring Karpilow as the keynote speaker. In the following interview, she talks about her work and how to build a stronger women’s movement.

What do you aim to accomplish with CCRWF’s Women’s Policy Summit?

Kate Karpilow
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Kate Karpilow

Several years ago, I became quite concerned about the status of “the women’s movement.” While there were and are shining examples of success — like EMILY’s List and here in Santa Barbara the Women’s Political Committee — there seemed to be organizations elsewhere that were lumbering along like dinosaurs, or others that were on point but underfunded.

I set out to learn what was happening and conducted nearly two dozen interviews. That led to the launching of the Women’s Policy Summit. We took the model of partner-based policy development that we had developed for the Working Families Summit but sharpened our focus to promote policies and programs that “advance the health, wealth, and power” of women and girls.

This year’s Summit was attended by nearly 600 women, including me. What issues were the focus of the workshops?

What makes the Women’s Policy Summit distinct is our focus on many issues — child care, poverty, workforce development, women in politics, Title IX, health care, and more.

Another key feature of the Summit is our focus on action. We use the months leading up to the conference to provide technical assistance and support to advocates to help them prepare their priority recommendations for the legislative session. Because of this approach, conversations at the Summit aren’t academic or solely educational — they are about what we can do now to advance women’s health, wealth, and power.

Do you foresee any of these issues moving to legislation, and if so, who will carry the bills?

Absolutely. There’s a major bill to reduce the backlog of rape kits. Another aims to remove the “maximum family cap” provision in our state’s welfare program. Another effort we launched through the Summit is the California Title IX Coalition, a group of statewide women’s organizations that will work with local leaders, parents, and students to assess high schools’ compliance with Title IX — as it relates to athletics, sexual harassment, and pregnant teens. I should mention that our legislative partner for the Title IX project is none other than Santa Barbara’s State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson. She’s an amazing champion.

This year, CCRWF started a mentoring process called Pathways to Policy, which over 60 young women attended. Why did you organize it, and what is next for them?

Mentoring was one of the top priorities that women leaders identified when I conducted my two dozen interviews about the state of the women’s movement. The message was clear: We need to do more to educate young women and empower their leadership.

That’s what led us to design our mentoring initiative, Pathways to Policy.

It was a magical experience for everyone involved — tapping into the interests and ambitions of young women to learn more about public policy and connecting them with women who have deep experience working in and around the State Capitol and in local government.

What made our mentoring initiative unique was that we paired it with participation in the Women’s Policy Summit, so the young women not only saw women leaders in action, they also learned more about policies and programs to advance women’s health, wealth, and power.

The effort was designed with our Mentoring Advisory Committee — and we are working with them on next steps, including round two at the 2015 Women’s Policy Summit.

You founded the CCRWF 13 years ago. What was the need for it, and how has it evolved over these years?

CCRWF was founded with two projects — Linkages and the Working Families Policy Summit. Linkages was a major foundation-funded and 13-county effort to help at-risk families caught between two bureaucratic systems — child welfare and welfare.

We helped design an approach to cut red tape and increase services. Linkages became a national model and is now under the leadership of the Child and Family Policy Institute of California.

At CCRWF, we also organized and hosted the Working Families Policy Summit for over a decade. The goal of the Working Families Policy Summit was twofold — to promote policies and programs to support low-income families and to bring more attention and legislative action on workplace policies that all families need — like paid family leave, paid sick days, health insurance, child care.

How did you first get involved with women’s issues?

In college I worked for the Women’s Resource Center, first as a peer counselor and then as the coordinator for peer counseling services. It was the mid ‘70s, when the women’s movement was taking off, defining itself. Everyone and their mother (quite literally) was learning that the personal was political.

It’s still rings true — issues like reproductive rights and justice, child care, pay equity, and sexual harassment can all be diminished as “personal issues” but are fundamentally critical to address as policy issues because they affect the resources, programs and opportunities available to all women.

You spent eight years as head of the California Elected Women’s Association for Education and Research (CEWAER), now known as California Women Lead. What programs did you develop while you were there?

Before I joined CEWAER (which I am proud to say I did not name!), I had founded the California Board and Commission Project, researching the representation of women and state and local boards and commissions. It wasn’t a pretty picture at that time.

At CEWAER, we took this research project the next step — and partnered with local leaders, pushing for more appointments of women, particularly on what we called the “power boards,” those commissions that were responsible for major resources and often seen as stepping stones to elected office.

It was through the Board and Commission Project that you and I first met! I recall working with you in both the City of Los Angeles and here in Santa Barbara.

At CEWAER, we also launched the California Women’s Health Project, the first time ever — unbelievably — that anyone had compiled statistical profiles on the status of women’s health. Admittedly, it was really wonky stuff, but it provided important benchmark information for advocates. Our recommendations led to the creation of California’s Office of Women’s Health (which, sadly, was recently closed.)

We were also relentless in tracking how the numbers of elected women in state offices were climbing. Unfortunately — and an issue of great concern, these numbers have recently declined in a rather dramatic fashion.

Can you give us a preview of your speech for the annual SBWPC Presidents’ Circle Luncheon?

I plan to start my speech with some distressing statistics, so five minutes in I hope that at least half the audience are thinking: “Wow, this woman’s a real downer.”

By the end of the speech, I hope that all of us will feel uplifted, and see a roadmap to revitalize the women’s movement — and how we can work together to advance women’s health, wealth, and power.

For more information on Karpilow’s talk on Friday, March 7, or to make a reservation, call (805) 564-6876 or visit sbwpc.org.

Susan Rose is a founding member of the Santa Barbara Women’s Political Committee. She served two terms on the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, is cochair of the Santa Barbara Human Rights Watch Committee, and serves on the Board of Trustees of the McCune Foundation and Antioch University Santa Barbara.

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