Here at GAIN Power, we are always looking to spotlight different political progressives and changemakers. If you or someone you know would like to be nominated, please fill out this form!
GAIN Power is proud to spotlight Ryanne Olsen, who is the Training and Curriculum Director at Emerge! She and her team most recently won the Powerful IDEA Award in Training for their Gavel In: Judicial Candidate Training Program.
Can you give a brief background and introduction about yourself and Emerge?
RO: My name is Ryanne Olsen (she/her). For the last 13 years, I’ve dedicated my career to progressive politics but my drive around it started when I was young. I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin with a father who was passionate about civic engagement and never shied away from talking about it with me. Every night as he put me to bed, I’d ask what was “going on in the political world” and we’d discuss the events of the day. As I grew older though, I realized that these weren’t just stories, but real issues that had a dramatic impact on myself, my community and my loved ones. And they needed folks who were willing to fight for those issues and the future we all share.
I am the Training and Curriculum Director at Emerge, where I’ve been nationally for about 5 years, overseeing Emerge’s diverse and impactful slate of training programs. I also served as the Executive Director of Emerge Massachusetts, starting in 2015, running one of Emerge’s most prominent state affiliates. Before my time with Emerge, I worked on political campaigns across the country, supporting candidates who were trying to build for the future, I served as a campaign manager on a state representative campaign to a field director on a congressional campaign, all the way back to being an intern in Wisconsin in 2010 working for then-Senator Russ Feingold as we tried to hold his seat and prevent Ron Johnson from getting elected.
It’s been such a great match for me at Emerge because their vision is to create a democracy that’s truly equitable and representative–one whose policies, representation, and leadership reflect the unique diversity of our country. And we do that by recruiting and building a powerful network of Democratic women and non-binary individuals who aspire to run for office and come from diverse backgrounds, experiences, and communities.
What does your day-to-day work look like?
RO: My day-to-day work largely revolves around preparing and executing our trainings but the nature of that work also means no two days are ever the same. Trainings are more than just finding people to train and training them. I identify and secure partners for the trainings, adjust and redo curriculum to best fit the needs of my trainees, and am always ready to step forward when things don’t always go as planned.
Then, there’s writing and developing the curriculum. For example, building a new curriculum for Gavel In and updating our equity and justice trainings to align with the work that we’re doing. I wrote the Emerge curriculum that we use today, and we use that national curriculum as a base for the state affiliates to use, instead of them each coming up with their own.
When we’re talking about Emerge trainings, for many of our cohort, Emerge is their first step toward public office and we need to make sure they have an experience that allows them to be successful. I’m incredibly grateful I’ve been able to do exactly that in my role and our more than 1,200 alums currently serving in elected office highlights that.
How does your work impact the political climate that we live in, specifically the Gavel In training Emerge conducted?
RO: We need to recognize the importance of the judiciary. Since 2002, Emerge has been training folks to run for vital legislative and executive seats. But, the judicial piece has been really interesting because judicial candidates have unique rules and restrictions they have to follow that prevents them from running a standard campaign. For a while, we did have people who wanted to run for judge coming through Emerge, and while our program was helpful to them, it wasn’t as tailored to their needs as we knew it needed to be. No training program existed like that so we saw this as a chance to repower our judicial system the same way Emerge has been repowering other offices for more than two decades, and they entrusted me to lead on creating our judicial training program.
This work is especially impactful because of the historic nature of the judiciary. People of color, women, and queer folks have always been underrepresented in the courts but especially now, we’re seeing them make decisions on our rights without ever having our voices and experiences heard. These seats have an incredible amount of influence and power and Gavel In is working to change the very make up of these benches. As we’ve seen with other elected offices, representation is crucial to an equitable democracy–we’re building that representation in the judicial system too.
What is unique about Emerge and about your position?
RO: I think it’s the intensity of our trainings which really helps folks get the entire scope of running for office and shows them exactly what it takes for them to find success on the campaign trail. The community and network of Emerge is also unprecedented. For those who go through our trainings, they’re spending their weekends learning about campaigns and elections with 24 other candidates who share their ideals and values, and are going through similar experiences. The campaign trail can feel incredibly lonely and Emerge trainings give candidates a network to show they’re not alone. Folks they can rely on out on the campaign trail who can offer advice or an extra hand when needed. That’s so underrated. . Additionally, Emerge has an intentional commitment to equity and justice with our three pillars that guides everything we do as an organization. The first is to reach 100,000 members of the New American Majority. The second is to lift as we climb–ensuring that as Emerge alums are elected to higher office, there’s another qualified alum ready to step forward and run for their seat. And the third pillar is repowering political structures by changing the very faces of our elected offices and institutions.
What has been one of the most surprising things you have learned since getting involved in progressive politics?
RO: With Gavel In, one of the most surprising things I learned was just how much the rules change from place to place, and how those changing rules dictate how dramatically you change your strategy and tactics. It really does require a level of expertise and a strategic mindset to ensure all of our judicial candidates are getting the training and advice they need to run, and win.
Another thing is just leaning into how robust of a movement we are. It can feel like we are under-resourced, but building powerful relationships with other organizations that do this work is how we make ourselves stronger. We are not alone and we’re a movement that’s growing fast every single day.
What has been the best part or best memory of your career so far?
RO: Gavel In is a really big highlight. I really loved the ability to develop and write out the Emerge curriculum, taking all that knowledge and then applying it to something new. We thought we’d have a small class for Gavel In, but we had 20 women from across the country go through the program, and the evaluations for it were so strong. It was what they needed, when they needed it, and helped them shift their mindsets from “Maybe I can do this one day” to “I know what to do and what steps to take.”
Is there anything you think campaigns should do or should stop? Why?
RO: I think a lot of people do this, but at the end of the day recognizing that it’s voters who decide. Campaigns need to make sure that they are tailoring themselves to the wants and needs of their district, their office, and their constituents. Sometimes, we have a tendency to get siloed into talking to folks like us and who agree with us, but we need to persuade and mobilize all voters.
Also, we need to make sure that we have candidates who are running as their full, authentic selves. Instead of contriving candidates into what someone thinks they should be, candidates running as themselves resonates with voters.
Lastly, for fun, if you could do another job for just one day, what would it be?
RO: I could see myself doing two different things. I play Dungeon & Dragons with my friends, so being able to be a professional game master and be able to create full narratives that are meaningful, impactful for folks. Or lead folks on sailing trips around the world right where they can explore different areas, and learn new things.