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T.R. Williams is the vice president of the Wisconsin Women's Network, and Sara Dillivan-Graves is the organization's president.

Founded in 1979, the Wisconsin Women's Network's mission is to promote "the advancement of women and girls in Wisconsin through communication, education, advocacy, and connections." The organization hosts a months-long policy institute, a year-long mentorship program and several other networking and training events throughout the year. 

WWN president Sara Dillivan-Graves and vice president T.R. Williams recently spoke with the Cap Times about the network's efforts to reach women throughout the entire state.  

How did you two come to be involved with the Wisconsin Women's Network?

SDG: I came on board in 2015 as a member at large. I had just moved from the Waukesha County/greater Milwaukee area to Madison and had some friends who were already involved. The reason I came on board was, when I learned about it, I felt like it was more of the Dane County Wisconsin Women’s Network, and I wanted it to be an entire Wisconsin Women’s Network, because I felt like they weren’t out in the entire state. My goal was to make it more of an entire state women’s network, and I think we’re doing a good job of that.

TW: I was brought into the fold of the Wisconsin Women’s Network through the Policy Institute, which is a one-of-a-kind opportunity for women to get training and skills around policy, the way that it’s made, sort of "Schoolhouse Rock 2.0," and to network with women around the state. I loved it, and I went back to Milwaukee where I was I'm originally from and was working at the time, and I participated in alumni events — and then I was invited to be a member at large in 2017. An opportunity came to take on the responsibility of vice president, and starting this month I am now vice president of the Wisconsin Women's Network.

What are the programs you host every year?

SDG: The mentorship program is a year-long program. We have a whole new cohort every January. This year we have 27 women. We partner with UW-Madison and Madison College, partnering undergraduate women with professional women. They spend an entire year together in this mentee-mentor role doing things like meetings and trainings. We provide a couple opportunities for networking and speed interviews, different opportunities for the undergraduates to grow themselves. 

TW: The policy institute, this cohort just started in December and it will go through March. That focuses on how policy is made, being able to chart schemes of power and understanding where a good advocate would be able to best align themselves with that scheme of power to be effective. Each of the cohorts get an actual policy issue that they work on. This was probably our highest applicant year — we had 75 applicants and we took 30 from all across the state. Those 30 people will be split up into small groups, they’ll be given a mentor — women who have experience in policy, advocacy, lobbying from different perspectives in different organizations who will mentor that group.

The network has had a lot of success in those policy issues actually being able to get some traction in and change laws. One of the most famous ones is the issue of, women who were victims of domestic violence, how their information is shared (the Safe at Home law). My cohort worked on teen dating violence which also got some traction in the Legislature after that. 

We also celebrate Women's Equality Day every year, we participate in the Big Share, which is important to us because all of the members of the board are volunteers. We also host Feminism on Tap in Madison, and throughout the state — different topics that affect women and bringing them together for happy hour.

SDG: The policy institute is a really great program that shows that the Wisconsin Women's Network as an organization is about creating stronger, more effective advocates in women. We know all issues are women’s issues and that’s why it’s so important that we have a huge presence around the entire state, because the women of Wisconsin are not all dealing with the same issues. I don’t know what it’s like to not have access to internet, but many other women in Wisconsin do. That’s one great thing that kind of separates the women’s network from other organizations — we’re not so much specific issue-oriented but we’re all about creating stronger, more effective women advocates because we know you can be the best advocate for yourself and your community.

TW: A lot of the applicants this year talked about having daughters and wanting to be able to create a future for their daughters that they could be proud of. Something I took for granted is not all the women who apply to the policy institute feel like they have a network of women who that desire would be shared with. The network creates for them a unique community and access to other women, to ideas, to thoughts that they wouldn’t otherwise have.

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This year, not only is it the highest applicant pool we’ve had, it’s also the most diverse, both by racial demographic and where they’re representing in the state. For that to be a budget year that we’re having this is extremely exciting, not only for the network but for the women who are participating.

Why is it important to have an organization that focuses on bringing women together and training them to be advocates?

SDG: I think it goes back to that all issues are women’s issues, and we’re an organization that trains women to advocate for themselves and their communities. Many organizations have specific issues that they work with, whereas we work with women so they can be better advocates for their community.

TW: And to loosely paraphrase the notorious RBG, any place where decisions are being made, women need to be there to make those decisions and to facilitate those decisions being made. We would like to believe that in the 21st century there’s no need to dissect it, but that’s not the reality of it. Our legislature, our executive, our judicial branches are still predominantly male-run. Women are mothers, they are CEOs, they are heads of PTAs, they have a lot of different perspectives and viewpoints to bring to things, and there is still a need to make sure they have a platform in order to bring that forward. 

SDG: We understand that women have different issues that they’re fighting for, but the power of the network also is that it creates this interconnectedness with women who have no idea what it’s like to be a woman who lives in rural Wisconsin, or women who have no idea what it’s like to be a woman in Milwaukee. We create this space where women get to be with each other and learn about all of the different issues that are affecting women across our state. I think it makes us stronger to understand what more women are dealing with.

TR: I call it the productive disequilibrium. The sweet spot of having a tension or a conflict that doesn’t get you to the point where you’re just disengaging, but you’re doing something. I always liken it to me and Spanx — so I have an awesome outfit that I love to wear, some years go by, some holidays go by, the outfit doesn’t fit the same. I put on some Spanx, it can allow me to go another year, until the point where even the Spanx aren’t changing how I look in the outfit, it’s not really working. So I don’t just need disequilibrium of being uncomfortable in how I look in the outfit, I need productive disequilibrium that’s going to bring me to the point of, maybe I should change my diet and exercise. I feel like having the different views of women across the state gives us that productive equilibrium.

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.