Executive director of Emerge Maine
Ten years ago, Jill Barkley, 33, left her native Michigan and moved to Portland. It was near Boston, where her sister was doing her medical residency. She had friends in Portland. She got a job in her field.
“I fell in love with Maine and I never looked back,” she says.
There have been heartbreak and joy in the decade since. Two years ago, Barkley lost her sister. But there have been a series of positive changes, too. First, a new career. Two years ago, Barkley left her work in domestic violence to work for the Maine American Civil Liberties Union. Her task: to organize Republicans in support of same-sex marriage. Then, a marriage. A year ago, Barkley married a Canadian named Trish Burkholder, who is now in the immigration process. Then there’s Barkley’s most recent career move. Last January, she took her position as executive director of Emerge Maine, embarking on a new avenue for empowering women – politics.
Emerge Maine is a political organization that was established in 2007 to “recruit, train and support Democratic women to run for office,” Barkley says. It is affiliated with Emerge America, a nationwide organization founded in 2004 with the same mission.
“We believe that women, with that little bit of extra push, can bring a different perspective,” Barkley says. As the sole paid staff member of Emerge Maine, Barkley is doing her part to promote that push.
The push comes in the form of a six-month training program, held annually from September to February. For one weekend a month, at locations throughout the state, participants receive training – with a focus on communications and fundraising – intended to support their goal of reaching elected office. Barkley herself is a 2009 alumna of the program, although her 2010 bid for the Maine House fell short.
Among the lessons she learned from Emerge Maine was “how to accept defeat,” she says. Participating in the program “was really formative.” Now, Barkley is helping to replicate that formative experience for women of varied ages and backgrounds and occupations.
“We have teachers and lawyers and social workers,” she says of this year’s 15 participants. “We even have a grandmother.”
Through its efforts, Emerge Maine aims to challenge sexism in politics, Barkley says, a belief that “women shouldn’t be in politics or shouldn’t have as big a role.”
“Women get asked, ‘How can you run for office with kids in high school or little ones at home?’ They don’t ask men that question,” she says. “They judge ambition on whether a woman has a family. That’s sad to me.”
Maine politics boasts a number of female trailblazers, Barkley says. Women like Libby Mitchell and Hannah Pingree have “defied the odds.” Emily Cain and Chellie Pingree are stalwart supporters of Emerge Maine, she says, adding that Maine women with political ambitions can be grateful for those role models. Women also have a strong contingent of male allies who support Emerge Maine’s efforts, Barkley says.
Barkley has sought to empower women since her days as an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan.
“I was a little bit of a cliche?,” she says, laughing. “I was a women’s studies major. I came out my freshman year. Ann Arbor was very politically active and I’m very thankful. I still watch football every weekend in the fall.”
But she traces her roots as a feminist back even further than that.
“My father was a feminist and my role model,” she says. “He likes to joke, ‘I wanted to raise two strong, confident women. I might have gone too far.’ ”
Barkley says her mother set an example, too, going back to college when she was in her 40s in order to contribute to the family’s finances.
“I never thought being a woman would prevent me from getting what I wanted,” Barkley says.
But her experience in domestic violence prevention, where she made her career until two years ago, taught her what “women are up against.”
“We want to bring women into Emerge Maine who had experiences like me,” Barkley says, but the organization is equally about “empowering women who didn’t, and help them gain and find strength.”
“There’s a lot of work to be done.”
It’s been 10 years, and Jill Barkley is still intent on doing her part.