Give Her a Platform: A 1-1 with Jen Mandelblatt
By Allie Lerner
On Thursday, June 13th, I attended Platform’s Advocacy Day where I lobbied (for the first time ever) for The Women’s Health Protection Act. I was so impressed and intrigued by the experience that I decided to sit down with Jennifer Mandelblatt, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Platform, to discuss her organization, how she became involved in civic engagement as a career path, and the importance of being an advocate.
During high school Jennifer participated in Model UN which sparked her interest in government and where she found like-minded individuals who she referred to as “her people.”
Graduating from Cornell two years ago, Jennifer studied labor relations and inequality, specifically focusing on the collective power of people coming together and what happens when people without power grow in numbers to sit at the same table as those with power. She explains that this was the main idea behind Platform.
Jennifer attributes her first internship at the Summit Health Committee on Capitol Hill as one of many inspirations for Platform. During this internship she had the opportunity to speak with former Senator Tom Harkin. She remembers asking him: “What can college students do to improve the workplace against this gridlock Congress?” He responded, “we need to see young people come together in force and say ‘if you want our votes, you have to protect our rights.’” Jennifer adds that this experience sat as an inkling in the back of her head.
The following summer Jennifer reached out to six of her friends from Model UN and youth government to host a reunion brunch, where she shared an idea of hosting a convention for the summer before the 2016 election and they immediately responded, “let’s do this, let’s get to work.'' Two hours later, they each assumed different roles and had plans for the first convention. The Platform team is now composed of five of the original members for the directors team.
The goal of the convention is to bring young women identifying and femme folx together to say “if you want our votes, you have to protect our rights.” The first convention included 35 attendees who created a legislative agenda, followed by lobbying (which none of them had ever done before) on the Hill at 29 offices.
After the first convention, Jennifer attributes one of the reasons for continuing and expanding the convention because she remembers one woman saying, “I have never felt like the women’s movement or politics cared about me or my voice or my needs until this moment, until I felt like I got to directly create a change.”
“We thought it was a one time experience,” Jennifer said. “But what we didn’t realize was that this was one of the few spaces that young people felt they had total ownership for what they were advocating for.”
The initial three-day convention developed into a political training and lobbying workshop organization for young women identifying and femme folx called Platform. Jennifer explained that for the political training side, the organization trains young people how to use their own stories to successfully lobby. She said Platform looks at all the policies that impact youth on a daily basis, and then give tools to youth so they can use their voices. Additionally, they create monthly policy packs which break down the different pressing issues into: “What’s the lingo on this issue?” and “What are the current existing state legislature?” For the lobby side, Platform hosts single-issue or multi-issue lobby days where they connect young people to their lawmakers.
In order to get youth involved in politics, Jennifer explains that Platform’s approach is to meet people where they are. She also adds that there is a misconception that only people who are involved in politics can be politically active.
“A major piece of this is overcoming this gap of ‘I don’t know enough’ or ‘I’m not qualified.’” she said. “Things that we, as women, have been taught that we’re not qualified to make decisions about our bodies, our lives, and our futures, so really meeting them where they are is the first place.”
She adds that one of their main ways of mobilizing people is by situating politics in a way that relates back to their own lives.
Once youth are involved it is important to keep them motivated. Jennifer and her team do this by always giving them another task because there are so many other competing responsibilities that once people are disengaged, they’re less likely to re-focus. Another way they aim to keeping people motivated is by giving the power back to them.
“We say ‘okay, we’ve accomplished this big thing, now what changes do you want to see and how can we support you in doing them?” She said. “If it’s always top down then it becomes this routine of people feeling like ‘now I’m part of another system where my voice doesn’t matter’, so we like to help people see themselves as leaders.”
When asked about a specific memory that stood out to her, Jennifer reflected back to the Platform’s Ohio State chapter. The chapter originally had five members, and two years later they had so many members that they had to create a waitlist for an intersectionality dinner event.
“We had nothing to do with the event they hosted, we offered support, but seeing them take Platform and create something entirely their own was so exciting,” Jennifer said. “Platform doesn’t just belong to the founders and directors, it belongs to each of us and it’s for each of us to figure out what it means and fulfilling a need we have, so seeing our Ohio State chapter completely make it their own was probably one of the best moments.”
The easiest way to get directly involved with Platform is to sign up for their newsletter, which is a weekly run-down of different policy points at the national, state and local level on how people can take action on legislation. It also includes a review of activities that Platform has coming up. The next best option is, if you’re already in a women-in-politics organization on campus, then affiliate with Platform and they’ll provide the chapter with a variety of resources and assistance to planning local lobbying events.
Platform’s upcoming and largest event is convention which will be held July 20th through July 22nd in Washington, D.C. For the first day Congresswoman Meng will join the convention and there will be expert-led panels on issues ranging from democracy reform to justice reform to educational access, learning about what the issues are and how we actually enforce the policy to create change. The second day will have a workshop led by Emilie Aries, from Bossed Up, focused on channeling action and working on creating your own lobbying agenda. The convention will conclude on the 22nd where individuals will lobby Congress about the issues they’re passionate about.
“This is an opportunity for you to meet with your lawmakers and say this is what I care about and I need you to listen,” Jennifer said.
Platform hopes to expand their chapters by having at least one in every state so they can mobilize people across the country for state, local and federal actions.
Jennifer emphasizes that it is truly a team effort and that Platform is a testament to what happens when passionate people come together.
“We’re a lot of young people who individually don’t have a ton of power, but what happens with that collective action is amazing,” Jennifer exclaimed.
To get involved or find more information, check out platformwomen.org and follow them on social media at @PlatformWomen.