In 2018, U.S. women ran and won. More than 100 female candidates were elected to public office, breaking records and inspiring countless women all over the globe to follow suit, including in Puerto Rico, where a group of women are laying the groundwork for what they hope will spawn similar political gain on the island.
Proyecto 85 is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that was created in May with the mission to encourage and train women in Puerto Rico to run for public office.
“We’re hoping to raise awareness overall about the current problem on the island but also identify women that have a current interest in politics to engage them in our training to make a change in elections on the island,” Natalie Caraballo, co-founder of Proyecto 85 and the operations coordinator for Running Start, a comparable nonprofit organization training young women to run for political office in Washington, DC, told FIERCE.
While women make up 53 percent of the population in the U.S. territory, they are fiercely underrepresented in government, accounting for just 12 percent of public elected positions. Only 8 of the 78 municipalities on the archipelago are headed by women, and the demographic composes just 14 of 81 legislative assembly members, according to the collective.
After Margarita Varela Rosa, a commissioner in the Mayor’s Office on Latino Affairs in Washington, DC, was made aware of these stats by an intern and student at the Universidad Interamericana de Puerto Rico, she organized a group of fellow Puerto Rican-born and mostly U.S.-residing policy experts to see what they could do to improve the figures. That’s when Proyecto 85 was born. Together, the founders — Varela, Caraballo, Rosanna Torres, Michelle Pérez Kenderish and Ema Marrero — dedicate their time outside of their full-time jobs to ensuring equitable representation in Puerto Rican politics, particularly by helping elect at least 85 women in public positions.
(Courtesy of Proyecto 85)
“We are a group of women that have a lot of passion for public policy and politics, a lot of love for Puerto Rico and believe that women are equally prepared as men to make positive change on the island. These are the three values that got us together,” Varela told us.
The collective argues that women’s increased political participation in national, local and community politics lead to government and democracy gains, and there is solid research to support these claims. According to political scientists and authors of “Gendered Vulnerability: How Women Work Harder to Stay in Office” Jeffrey Lazarus and Amy Steigerwalt, the additional barriers women have to overcome to get elected make them more efficient politicians when in office, spending more time than men listening to their constituents, delivering more government spending on their districts and passing more legislation that is in the interest of those they represent.
“Women can reach across the aisle to get legislation approved, which is crucial in our current economic crisis. More female representation also means more discussions on issues that affect women, children and families. And a third fact I think is extremely important is that seeing women in leadership positions in government can inspire future generations to run as well. We need to run now if we want to serve as an example to future girls,” Varela said.
According to the founders, women are underrepresented in Puerto Rican government due to a combination of factors that include diffidence, with women feeling that they don’t qualify or aren’t yet ready to run for public office, as well as discrimination, with parties reluctant to support female candidates or create conduits where women leaders can grow.
Through Proyecto 85, the women hope to offer political hopefuls the education and tools they need to build confidence and, later, campaigns. In November, the group held its first-ever free training. The daylong event, which took place at a packed venue in San Juan, introduced participants to the status of women in Puerto Rican politics and shared the basics of running and financing a campaign on the island before encouraging the guests, a mix of women interested in elected office and those who want to campaign for female candidates, to network. As a nonpartisan group, the collective reached out to women leaders of Puerto Rico’s political parties — the New Progressive Party, the Popular Democratic Party and the Puerto Rican Independence Party — to volunteer their time and lead some of the workshops.
(Courtesy of Proyecto 85)
“I can say that we had a full house in the first training. There were 42 women on a waitlist that couldn’t make it because the training was at capacity. The responses have been so great, and we’re sure there’s going to be continued interest and excitement for the next one,” said Caraballo.
She added that the group is planning similar introductory trainings throughout the island, with the next one slated for January in Mayagüez, before instituting new workshops that delve deeper into candidacy, campaign financing, building political platforms and teams, and communications.
“2018 has been the ‘Year of the Woman’ in the U.S., with many women who ran and won campaigns. Why can’t we do the same in Puerto Rico? There’s an opportunity, and the time to do it is now,” she said.
To subscribe to receive information about upcoming free trainings in Puerto Rico, visit Proyecto 85.