I had a chance to sit down with Rhode Island's Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea to ask her a few questions during Hispanic Heritage Month. Secretary Gorbea is the first Hispanic elected to statewide office in New England.
How can we get more Latinas in public office?
Hopefully, it will change this November but in the Democratic party, I am the only Latina elected to statewide position in the [United States]. Rhode Island, I am really proud to say, has a really great record with [having Latinas in office]. Out of the 17 elected officials, more than half are women. We have a large number of women running for office and actually getting elected [in Rhode Island]. Some of them are elected when they are not even in the majority. Suzy Alba, councilwoman in Smithfield, was the largest vote getter the two times she ran for city council. Latinas are able to connect with a wide variety of people and be part of the conversation in their communities and be part of the fabric of the leadership of this state which I am very proud of.
What made you want to run for office?
What made me want to run was the realization that I had something to contribute to change things for the better. It is important for more of us, particularly women and people with diverse backgrounds, to be at the policy-making table. The decisions that are being made at those tables will be different if the people at the table are different.
Women tend to think about it a lot longer and not see themselves as the candidate. In my case, I had a Masters in public administration. Clearly, I had an interest in public policy but I always thought I would be the number two person, the person in the background [who] was getting the work done. It was over time as I met more people they [started] asking "So when are you going to run?" and eventually enough people asked me that I started thinking "Why are people saying that? What are they seeing in me that I am not necessarily recognizing?" Being part of the leadership of [Housing Works Rhode Island] gave me a lot of the tools to then run for office. The contrast is the guys see themselves as candidates immediately or get asked once and then they get up and go.
How can Lady Project members get more involved in the community?
I moved to Rhode Island 24 years ago. I grew up in Puerto Rico. I did not know anyone in Rhode Island. My husband is a faculty member at the oceanography school at URI so literally my social circle was the people he worked with. I picked up a newspaper and I saw something that interested me which was the Governor's Advisory Commission on Hispanic Affairs. I knew it was a public meeting. I started going and next thing I knew I was appointed to the commission and the rest is history. A lot of the time it is as little as [finding] that passion within you. Is it Girl Scouts, boards and commissions of the state, environmental issues, human services issues? Figure out what you have a real passion for and what organizations are out there. Even if you didn't know anyone in that organization, [show up and introduce yourself]. There is a real dearth for people stepping up and saying I want to help. Once you do more, you'll be asked to do more and contribute. The worst barriers for us getting involved is in our own heads. Just offer to help. It's very hard to turn down an offer of help.
What women influenced you?
Definitely my mom. My mom raised me believing that I can do anything I wanted to. I was very young and I remember having a conversation with her about how boys had cooler toys to play with than girls. Next thing I knew I had Hot Wheels and swords. She always made a point of encouraging me when I had an idea. Recently while cleaning up a box I found little construction paper "Vote For Nellie" happy faces from when I was in seventh grade running for student council rep. I guess you can say it was in my DNA even back then! My mother sat there all night with me cutting up those construction paper happy faces.
What advice would you give your 30-year-old self?
Take a deep breath. It will work itself out. For many women who turn 30, that is a critical moment in their lives, that 28 to 32 range. For men it's later but for women at that age, whether you're married or not married, in a relationship or not in a relationship, or you're having kids or not having kids, all of those things suddenly [result in] having this really loud voice in your head and I had that [voice]. At that age, I remember thinking "Oh my gosh! Where is my life headed? I should have accomplished certain things by now." My original plan was having my first child at 26 and I ended up having her at 36. It's really about taking a deep breath, trusting yourself, and listening to the voice moving you to do something. That inner voice we tend to sometimes shut down, like "if I do that it might be kind of scary" is exactly the voice you need to be listening to push yourself forward.
Where else do you want to go in your political career?
I wake up every day very happy to be Rhode Island's Secretary of State. We have a lot of work to do. We've done some great things so far. It's a really fulfilling office and sure there might be something further down the line but I am not going to worry about that right now. I have a full plate and I think that I owe it to the voters of Rhode Island who elected me to be Secretary of State to be focused on that right now.
Photo courtesy of Secretary Gorbea