Gabrielle Goldstein and Lyzz Schwegler, Cofounders of Sister District Project
The Sister District Project is a political organization that supports Democratic candidates for state legislature by pairing volunteers in blue states with “sister races” in other areas of the country. The organization was founded in the wake of the 2016 elections by five women from California.
Gabrielle (Gaby) Goldstein, one of the founders, is now Sister District’s Director of Political Strategy and Policy. “We all came together really quickly in a very postmodern love story type of way,” she says, “We all met online through Facebook groups or friend circles. Two of our cofounders were colleagues in real life, but the rest of us found each other in other ways.”
Lyzz Schwegler, another of the five cofounders, now works as Sister District’s Director of Communications and Advocacy. Both women talked to Like a Boss Girls about the importance of political advocacy on the state level, and what they hope to accomplish moving forward.
How did Sister District get started?
LS: After the Trump election, we were all sitting in our respective houses in puddles on the floor, trying to figure out what we could do to help from a very “blue” part of the country. We wanted to figure out how we could shift some of the energy and enthusiasm that exists here into other areas of the country that need help, because they’re poorly represented either due to gerrymandering, voter suppression, and things like that. We now have about 25,000 volunteers nationwide, and they’re sorted into teams based on where they live. For example, I live in San Francisco, and I am on a team of volunteers that live near me. We match our volunteers with what we call “sister races” in other parts of the country, in purple or barely blue states. Our teams do things like fundraising, phone banking, canvassing, text banking, postcarding. We refer to these things as “field programs”, and it’s entirely at the state legislature level.
How do things like postcarding affect voters?
GG: One impact of postcarding is actually on the writer of the postcards. I think that writing postcards helps folks have an opportunity to come together and build their own community. Our headquarters had a meeting yesterday, and we spent an hour over lunch writing postcards for a project that we’re working on. It’s a great opportunity to bring people together and make everyone feel involved in something tangible.
On the flipside, there’s the effect on the potential voter or voter registrant who’s receiving the postcard. We’re working on some experimental research right now with partners to better quantify the impact of personalized messages on actual voter turnout and/or voter registration completion rates. We have a lot of anecdotal evidence that folks who receive postcards have found it to be a helpful nudge toward voting or registering to vote, but we want to have better data on that, which is why we’re running some experiments now.
Why does Sister District focus on state legislatures?
LS: Down-ballot races never get much attention, but they have an incredibly huge impact on our lives. Many state legislatures control redistricting. In 2020, there’s going to be a census, and there will be redistricting in pretty much every state. State legislatures are also a pipeline for candidates that will eventually run for national office. Over half of our U.S. presidents served in state legislature at some point. States are incubators for more progressive policy—or, on the flipside, more conservative policy. They’re incubators for legislative initiatives that could eventually become national laws. We have discovered that many people in our volunteer base didn’t know or care a lot about state legislature before they became active with us, but they quickly come to understand how important state legislature is. All you have to do is give people a little bit of extra information and education and provide an outlet for their enthusiasm and energy that will direct it in the right way.
What kinds of connections does Sister District make between the districts?
GG: Once you’re paired with the candidate in your sister district, there are opportunities to canvas, visit the district and canvas, meet the candidate, meet voters in the district – that sort of thing. In the last cycle, we had dozens and dozens of folks from my home district in Berkeley who traveled to their sister district in Virginia. Our Sister District volunteers ended up counting for half of the “boots on the ground” effort to get out the vote for one of our candidates. At the candidate level, our candidates are often Skyping into sister district meetings, phone banks or fundraisers. For example, if you’re in Los Angeles and you’re hosting a phone bank party for a candidate in Colorado, we can arrange for the candidate to Skype in, say hi, and answer some questions.
What were each of you working on before starting Sister District?
GG: I’m finishing a PhD program right now, and I’m also connected in a very peripheral capacity to my law firm, where I’ve been practicing for many years. For me, Sister District came at a natural turning point in my career. I was already in the process of wrapping up my academic life, and I was planning to start wrapping up my legal practice life, too. It’s certainly unexpected to take this turn into politics, but the timing was good. I think all of us were ready to do something different, but I don’t think any of us expected to be doing this.
LS: At the time I got on board with Sister District, I had already left my previous job in the private sector and I’d gone back to grad school to study public policy. I ended up dropping out of grad school because I felt like Sister District was where I needed to be spending all of my time. It just sort of coincided that each of us happened to be at a place in our lives where we were potentially ready to move into the next phase. Sister District started really taking off, and all of us realized that we needed to be dedicating 100% of our waking hours to this job. I think that many people face a moment like this in their lives, when they are presented with a challenge that they just can’t let go of. For us, it just happens to be this.
What was it like to make such a dramatic change?
GG: One of the things that has made it possible to make this change and to make this organization work is the team that we have. I have such confidence and respect and loyalty to this team of women. I think we’ve helped each other make the transition into doing this work together. We all quit our jobs at different times and helped each other through that transition, one at a time. It’s a very supportive environment, and for me, personally, that has been a huge factor in allowing me to feel comfortable in making this transition and taking the leap. I know that I’m not alone in this, and that we’re really committed to doing this together and helping each other get there.
LS: I think that, in practice, none of us could do any of this alone. To take on something as ambitious as we have tried to do, it’s just not possible to do that as an individual—and that’s a good thing. I think we’re all so thankful that we have each other.
Is Sister District working to get more women elected?
GG: We certainly want to elect people to office that reflect the country we want to see. We don’t have a quota-based approach, but we are mission-driven to have a more inclusive and representative set of elected officials. Of the 16 candidates that we’ve supported to date, 11 of them have been women. We’re getting ready to roll out our endorsements for this year, and most of them will be women as well. But it’s not just women—we’re also really interested in increasing the diversity of elected officials. We’ve been very proud to support candidates from the LGBTQ community and candidates from communities of color. That’s critical to our mission of a more inclusive and diverse set of elected officials.
Have either of you ever considered running for office?
GG: I have not. I would never ever run for office. I don’t have the temperament for it, but I think Lyzz could be an amazing elected official.
LS: I’ve definitely thought about it. I think I probably will do it at some point. I have a much healthier respect for the challenges of running a campaign now, and how difficult it is—but yeah, I’m only 33, so there’s plenty of time.
What are your hopes for Sister District in the future?
GG: My hope is for this organization to increase the level of participation among voters and volunteers, to really provide a home for volunteers, and to build the infrastructure to keep people engaged from election to election. This work doesn’t matter if it’s all over after any given set of elections. It has to be sustainable and real. So that’s one goal. Then I would say, as a political strategy goal, obviously we want this organization to play whatever part it can in creating a more diverse and inclusive set of elected officials than we currently have. Tied into that, I would like for this organization to help educate the public about the importance of state legislatures and state legislative policies and leaders, because that really is how we can achieve larger scale progressive change in the country. It starts at this local, state level.
LS: I think that liberals tend to have a lot of energy and enthusiasm, but sometimes we have difficulty directing it in a really strategic and useful way. I think that’s a big gap that Sister District fills and can continue to fill. It can be easy to say, “This issue needs help. That issue needs help,” and there can be a lot of energy directed in a lot of different ways. I think the more that we can stay focused and make sure that people are doing useful things in strategic ways, the more impact that we can have.
What’s the best advice a woman has ever given you?
LS: This isn’t really advice, but when I quit my private sector job to pursue political work, my boss told me that she hoped I was so successful that someday she’d get to come and work for me. It was incredibly meaningful because I respected her very deeply and I think that in saying that to me, she was expressing a massive vote of confidence in my abilities.
What career advice do you have for other women?
GG: Mentorship can be extremely important and beneficial. It can be hard to find a mentor—it’s kind of like dating—you have to try out a lot of people to see if they’re a good fit as a mentor. Most people will not be willing or able to mentor you, but if you keep trying and putting yourself out there, it’s really worth it to find mentors. I’ve been in professional life for a decade plus, and I’ve only had a couple of true mentors, but they’ve had a really outsized role in my professional and personal development. My mentors have shown me the behavior and the work habits that lead to being successful and being respected. Having a front seat, so to speak, into the professional lives of successful, kind, good people has helped me model my own behavior and my own work habits. It has affected how I structure my professional relationships, and how I approach my professional life, in a way that if I didn’t have those mentors, I would be grasping in the dark. Everyone has to find their way in the dark for a long time professionally, but having mentors can really streamline the process of getting to where you want to be in terms of your personal and professional development in a lot of ways.
LS: Don’t be afraid of competition. Don’t assume that just because someone else is saying something louder or more aggressively that they know more than you. Also, surround yourself with other women founders and executives—even (or especially!) if they’re running small organizations on their own. They’re your tribe and will be your greatest resource, both for navigating the practicalities of running a business and for moral support.
Are there any great resources you have discovered that you would like to recommend?
GG: If there are women who want to run for office, I highly recommend checking out Emerge, an organization that trains women who want to run for office. They have affiliates all over the country, and they have an incredible track record in terms of the percentage of Emerge women who win when they do run. Emerge is an incredible training resource and community-building organization. I know lots of women who have gone through the Emerge program and it provided them with a community of other women who are also running for office, so you don’t have to go at it alone.
LS: I try to read a lot by women I admire, like Rebecca Traister, Jane Mayer, Rebecca Solnit, Zeynep Tufekci, to remind myself how many intelligent, outspoken, unafraid women there are out there in the public eye.
In honor of Women’s History Month, can you name a woman you admire and tell us why?
GG: There are two women that always come to mind. They’re both politicians and social activists that were involved in the women’s movement. The first is Bella Abzug. She was a U.S. Representative from New York. Her first campaign slogan was “This woman’s place is in the House—the House of Representatives.” That was in 1970. She was a really huge force in the National Women’s Political Caucus, and was incredibly important and outspoken woman who is a shining light for social justice and the women’s movement.
The other is Shirley Chisholm, whom I think we should all know was the first black woman elected to the United States Congress. She was the first black candidate to run for president. She was amazing, and I think both Bella and Shirley belong in our collective consciousness as women who were trailblazers and fierce social activists, and should still be revered today for those reasons.
LS: My dad is a scientist and mom was a mathematician, so they tried to give me a lot of women in STEM role models when I was a kid. Of course, the problem was that there were hardly any who were as successful as their male counterparts. I think about one woman in particular all the time: Sophie Germain. She was a brilliant French mathematician in the early 1800s, but she was never allowed to attend university and get formal training, so much of her work was unpolished or half-baked, and many men in the field dismissed her. When I was young I was disappointed that her accomplishments didn’t seem as flashy as male mathematicians of her time, but as an adult I can appreciate her intense perseverance against a system and society built to keep her shut out.
Is there anything you’d like to tell everyone who reads this?
GG: A little can go a long way in terms of the effort that we give to politics. You don’t have to be a full-time activist in order to have an impact and feel connected to the political process. I used to think of democracy like my parents: something that was always there, and I knew I could count on it. I didn’t really need to pay attention—it was just a feature of my life and I didn’t have to worry about it. Since the 2016 elections, I’ve come to see that democracy is more like my child that I have to protect, that I have to fight for. It’s not just always going to be there like a nice dad in the background. We all need to do our part in making sure we live in a world that looks the way we want it to look.
How can someone reading this get involved with Sister District?
LS: People can get involved just by going to the website and signing up to volunteer. They’ll be contacted by their local team if there is one already. If there isn’t currently a local team in their area, we have a couple of great staff members who will help them start a new team. It’s not difficult. It can start out really small—one phone banking party or one postcarding party—and what we’ve found is that people really step up. People bring their friends and it can grow really quickly and in a big way.