Women at work

In Southeast and throughout the state, female leaders are changing the nature of politics

By Lily Reavis

Special to the Southeast Express

 Colorado is a leading state in terms of equal gender representation within elected offices. In fact, the state’s Legislature has the nation’s second-highest number of women members, second only to Nevada, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

And still, there is only one woman representing Colorado at the U.S. Congress. Two women serve on the five-member El Paso County Board of County Commissioners, and two of the city’s nine City Councilors are women.

In recent years, there has been a considerable increase in the number of women who are running for office in Colorado Springs. In 2017, Southeast’s City Council District 4 elected Councilor Yolanda Avila. In the same year, Harrison School District 2 elected Jeannie Orozco.

The female campaigns and elections don’t stop there. Female empowerment groups such as Emerge Colorado have also massively grown in popularity, attracting dozens of women to participate in candidate training programs each year.

The women who are currently involved in Colorado Springs politics want to continue seeing minorities run for office.

“When you see more women stepping up to run that have big hearts and care, then that’s what our politics [are] going to start looking like, because that’s who’s going to run,” said Randi McCallian, a candidate for Colorado State Senate District 10, which starts just north of the Citadel Mall and runs north nearly to the city limits.

The scholars’ advocate

“I really believe in the community and the people, and that’s what drove me to advocate on their behalf.”

On a rainy evening in 2019, Jeannie Orozco sat in Havana Grill Authentic Cuban Cuisine, sharing a basket of fried plantains and talking about the importance of representative leadership. She had just gotten off work at the Department of Corrections in Cañon City, and suggested meeting for an interview at the restaurant. But first, she ordered take-out dinners for her family.

After moving to Southeast, Orozco quickly discovered the area’s challenges regarding education, transportation and public funding. Along with dozens of other advocates, she joined task forces and volunteer groups dedicated to improving the city.

More than a decade later, Orozco is serving a four-year term as an elected official for Harrison School District 2 (D-2). She is currently the board’s president.

“I love Southeast. We raised a family here, so this is our heart and our home,” she said. “I really believe in the community and the people, and that’s what drove me to advocate on their behalf.”

Orozco is one of three women on the D-2 school board (joined by Regina English and Linda Pugh), and for much of her tenure was the only person of color. That changed in November, when newest arrivals Corey Williams and Regina English took the oath of office. The hugely diverse district is 52.19 percent hispanic, 23.59 percent white and 13.4 percent black, according to the district’s November 2019 ethnicity report.

“People say that color doesn’t matter anymore,” Orozco said. “In reality it only doesn’t matter if you’re not a person of color.”

Representative leadership is of utmost importance to Orozco. She said seeing other women in elected positions was a major inspiration.

“Councilor [Yolanda] Avila came on … advocating for the community in a really positive way,” Orozco said. “She really understands the barriers that exist, and unfortunately so many people run who don’t understand how to advocate for those people.”

Within District 2, Orozco encourages teachers and school staff to understand and appreciate students’ “monkey brains.”

“We don’t test a monkey by how fast it can run and we don’t test a lion by how well it can climb a tree,” she said. “So why do we test all students on how well they can do on the same [exam]?”

According to Orozco, “monkey brains” extend beyond the classroom, and each skill set is needed in order for a representative and inclusive democracy to function.

“I would urge anyone to run [for office],” she said, “even if they aren’t professionals or experts.”

Born to lead

“I began to think, ‘If I could do this just as a regular citizen, what could I do as a councilperson?’”

Yolanda Avila, City Councilor of District 4, says that she got involved in politics at age 5, when her mother — a naturalized citizen from Mexico who worked on the John F. Kennedy campaign — taught her the importance of voting.

“As a youngster … I worked on a City Council campaign and I also worked on different governor’s campaigns, just canvassing and leaving flyers and stuff like that,” Avila said.

She completed her degree in International Political Economy at Colorado College in 1985 as a single parent.

“There were times when I couldn’t afford to fill my car with gas,” she said. “So I would walk.”

After college, Avila moved to California to work as a criminal defense investigator.

“At the time, I felt like that was what I was supposed to do my entire life,” she said.

However, in 1998, Avila was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic eye disorder with a prognosis of complete blindness. Within a few years, she was unable to see, forcing her into the world of public transportation.

“What made it easier for me was the transition from driving to taking the bus or walking,” she said. “[In California], every sidewalk was walkable and had the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] ramps; the buses came every 10 or 15 minutes. There was a grocery store just two small city blocks from my house. Everything was accessible, everything was around me.”

In 2011, Avila decided to retire and move back to Colorado Springs to be closer to her mother. The city she returned to was drastically different with a disability.

“Buses were running Monday through Friday, done at 5:30 [p.m.] — no Saturdays, no weekends. I did a lot of walking. … If sidewalks existed, they were not accessible.”

At the time, Colorado Springs was coming out of a recession. Some areas were being upgraded, but Southeast — where Avila is from — was receiving very little assistance.

“The city started to come out of this recession and was moving forward, but my district was still not moving forward,” Avila said.

So she began regularly attending City Council and Pikes Peak Rural Transit Authority (PPRT) meetings. As she gained recognition throughout the Springs, several people asked Avila to join their committees.

“Before I knew it, I was volunteering 30 hours a week,” she said. “I began to think, ‘If I could do this just as a regular citizen, what could I do as a councilperson?’”

So, in 2015, she ran for City Council … and lost. Avila, however, never saw the election as a loss.

“I finally said to myself, ‘Yolanda, you’re trying to run as a sighted person and you can’t run on that field,’” she said, citing issues such as being unable to complete written surveys. “By the time I finished [the campaign], I knew what I needed. And I decided, ‘I’m going to run again and I’m going to win.’”

In 2017, Avila was elected councilor for District 4, which she said is statistically the most diverse district in Colorado.

“And with that diversity there’s so much strength,” Avila said. “This is my calling. This is what I’m supposed to do.”

She added, “I look forward to running for a second term.”

Avila graduated from Emerge Colorado, a candidate-training program dedicated to increasing the number of Democratic women in office. In 2018, 19 Emerge alumnae graduates who ran campaigns were elected, a 94 percent win rate, according to the Emerge Colorado website. Alumnae currently in office include Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold and Democratic State Sens. Faith Winter of Westminster, Jessie Danielson (Greeley) and Tammy Story (Conifer).

As an Emerge graduate, Avila considers representation in politics a key issue.

“We haven’t had that voice, as women. Women communicate differently and have different priorities, and usually our priorities are around community, quality of life,” she said. “People of color know what it’s like to be … left behind. And we need those voices to make sure that we are being part of the process.

“To me it’s just about the people and the community,” she continued. “And maybe that’s being a woman. And maybe that’s being a woman of color. And maybe that’s being a person with a disability. That brings such a different perspective to the city.”

Challenging the status quo

“Sometimes, people need to … stand together . By putting our voices together, we amplify [a] message.”

Jillian Freeland, a liberal Colorado Springs midwife and mother of two, is running for Colorado’s 5th Congressional District, which includes Colorado Springs and is currently filled by Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn. Freeland got involved local advocacy scene after the 2016 election, and was inspired by the number of women running for elected positions in Colorado Springs.

“I think for a lot of us [female activists] … we’re in the same situation,” she said. “We voted, we paid attention, but never showed up or planned a rally or thought that we would run for office ourselves.”

That involvement only grew with Freeland’s frustration after the 2016 election.

“I attended the first Women’s March here [in Colorado Springs], which was massive,” she said. “And then helped plan the next two.”

As a frequent participant in protests and rallies, Freeland places high value on representative leadership and the ability to listen to others’ needs.

“Sometimes, people need to … stand together and say, ‘We’re afraid,’” she said. “By putting our voices together, we amplify that message.”

In 2019, Freeland graduated from Emerge Colorado’s candidate training program. She said she has experienced “overwhelming support” from local women and other advocates, many of which she met at protests and rallies. And while she knows the odds are tough, she refuses to let them get in the way of her campaign.

“We now have a record number of women serving in the U.S. Congress. We’re still just shy of 24 percent which, of course, is not representative,” Freeland said. “The changes I would like to make need to happen at the Federal level.”

Despite the support Freeland has received on the campaign trail, she also says she has experienced sexism.

“I have been asked many times, ‘Who’s going to take care of the kids?’” she said. “Well, my husband is really excited to be a stay-at-home parent when I’m elected.”

According to Freeland, representative leadership is one of the most important factors of a successful democracy. After the 2020 election, she hopes that more minorities will be inspired to run.

“The more women we see running, the more women think, ‘I could do that. I’m qualified,’” she said. “When default equals male, it by definition leaves a lot of people out.”