Mormon Women for Ethical Government: Looking Back and Pressing Forward
A Conversation with Jennifer Walker Thomas and Emma Petty Addams
Sharlee Mullins Glenn: I'm here today with Jennifer Walker Thomas and Emma Petty Addams, co-executive directors of Mormon Women for Ethical Government, or MWEG, an organization that was founded seven years ago today–January 26, 2017. So, welcome, Jen and Emma. We're going to talk today about MWEG's beginnings, its guiding principles, its vision and mission, its growth, and what it's doing today. And then we'll talk about some questions dealing with the intersection of faith and politics.
So, first of all, let's introduce ourselves. Jen, maybe you go first and then Emma.
Jennifer Walker Thomas: Okay. My name is Jen Thomas. I live in Belmont, Massachusetts, and I have been involved in MWEG for pretty much those seven years. I was one of the early joiners when Sharlee launched it, but have spent the last two and a half years almost serving as a co-executive director with Emma. And before that I served in other operational positions and as the board chair. So it's been a big part of my life for the last seven years.
Emma Petty Addams: Hi, it's so great to be here with you, Sharlee. My name is Emma Adams and I live in Omaha, Nebraska. I've lived there for about ten years. I've lived on both coasts as well before that. And I have been the co- executive director of MWEG for about four and a half years. And I had the pleasure of being closely involved with MWEG before that as well, working alongside the founders. This has been just a bright spot and a center point in my life for the past seven years. So it's wonderful to sit this day and look back upon all that has happened.
Jennifer: Yes, it is. It's a lot to celebrate.
Sharlee: You are both extraordinary leaders and you have my endless gratitude for all you do. My name, again, is Sharlee Mullins Glenn. I founded Mormon Women for Ethical Government. I currently serve on several boards and volunteer with a number of humanitarian and advocacy organizations. And I live in Pleasant Grove, Utah. So, let's start by talking about the vision and mission of MWEG. Do you have those statements memorized? I’m sure you do!
Jennifer: Yes, we do have them memorized. We are women of faith building a more peaceful, just, and ethical world. That is the vision of what we're trying to accomplish. And our mission really has two parts: It is, just as we say in our name, to advocate forcefully for ethical government. And then the second part of that mission is to empower the women who can do the work. So those two things are really intertwined for us. We don't see them as separable. It's one of the ways that we're trying to do this work differently.
In other words, we want to build a better government for all of our citizens and all the people who live in this nation. But at the same time, we construct our advocacy efforts and all of our work in a way that helps women build their individual capacity so that they can work alongside us and also so that they can work independently on things that matter most to them. So that, in a nutshell, is what we're up to.
Sharlee: And can you tell us what the mission statement is?
Emma: Yes. It was a very collaborative effort to create this mission statement.
Jennifer: It is: “To inspire women of faith to be ambassadors of peace who transcend partisanship and courageously advocate for ethical government.” This incorporates our four core principles and values, which are: faithful, nonpartisan, peaceful, and proactive.
Sharlee: I well remember the thought and care and prayer that went into crafting and refining these two statements.
I love the mission statement. I think it so beautifully encapsulates who we are and what we do: women of faith, ambassadors of peace, transcending partisanship, and courageously advocating for ethical government. Okay, so before we focus the majority of our time on how MWEG has grown, maybe some of the challenges it's faced, and its current initiatives, I want to just briefly tell the origin story. I've actually written out some notes for myself because I want to keep it as succinct as possible. I could talk literally for hours about this. It was an extraordinary time. But I'm limiting myself to just a few minutes. I do think it's important that this origin story be told, not only because it's interesting and somewhat unusual, but more importantly, because it highlights some really important things about the organization. First, that it is, and was, and continues to be 100% a grassroots movement; second, that it's rapid growth is evidence of a significant moment, a zeitgeist, an inflection point, if you will, among women of faith and, specifically, Latter day Saint women; and third, that God's hand was in it.
So, just briefly, like many if not most Americans, I was becoming increasingly alarmed during the 2016 election cycle. The polarization, the divisiveness, the vitriol was very distressing. And for the first time in my life, I genuinely feared for the fate of our democracy. And I felt strongly that I could not remain silent. And so I started doing what President Nelson had recently asked us to do. I started speaking up and speaking out (and I tried to do it peacefully and civilly)–on social media, in private conversations with family and friends, and in other public spaces. And I noticed that a lot of my friends were doing the same thing, but it all felt sort of futile. It felt like we were tiny, disparate voices crying in the wilderness and no one was really listening.
And so, believing strongly that there is strength in numbers and power in organization, I sat at my computer on the night of January 25th, 2017 and set up a Facebook group for myself and a few like-minded friends—a space where we could come together, talk to each other, teach each other, learn from each other, and organize so that we could be more effective in our efforts to call for peace, decency, compassion, civility, and ethics in our government. As I later wrote in the Little Purple Book: “MWEG was born of desire, frustration, and hope.The desire to act, to push back with faith, love, and light against the darkness of these times, the frustration that comes from feeling directionless and alone in our efforts, and the hope that working together, we can actually make a difference.”Now, here's the really interesting thing. As I worked into the wee hours of January 26, 2017, setting up this private Facebook group for what I thought would be a fairly small body of close friends, I felt compelled to put in place some pretty strict and formal guidelines that would govern the group. It made no logical sense to do this. We were all friends. We were all pretty much on the same page, and yet, I felt compelled to formalize these guidelines in the description section of the group. I wrote, among other things, that this would be a space where incivility, ad hominem attacks, etc., would be forbidden, that we had to interact with each other, even when we disagreed, with deep kindness and respect; that anyone participating would need to abide by the six principles of nonviolence, as outlined by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (these we later adapted into our own Six Principles of Peacemaking); that this would be a space where the discussion would be about ethical government and not about Church governance or policies or teachings beyond the call we felt as women of faith and as disciples of Jesus Christ to act; that this would be a non-partisan space and that it didn't matter where you were on the political spectrum, that our focus, again, would be ethics and not political parties or partisan positions; and, finally, that the purpose of this space would be productive discussion and mobilization that would lead to action.
So, these are the principles that still guide MWEG today. They've been enshrined, as Jen mentioned, in what we call MWEG’s four core attributes. MWEG is Faithful, Nonpartisan, Peaceful, and Proactive. I realize now that had those guidelines not already been in place before I added a single other person to the group, MWEG never would have survived. It would have imploded within days. Because here's what happened. Immediately, that original group of friends that I added to the group began adding friends who added friends who added friends and so on. Within just a few weeks, we had over 4,000 members–women from all across the political spectrum who had opinions and who were primed for action. What I didn't know in those early hours of January 26, 2017 was that there were literally thousands of other Latter day Saint women out there who felt the exact same call to action, who were ready to claim their moral authority as women and as citizens, who refused to be complicit by being complacent, and who were just waiting for someone to build the field of dreams, so to speak, so that they could come and play some activist ball. One of our early members wrote this upon finding the group: “I am in tears, I thought I was almost alone—and here are my sisters, already gathered, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners.”
And so, suddenly MWEG was a thing. And so we had to scramble to put in place an organizational structure that could accommodate 4,000-plus pumped up, determined women with opinions! We incorporated as a 501c4 nonprofit organization with a 501c3 sister organization, established chapters, formed committees, built a website, issued calls to action, coordinated letter writing campaigns, wrote op-eds, organized vigils and rallies, showed up in Washington, D. C. and at our state capitals and the offices of our elected representatives, and helped register over 20,000 voters. And that was all in the first year. Those were wild and heady times, and it almost killed those of us who suddenly found ourselves leading an organization we never meant to start.
And here I have to give just a quick shout out to the women who stepped up immediately to help build and guide “The Good Ship MWEG” as leaders, or founding members, as we called them in those early days: Erica Glenn, Jacque White, Michelle Lehnhardt, and, especially, Melissa Dalton-Bradford, Linda Hoffman Kimball, and Diana Bate Hardy.
MWEG never would have survived without the monumental efforts of these women, the dozens of others who served in key leadership roles, including both of you, and the thousands of engaged members. So, God's hand was in this. We have all felt that divine direction over and over and over again. And that brings us to the present. But before we go on, I just want to publicly express my enormous gratitude to both of you for being willing to step up and take the wheel when the time was right and for your extraordinary leadership. You have taken MWEG places I never could have imagined. Thank you, from the heart.
Jennifer: We couldn't have done that if we didn't have something we could take, and that's all on you. Emma and I say all the time, we never, ever, neither of us, ever would have started something like this. It takes a very distinct kind of visionary and someone who's willing, like you said, to give your life over to it for a significant period of time. It has been a real privilege for both of us to work on this and take the work forward. But we also acknowledge, profoundly, and in moments of very real honesty, that we would not have had the capacity to have started it.
Sharlee: Well, I’m not sure I had the capacity [without God’s help], and I recognize that. But a few months before MWEG happened, I was released from a heavy calling after five years, our last child left on his mission, I had come through some fairly significant health challenges, and suddenly I found myself with some time. So, I told Heavenly Father: Here I am; use me. I’m not sure I would have prayed that prayer had I known what was about to happen! But the important thing to acknowledge here is that I don't know that anyone could have decided, “I'm going to start this nonprofit organization and this is how I'm going to do it.” It had to happen as it did.
And the only way that I was able to do it was because I had space and I had time–for the first time in my life, really. And there were other extraordinary women that stepped forward. And God sustained us.
Emma: Well, and I think the other thing that's interesting about this story and about our work is that you were all prepared in very distinct and unique ways. I mean, you say you didn't feel like you had the capacity, but you had had years of work, and service and such within the home, within family, within professional settings, and the Lord was preparing you with a distinct set of skills that were unique to you.
Sharlee: I don't know that they were unique to me. That's so kind of you, but I think that is true of most LDS women.
Jennifer: Yeah, we'll talk about that.
Emma: Exactly. Even just last night, we were talking to someone who came in to work on a specific project and Jen turned to her and said that this has been one of the hallmarks of this work: all along, at the right moment, the right woman has stepped up and come in to do the thing that needed to be done. And so, I think this illustrates so beautifully what happens when we're listening to the stirrings of the spirit, we're open, and we're willing, and we ask the Lord to lead and guide us towards the next step in our discipleship.
Sharlee: Yes, I agree with that 100%. Okay, let's talk a little bit about how MWEG has grown and what it's doing currently.
Emma: So, I think the founding story is such a beautiful place to start because that's ground zero. That's phase one, right? And everything that we have done since then has built upon that foundation, upon that vision, upon those principles. Those nonpartisan, peaceful, proactive, faithful guiding principles are what get us up each day and drive us forward. And so, really the next step when I came in as the first non-founder executive director, I chose to compartmentalize the work a little bit because it's an overwhelming task to take on. So I just kind of chose to break it up and just go at it, you know, in a way that was manageable. And I think one of my guiding thoughts here has been that I wanted to make sure we were fully operationalizing all of those values, that all those beautiful values, the philosophy of MWEG, the work that had been done, that we were making sure that it was built into every structure that we build from here on out–every program, every decision, every position. You have to intentionally build that into your structure, especially as you grow.
So this period of the past four years has been one of operationalizing those values and really solidifying the structure–all the legal stuff, making sure we had, you know, the positions we needed, making sure we had the relationships we needed. And a lot of this is behind the scenes, honestly. A lot is invisible, work that no one will ever know about, and that’s actually the point.And during this time, we have not focused on growth, in terms of membership. We wanted to build something for our daughters and granddaughters and great granddaughters, and so we wanted to have the restraint to make sure that we were ready before we grew. Those 4,000 women who showed up in that first month have slowly grown organically to 7,000-ish without a single effort to really ever recruit. We've just let them show up to us. Now, when they show up, as was illustrated by the comment that you read, they're just delighted and relieved to have found us.
And so, this next phase that we're kind of entering in right now is one of being ready to grow, being ready to grow our membership, being ready to go out and find the women who don't know about us, who are waiting to join, who are maybe know a little bit, but not enough to join yet. And I think part of that is, there are a lot of women out there who feel similar to how you and I did and we all did at the beginning; they're anxious about the state of the world. They want to do something. They feel like they're just one. But I think the other part of it is that they don't want to make that their whole personality. Civic engagement doesn't need to be the only thing in their lives. Right? They have meaningful, rich, full lives and they need to be able to not just fit it in, but to do something meaningful with it.
And so this is what we're here for. We're open and ready now to bring in and welcome and encircle. So that's where we are.
Jennifer: Yes, and I will say that some of the structural challenges of that, particularly as social media is less robust and people don't want to participate. I mean, I think back at the window in which you started this, and it would not be possible now. Fewer people are on Facebook, fewer people are engaging with the world that way. More people have negative experiences with it. And so we've had to find other mechanisms to help women stay connected to MWEG and to connect them to meaningful work.
Because, as you gather these women in, we want them to not fall prey to this sense of cynicism, disconnect, impotence, like, is there any way that we can solve the problem? And so by building out a really robust structure that allows us to have other kinds of communities, spaces where women can gather in friendship and community to support one another.
Also, we want to make sure that we are consistently building out a huge range of meaningful advocacy activities so that women can find something that they know will actually be productive so that they won't just be posting in the wind. Right? Something that speaks to them–that speaks to them personally.
And then I think the additional part that we've tried to build is a robust structure that just serves them as individuals. I think as women, we discount our capacity, right? We just listened to you do that right here. You're like, I don't know if I was capable of it. And we as outsiders absolutely know that you were! But I think as women, we discount our capacity and we have found that for the women of MWEG, one of the things that gives them courage is just knowing that they're going in prepared, right? If they're prepared with solid information, if they know how the system works, if they have a buddy to go with them, right? If they have skills to navigate a conversation that might be contentious, they've got active peacemaking skills, right? So, those things, building out a system that can give women all of those things, opportunities, an ability to grow, and a sense of community has been, I think, the work of the last four years.
Sharlee: That’s beautiful, and I love how intentional you've been about it. I will admit that in those first crazy days, months, years–at least the first two years–our advocacy was a lot like playing whack-a-mole. There were just so many things happening all the time that seemed so egregious and appalling to us, and we just went after all of them.
But that's not sustainable. It's not sustainable. So, I think what you’re doing is really important. And I love the way you're empowering the members of MWEG. Here, maybe we can talk a little bit about the four objectives–the four Es of MWEG?
Emma: Yeah, I think we'll kind of talk about it in two parts.
I mean, we do have these beautiful four words that we use to kind of describe the work, which is to encircle (bring women in, build community), to educate (and we’ve chosen to focus on media literacy and misinformation–giving our members the skills they need to navigate and find truth), to empower (skill-building), and then engaging which is really our advocacy work. Over time, I think these have kind of solidified into two main areas, one which is on our 501c3 side, which is all the work that we do educating and empowering women including media literacy and extensive peacemaking trainings.
And then there’s the advocacy side. This is what we work on. And we divide this out so that it gives women lots of different ways to engage. So it could be that you come to MWEG because you helped resettle a refugee family, and in that process, you saw that there were some barriers in the system making it difficult for them to live with full agency and purpose and be able to really, you know, make the decisions they need to. And so you might think, I want to advocate for some political change here.
So that might be why you come. Or you might come to MWEG because you see our peacemaking materials and think, “I need some of that in my life.”
Jennifer: And you might not be politically inclined at all.
Emma: Yes, the idea is, come and you can choose or not choose to do any of the advocacy and we still want you here.
Or maybe you came because you saw our meme set about how to spot logical fallacies or how to teach children how to navigate TikTok. And so, as we've kind of helped solidify these in different areas, it gives us an opportunity to serve all Latter-day Saint women, no matter where they are on the political spectrum, no matter where they are in their level of political engagement.
It's not just for women who want to show up and write a letter to the editor or to write a letter to their congressman or show up to a meeting. It’s for anyone who wants to seek after truth and learn how to be a peacemaker and wants to use those skills in the public sphere or within her own family. If you just want to navigate the family group text chat, then this place is for you.
Jennifer: And I would add to that, one of the unfortunate things we’ve sort of lost in the last few years is what it means to engage productively in a civic way. We've reduced that completely to the word politics– and civic engagement, particularly in a democracy, is actually a much more robust, comprehensive process. And women, whether they know it or not, even if they weren’t senators, have actually been the foundation of democracy and civic engagement and community because to have a healthy democracy, you have to have rich communities. You have to have high levels of trust. You have to have individuals that are willing to volunteer and connect at a local, state, and federal level. And you have to have people who care about the broader welfare of all the people that surround them. So, in other words, civic engagement isn't just running for office. It isn't just holding and using political power. And so women have played really critical roles in building our civic health in ways that are not at all political.
And so for anyone who's listening to this who thinks, well, I'm not political. I'm not really interested in politics. I'm not really interested in advocacy. My question for you would be, are you interested in peace? Are you interested in having a healthy, pluralistic democracy that protects your faith, that protects your family?
If the answers are yes, then there are all sorts of ways to participate in MWEG that you might not think of as political; that are, again, building these peacemaking and dialogue skills that can give you a kind of principled identity around your citizenship. There are ways to connect with others and participate to build a healthy community.
Sharlee: I’d like to come back to something you said, Emma. You said, “We want to make MWEG a space for all Latter-day Saint women.” So, how do you do that? One of MWEG’s four core attributes in “nonpartisan.” LDS women find themselves at different places all along the political spectrum. So, how does MWEG navigate this? How does MWEG define nonpartisanship and how does it put it into practice?
Jennifer: One thing that we make very clear to our members is that MWEG as an organization is nonpartisan, but the way you participate in a political society often is by joining a party. And so, while the organization is nonpartisan, we do not ask our women to be nonpartisan; it is not an expectation of them at all. And, just like you said, we have women from all across the ideological spectrum within our faith. And we think that is incredibly awesome! It's fantastic that we can provide a gathering space for women who can talk to and learn from one another even though they believe differently. So, I think there are a couple of things we would share with people that are kind of foundational to how we conceive of MWEG as being nonpartisan, and maybe Emma can expound on this. The first is that we absolutely do not ever support candidates or oppose candidates. We do not advocate for or support any party activities. We just don't get involved in anything that is partisan or in any way related to party activities, though we get many invitations to do so–constantly, even, and from both sides of the aisle. And the second point is that in a highly polarized society, you'll find that people talk about the same topic–immigration, for example–using very coded polarized language. So one of the things that that we have tried so hard to do as an organization–and this started with you at the founding level–is that anything we talk about, even if it might be identified as a policy from the left or the right, we try to think about it in new ways so that the language isn't coded and we remain open to new possibilities for how we might think about and talk about this issue. We try really hard to find political solutions to problems that have resulted from intense partisanship. So, we see ourselves not only as nonpartisan in a neutral sense, but we see ourselves as nonpartisan very proactively. In other words, we are out there trying to create spaces where people can be politically active without feeling this tension of partisanship, which has been a real relief for a lot of women.
Sharlee: Can you give a specific example of how you've done this?
Jennifer: Yes, I can give you a specific example of how this works. We often work with national organizations on a piece of legislation, and one of the things people trust us to be able to do is represent all sides. They will reach out to us and say, “We would like to meet with Senator X about this issue that we're all working on together,” and they trust that MWEG can bring in a group of women from both sides of the aisle who are constituents. Almost no other organization out there can do that.They can bring someone in from the left or they can bring in a group from the right, but we’re one of the few organizations that can easily find a group of six women to come in and talk to that senator or to their staffer and represent as a mix of Republican, Democrat, independent, whatever. And they can actually then model for the senator or the staffer or the congressperson what it looks like to collaborate emotionally, mentally, socially on this issue. This often provides for these elected representatives pathways to think about how they could reach both sides of the aisle. That's really powerful. And for these women, our members, it’s an extraordinary experience. We have had many, many experiences creating that nonpartisan space. Having imbued in the women that are doing the work these skills of peacemaking, they are often able to completely flip the scripts in meetings where they start out aggressive, hostile, and by the end, these staffers or whatever are reaching back out to us and apologizing.
Emma: Because they came in so hot, because they sometimes assume you're coming from the other side.
Jennifer: Yes, and when they can't place you, it's disorienting–in a good way!
Emma: On one occasion, we expressed our opinion about a matter–I think it was about voting–and the staffer responded to us as though we were on one side. He was quite aggressive and, I would say, even angry.
And I responded and said, “A lot of what you said, we totally agree with.” So, I first found the . . .
Sharlee: . . . the common ground.
Emma: Yes, the common ground. And then I said, let me push back on this one a little bit. And in that case, I actually had been a member of his political party for most of my life, and so I was able to say, “I can feel the tension you're experiencing here, and I see where you're coming from, and here's where we're coming from. And he just went kind of silent for a little bit. And then later he said, “I came in a little bit overbearing there.” And I was able to say, “No problem. I know you feel passionately about this.” It was a really great moment.And the woman there with me were able to see what it looked like to really just disarm someone. That's what peacemakers do. They lay down their weapons.
Jennifer: I love that so much. And let me just add one more thing, because we do have people ask us this question a lot about nonpartisanship. One thing, and let me see if I can figure out how to articulate this. Nonpartisanship is often used as a weapon or a means of stopping someone's engagement. Someone might say, oh, you can't engage in an issue around immigration reform because now in our society, that’s associated with the left. And so, you, by even saying you want to do that, are therefore labeled partisan.
And so people use nonpartisanship in a manipulative, coercive manner. And at MWEG, we just refuse to be bound by that. We refuse to say that there are certain problems–really complex problems in our society–that you are only allowed to touch or talk about if you are from one party or the other. We just don't believe that. And we believe that, instead of being limiting, instead of meaning, “Oh, you can have no opinions,” that in truth nonpartisanship means that we are allowed to actually have the widest possible range of opinions. So it gives us all of this beautiful space to occupy because we can look at something from fresh eyes and say, what are the merits of this based on what our faith tells us, what our principles tell us, what the Constitution tells us. We can look at it cleanly and say, okay, now this is where we're going to land based on our principles.
Sharlee: We’re going to refuse to engage in black and white thinking. From the very beginning, we have emphasized nuance and the need to acknowledge complexity. I think that’s essential.
It's interesting that MWEG is often perceived as being very conservative by outside groups and other activist groups, in particular. And yet, within the Latter-day Saint culture and other more conservative cultures, often there's a misconception that MWEG is a little left leaning, which I find so interesting because I personally was a Republican my entire life until fairly recently. I'm now unaffiliated. I'm not associated with any political party. And among our early members, many were quite conservative, some were more progressive, and some of us were in the middle. So, I think it's one of the really extraordinary things that MWEG is doing–navigating this space and, in many ways, creating this space.
Jennifer: I'll just add really quickly that if you were to ask me right now to tell you the party affiliation of the members of our very large leadership team, I could not do that with confidence.
Emma: I was recently being interviewed for a news blog, and the host kept trying to pinpoint me down on this exact thing. We were talking about political identity and I was explaining what Jen just explained. And he kept saying that it sounded kind of utopian and I'm like, it's our reality. I mean, certainly as leaders we need to be aware of the leanings of certain people to make sure we’re balanced in our approaches, but it's not necessarily that she's left or she's right . . .
Jennifer: . . . or that she’s a party in any way.
Emma: It's just that she's more cautious. She's got a personality where she thinks about unintended consequences a lot. So I need to make sure that when we're analyzing any piece of legislation that I pair her with someone who is, like, feeling this deep compassion and wants to go fix injustice right now. You know what I mean? So that there’s a balance. So, it's less of a left/ right thing. I think it’s more of a temperament thing in some ways. And what skills they have. We've just reached this point where if someone has been with MWEG long enough, their party or ideological identity has been replaced with the principles of MWEG and that’s such a part of who they are and what is driving them.
Sharlee: Emma, you touched on something that I want you to talk a little bit more about, and that is the fact that the work of MWEG is highly collaborative. And this was very purposeful, right? From the beginning, the vision that we had of MWEG was that the organizational structure would be a model of corporate structure (top down), but that it would better reflect the way women work. It would be more like a circle, or intersecting spheres of stewardship. We used the metaphor of a tree (roots, trunk, branches, leaves). And so, talk a little more about that, more about how decisions are made, who makes those decisions, what the process looks like.
Emma: Yes, I mean, we've definitely experimented a lot over the past four years to get to the point we are now and we'll continue to grow and experiment. But I think the word collaborative is the operative word here. There's always going to be conflict–and we want that! We want there to be conflict. We want to bring women into spaces where they have different opinions and their ideas conflict with each other and then we resolve them together. And when you're in a space where people bring different ideas and different life experiences, there are going to be different solutions to problems. So I think the two things that I would say that we do are that, first, we want to be very clear about what our principles are. So, we all agree on our principles. In MWEG, we have the principles of peacemaking and we have the principles of ethical government. So we have this guiding document–principles we've all agreed upon. But there's always going to be some subjectivity in interpreting those principles. How do those principles translate into policy? And that's where the women come in, and that's where the collaboration comes in, and that's where there's back and forth, there's discussion, and lots of opportunity to disagree. Oftentimes, in a meeting, I will say something, and then I will say, “Why is no one disagreeing with me? You're making me nervous!” If we, as leaders, are not openly inviting that sort of disagreement, if we're not rewarding people for pushing back, if we're not reaching out to the quiet one in the corner who we can tell is thinking and we can tell she's got something going on, but she's not going to push it. And if we don't either reach out to her then or privately and say, “Hey, does this feel good to you?” And really empower her to speak, then we're not doing our job.
Jennifer: I’ll give a tangible example of that. Recently we were doing some strategic thinking around membership. After all these years of working with the women on our team, it’s become clear that there are some women who are not going to respond in a meeting setting. That’s just not the way they are; that’s not the way they process information. And so we also set up a concurrent structure that allowed women to provide answers to the questions we were discussing in advance or robustly in comments. And then we could have dialogue back and forth in two places. So, not only are we trying to get opinions from a wide range of women (we have a really large leadership team; it's almost 30 women now that really weigh in heavily and that we meet with regularly), but we also recognize that women learn and present information in different ways. And we've tried to move away from these traditional, like you said, Sharlee, hierarchical structures where there's only one way to provide feedback or there's only one kind of personality that's valued. We want to make sure that we are seeing that women have different ways of contributing and giving pathways for them to do that in terms of feedback.
Emma: We do a huge amount of both social listening and formal surveying of and asking for input from our members. That's a huge component of what we do.
In fact, when we meet with other organizations, they are so jealous that we have all these thousands of women to hear from and that we're not creating anything in an echo chamber. I mean, people spend millions of dollars on focus groups and messaging campaigns and marketing, and we just ask our members and we get access to all this information. So any decision is based upon a huge amount of listening and input from our membership. That's one of our strengths.
Sharlee: You've talked about some ways that MLEG is different from most other organizations. What are some other ways that it's unique?
Emma: I mean, I think I would go back to this two-part mission that Jen mentioned at the beginning. I was at a conference last December. It was a nonpartisan reformers conference. It was one of the first conferences I had attended after COVID.
I talked a little bit in one session about MWEG's model of not being extractive with our members, but, rather, considering our members to be the point of everything we do. So we're not just trying to get something out of them. We're not choosing the objectives and then saying, you go do it.
Our members are the point. We want to build whole, beautifu,l thinking, independent advocates and actors in the political sphere. And so that philosophical flip, I think is what makes us different. I think a lot of organizations feel like they have to use anxiety and fear to motivate people to engage. And we don't want to build engagement around that. We want to build everyone's capacity to be inspiring. I kept talking about this at this conference, and I had so many people emailing me and reaching out to me afterwards, saying: “Tell us how you're doing this!” I called Jen afterwards and I'm like, “I just talked about what we do.”
I didn't know it was that special, but it turns out it really is. And I should have known it was because the focus on our members is everything. In everything we do, we think about what will make things better for them, what will give them what they need. We’re certainly being kind and compassionate, but we’re also being strategic, because that’s what makes our work resonate with people, because it’s focused on our members.
Sharlee: Yes, you're encircling them, educating them, empowering them, and helping them engage. Do you have anything to add, Jen?
Jennifer: I would just say that another way we have found that we're doing something unique kind of refers back to this idea of principled citizenship.
We have been working over the last year and a half with a national coalition of partners, and they've responded to that idea and the concepts that we've utilized in our principled voter campaigns and our principled citizenship content in a way that has simply been extraordinary.
There is actually no one else, I don't think, in the nation that is producing anything similar. And, certainly there's no one producing it that has a grassroots organization to practice it on. There might be people thinking similar ideas from a theoretical standpoint, but we are literally the only organization that's saying, “Hey, we were going to put this into play in our membership.”
And there has been such a hunger for that. I mean, we've had people reach out to us to ask if we could replicate this nationally, if we could replicate it for other smaller organizations, for other affinity groups. We are finding over and over again in all sorts of different places that the women of this organization are thinking new thoughts with incredible clarity in a way that is inspiring to the broader political audience.
Sharlee: I think that's one of the hallmarks of MWEG–that creativity. Looking at things in new ways, thinking outside of the box, thinking outside of the pyramid, and bringing that fresh approach.
Jennifer: And Sharlee, I will lean right into the fact that I believe that those are the fruits of the Spirit. People are like, how do you come up with these ideas? What kind of focus group did you hold? I think all of us can point to moments of significant inspiration–just as you did at the beginning of this conversation. Emma and I have felt repeatedly that we know how to do things we have no business knowing how to do. We know how to articulate things we have no business understanding. And every time it has come as a fruit of us pleading, in prayer, for guidance and direction and for answers to problems that are plaguing God's Children. I think that's one of the tricky things and why we're hesitant to try to replicate these things in other environments because we know that part of our secret sauce really is our faith.
Sharlee: Yes, absolutely. Thank you for saying that. Thank you for bringing that up. I remember when we were, in the early days, first putting together a job description for an executive director (because we wanted to hire, we needed to hire an executive director), and one thing we all agreed on was that the most important quality we were looking for was humility. Because if a leader is humble, she is going to be continually seeking that guidance from the Spirit.
Jennifer: Yes. And they're going to be willing to get feedback from a lot of people. They don't need to be the center of the movement.
Sharlee: Absolutely. Okay, here's a question that I think is a really good one. How does MWEG navigate the sometimes tricky line between being peacemakers–because peacemaking is a huge emphasis of MWEG’s–and being courageous advocates for ethical government?
Emma: I think I'll answer that question using the word tension. I love the word tension. I am a musician and I love the tension of dissonance and the release that comes from it. I know how productive tension can be. And I think there is a perceived tension between those two things [peacemaking and courageous advocacy]–and I think they actually work hand-in-hand. So, peacemaking is big picture. There's an entire field of international peace-building. This is peacemaking with a capital P–an attempt to bring something large and meaningful where all of God's children can live together in a way that honors their agency, their self determination, and they have the ability to make choices about their lives, right? And what disrupts that? It's war, it's conflict, it's coercion, power, things like that. But then you have what I would call bridge-building. And bridge-building involves the skills that we need to talk to each other, right? And that is more practical, that's more pragmatic. The work we do in MWEG really encompasses both those things.
I think one of the ways that we're looking at it is that the bridge-building, the skills needed, the conversations needed, are a big part of the equation, but you need to also have a framework within government for that to work. It's really hard to have peace if you have authoritarianism. In fact, I would say it's impossible.
So, if you really believe in peace with a capital P, you need to do the work of both the bridge-building and you also need to do the advocacy work that builds government that allows for dissent, allows for freedom of ideas and expression, and that invites and creates space for all of God's children to thrive.
So, we don't see those two things as being in conflict. We see peacemaking and advocating for ethical government as something that we do together, and they're both needed. And they allow us to engage in places where there's conflict and provide the space and method and means to do meaningful work together.
So you can't see them as being in conflict, but rather, in tension, extremely productive tension, because when things are in tension, you have to find creative ways to help them work together. And my guess is that they’re not actually in tension. It’s just that we have finite minds and we're human and we're trying to figure out how to work within a fallen world. My guess is that they're actually beautifully harmonized, but we just are trying to figure out how to get there.
Jennifer: Yes, and can I just add to that in terms of courage? I think that if we want to be courageous advocates, there are many ways to do that. There's a traditional way of thinking about courage as being sort of aggressive; you know, “I’m willing to run into battle–because I have the strength and the capacity and the energy to kind of go to war.” We have a lot of war and battle metaphors, right? I have found that that was the way I tended to think about things. And if I, if I think about things using that framework, I am never going to have the courage to move towards conflict because I am never going to feel like I'm going to win that battle from a position of strength.
However, if I have trained myself as a peacemaker, if I have immersed myself in an understanding of how the Prince of Peace has led his disciples through scripture, through history, to solve problems through a pattern of peace, I actually can learn and see the enormous power and capacity of peacemaking to solve problems in a way that conflict and contention never can.
And so, for me, peacemaking–and we've seen this over and over again in our members, in the women of our organization, as they've entered into advocacy settings that were, like we said, adversarial–it’s the peacemaking, this commitment to do our work in a peaceful way that is actually the source of their courage, the source of their success. Without peacemaking, I wouldn't be doing this work. Because I wouldn't have seen myself as a person of sufficient capacity to do this in an adversarial way where I had to win. But if all I have to do is try as hard as I can to master the patterns or mimic the patterns of peaceful discipleship, then I actually can do that. I can move with courage, knowing that that's at my back–that I am doing this in a way that is prescribed by my faith as the way that is productive, as the pattern set out by God. And that gives me enormous amounts of courage that I don't think I would have been able to find if I hadn't framed it that way.
So I think without peacemaking, the courage part is hard.
Sharlee: That reframing of the word “courage” is so important. I had a similar epiphany in the early days of MWEG with the word “power.” I had always been a little put off by that word. Finally, I realized that traditionally power has been defined as power over. But that’s not true power. True power is power for, power with, power on behalf of. And once I made that shift in my mind, then I was able to claim that word and claim that power–the power that the scriptures say is in us all.
Emma: And power in political settings is often used in a coercive and manipulative way. And if, if nothing else, what I have learned in MWEG is that true power comes through persuasion.
Sharlee: Yes, that’s right there in the Doctrine and Covenants, isn’t it? Thank you. Okay, so, looking back over the past six years of MWEG's existence, what are some of the most significant challenges that the organization has faced in your view?
Emma: When I first came on board as executive director, and even earlier, I thought that getting the organization funded would be easier than it was. I mean, we knew we had this amazing thing. We saw all of these amazing things happening. And as we were trying to go out and get the funding, we needed to build it long-term. It was a big struggle because people would ask, why do you need money? Well, one of the reasons was because we had hundreds of women who are capable and devoted to this, and we need to honor and pay them for their work. And, in addition, we want to build something long term and not burn them out. If we're going to be an organization that's ethical, we need to be able to do that. So we've had support from our members from the very beginning, but it's taken a lot of years to build up a funding model from sources that really understood and honored our mission and values.
We could have had access to money over the years, that was highly partisan. People and organizations wanted to give us money, but we wouldn’t take it from them. So much of the money in politics is focused on a specific outcome. It's focused on a specific policy, a specific candidate, or specific party. And we didn't want anything to do with that. So we had to turn money down . . .
Jennifer: repeatedly . . .
Emma: . . . and it took us a while to find money from sources that would honor our principles and, honestly, trust our women to make wise decisions. So if we accept funding from a source, we write into the agreement that any decisions will be made in accordance with our principles of ethical government. So, we're not influenced by others.
Jennifer: And if someone can't agree to that, we won't take the money.
Emma: We've been frankly stubborn about that. And being stubborn about where you get your money from means it takes a much longer time. We both worked full time for periods with no income, at great cost to our families, and you, Sharlee, worked beyond full time for years with no compensation. We absolutely believe it was something we were offering freely and willingly, but it’s not sustainable. So we felt strongly that we had to raise the money to be able to pay women to do this work. And it took us longer to get there than we wanted.
Jennifer: But we are there. And I think one of the things we're very grateful for is the volunteer efforts of so many for so long. As it often is in society, things happen because women are willing to sacrifice to build something bigger than them. For a lot of years, we relied exclusively on volunteer effort and time. Again and again, in our conversations with funders, they say: “Okay, if your budget is X, given your output and your reach and the way that you are accomplishing things, your budget should be ten to fifteen-times that. We don't understand how you are producing at this level.” I mean, not just twice or three times, but orders of magnitude higher.So, skepticism sometimes gets in our way. Sometimes funders would respond and say, “Hmm. We’re not sure these numbers are correct.” And we’d say, “Yes, they’re correct.” Again, it was because our women were willing to sacrifice to build something. But we couldn’t do that forever. And so, we are very grateful that now we are able to. So, yes, one challenge was getting funding. Another was the absence of funding in those early days, because, again, that was not sustainable. We couldn’t rely on volunteer efforts forever. But we have also been able to solve that, I think, in a way that we are so delighted about because part of the other bonus of having a volunteer organization is that we have this opportunity to bring women in and give them responsibility over something that they would actually never accept if they were being paid. They wouldn't think that they were worthy of that. And so being able to help women come in, take ownership of a project, build something, realize their true native capacity, and put their skills and gifts into play has been wonderful and has allowed us to build this organization. And then, often we are able to coax these women into coming into paid employment.
Sharlee: Yes, I remember consulting with people who were trying to help us in those first few years and asking: “How do we get money? How do we get grants?” Over and over again, they would say something like, “Well, how much money do you have coming in now? And I would say, “None.” And they were astounded. They were like, “There's no way you've accomplished everything you've accomplished without money.” And I would say, “Hey, we're Mormon women (we could say “Momon” then). That’s what we do!” But we shouldn’t always have to do that.
Emma: But the amazing thing about our funding model is that the foundation of all of our funding comes from our members: five dollars a month, ten dollars a month . . .
Jennifer: And they kept us afloat.
Sharlee: Our sustaining members.
Emma: We're at the point now where that money from our sustaining members is incredibly meaningful because it's our money to go incubate and try new projects.
Jennifer: It makes it so that we can go try new things. Because nobody was going to give us money to develop a principled citizenship program. So, our women did. Our women gave us the money, and we developed this thing. We got it to a point that we could present it to funders as something fully fleshed out, and suddenly everyone is salivating and wants to get their hands on it. But we not only owe it to the volunteers who put in the work to develop it, but also the women who were giving us five dollars a month which allowed us to incubate that program. And that will continue to be our model going forward. Those sustaining members are absolutely key to us being able to create programs that are reflective of their needs, and, we're finding out, reflective of the needs of the broader society. But nobody's going to give us money to innovate like that; it’s really our own members that trust us to innovate like that.
Sharlee: So, thinking about some of our potential listeners to this conversation, how can men help support MWEG?
Emma: I think in two main ways: We'd love to have you as a Friend of MWEG. We have an option for this on our website, where you can donate money and you get access to more materials than the general public does. We actually have some exciting announcements about that coming up, but we're not quite ready. So, just stay tuned! Also, so many of our followers are men who are sharing our work. Do not underestimate the power of being a witness to our work. Validate it, share it, invite the women in your life to participate in it, speak of it in glowing terms, share it on social media and in private conversations. That is all really, really, really helpful. And we have so many men who do that beautifully.
Sharlee: Now the obvious question, because I’ve been asked this many times, and I know you have as well. Why not allow men to be members? Why not open up the membership to men?
Jennifer: Can I answer that question in the positive?
It's less, why not allow men? Men are lovely. We love them. You know, we actually have seven boys between us and two husbands and we both live in worlds of men who I want to succeed, but I think that we have found that having this organization be women-only has given women a space to realize their full potential in ways that we otherwise might not have, both from an organizational perspective and otherwise.
So, internally, MWEG is just a lovely place to work. I think of all of the things that we would lose. You know, toddlers running by on a call and nobody blinking an eye, being able to arrange meetings around nap times, structuring jobs so that a young mother who really wants to participate but has young children she has to focus on . . . just all of these things that we can do structurally and organizationally.
But I also think that one of the great–and I'm kind of getting a little emotional as I talk about this–one of the beautiful byproducts of this work has been seeing the changing perceptions of women of our faith in the broader world that comes through engaging with our organization. And while we’re also changing perceptions of our faith generally, and we’re happy to do that and could do that with men in the organization, by having a women-only organization, it's clear that what is happening is only being generated by women, and so those who are receiving it get a witness about the power and capacity of [Latter-day Saint women]. This happens less and less, but I would say in the first years we would get a lot of: “We didn't know women of your faith could X” and “We had no idea that women of your faith could Y.” And we were like, “Of course we could!” So, I think that by having a women-only organization, I would say three things: it has given women a chance to shine, it has amplified their voices, and it has changed perceptions of our faith more broadly in some really positive ways.
And I will also say that a sweet little by-product is that nobody ever assumes we're speaking for the Church–because women aren't typically empowered to do that. And so, that is good. That's good for us. And that's good for the Church. So, people know that these voices are clearly ours and they know that it's clearly not an institutional voice, and having a women-only organization has been beneficial for maintaining that distinction.
Sharlee: In the early days of MWEG, we decided that as an organization, we wanted to work behind the scenes, fly under the radar, and not have any of the focus be on us at all. But it soon became apparent that in the eyes of many, especially the national media and international media, we were the story–Mormon women, speaking up and speaking out. Against stereotype. And we finally realized that we needed to just embrace it because that attention gave us a platform from which to do our work.Okay, we don't have a lot of time left, but I want to talk for just a minute about the intersection of faith and politics, because in the eyes of many, they are strange bedfellows. So how does MWEG navigate this intersection?
Jennifer: I think that MWEG is playing a very, very important role here. And that is being confirmed again by outside organizations and funders. We have been told, for example, by a major national funder who said that it is widely understood that MWG is the gold standard of faith-based grassroots organization because people trust everything we do is not to promote a narrow version of faith and impose it on the broader society, but that we are fighting for pluralism and the opportunity for all religions to participate and that our faith is being used as, as it has been at the best points in our history, as a motivator, not as a controlling mechanism.
And so, I think that in our politics right now, two negative things are happening. We either see faith, and most tragically Christianity, being used as a mechanism to impose control on other people. It's being used as an excuse to rewrite laws, to do all sorts of things, to impose a particular faith vision on people who do not share it.
And, then, understandably, a response to that is you have a whole set of people who are coming to hate faith. They are angry about the way the faith is being negatively used to control and coerce. I think that it is absolutely critical in the coming years for there to be people of conscience and belief to stand again in the middle and say, no, we have a right to participate in the public sphere from a perspective of faith, but we will absolutely be the first people to speak out against those who are using faith to coerce others.
It is absolutely important that people of faith who deeply believe, particularly in our country right now, Christians who are deep believers in Christ to be the ones that police that boundary and say, we will not allow Christianity to be manipulated by those who would use it to achieve worldly power. Christ himself eschewed that, right? And, if we don't do that, people of faith will be controlled by others who will say all faith is bad; we can't have it. So, it's really important for us to be voices for that. Do you have anything to add, Emma?
Emma: I think we have a rich history of faith-based engagement in this country to draw upon.We're not starting from scratch here. We're looking back at the Civil Rights Movement. We're looking back at the incredible work that so many people have done, that so many people of faith have done. And so we have these examples, these shining examples like Dr. King and others. And so, there's a pathway set and I think it's important for us to both follow in that pathway, and also to highlight it for others.
I think it's easy to see faith as negative in the public sphere for a lot of reasons, but I think that's a really unfair generalization. It erases decades of work that we want to amplify and hold up and continue. As we've talked to other groups and faith-based organizations, we’ve found a lot of friends within spaces of minority faith, and we’ve kind of said to each other, “We need to work together here because what's happening is, faith in general is being manipulated by a small but public group–and that reflects poorly on the rest of us.” And so we need to work double-time to be examples of faith engagement that's meaningful. I think what this translates into is that when we're in spaces outside of our particular faith space, we have to be open and honest and curious, and not hide.
We talk openly about our faith. I talk openly about the Book of Mormon and the way that it influences me in spaces that are secular. I talk about faith and democracy. I talk personally about it. I think we need to not shy away from it. But as we speak about our faith, we have to also be talking about the ways that our faith promotes democratic principles. We connect it back. I talk about the Book of Mormon and the voice of the people. We demonstrate our commitment both to the American experiment and more broadly, and then, intimately, how we interact in accordance with our principles, the golden rule, etc.
We need to be examples. Every Latter-day Saint, every single Latter-day Saint, should be an example of one who interacts in the political sphere, in every sphere of her life, but especially the political and civic sphere, as one who looks at the other person and engages in their divinity, their potential to be like God.
And any time that we take people down, on social media, any time, that’s not right. And I have done this; I've looked back at some of the things I've said on social media in the past and realized that I did not engage with that person in a way that reflected my core values as a disciple. Anytime we do that, then we are reflecting poorly and we need to do the opposite.
Sharlee: Thank you. We are almost out of time, but I just want to end by reading just a short excerpt from a speech that was given by Thomas B. Griffith, who is a former D. C. Circuit Court judge, a very respected man, and a devout member of the Church. This speech was given in 2012, and it's entitled, “A Mormon Approach to Politics.” In this speech, he said: “The thrust of my argument is that politics is, for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, a religious activity.” And then he goes on later to say: “I believe that the work of community building is the most important spiritual work to which we are called.”I mean, what is politics fundamentally if it's not community building? Isn’t this the idea of Zion and the Beloved Community. And so, far from being something that is unusual or odd for [people of faith] to be engaged in, I believe, and obviously Thomas Griffith believes, that being involved in this way, in building peace, in building community, in building Zion, actually emerges from our faith. It is our faith that impels us to do this. We are called to love. That is the call of all Christians–to love, to build peace, and to build community.
Any other last thoughts?
Emma: Only that, personally, I have learned more about Zion and building Zion in the past six years, I mean, by far, than I learned in my entire life up until then. The act of engaging in this way has both inspired me to delve deep and to understand what it is and has given me the practical knowledge and application and, honestly, the material to work with to really start to understand what that means. So I'm so glad that you brought this back to Zion because, I mean, how many times a day do we say Zion in our conversations? I doubt a day goes by that we’re not talking about it.
Jennifer: And it's a vision that we've been able to broadly share with people, not of our faith, and it resonates with them deeply.
I have been personally grateful. Since I was very young, I have felt a call to build Zion, and this work has been one of the most fulfilling opportunities to do that that I have had over the course of my life. And that includes many, many years of rich engagement with the Church, which built a beautiful faith community.
But this has called out of me things that I wouldn't have known were possible in my soul. Looking towards my neighbor and learning to love him as myself, being willing to dialogue with people who are different than I am, being willing to sacrifice, being willing to understand that if we truly, truly want Zion, we have to learn to live in harmony with people who think very differently than we do. I am profoundly grateful for this opportunity, which has been an opportunity to build Zion.
Sharlee: Yes, I agree. Well, thank you, Emma and Jen. I so appreciate you taking the time to be here today.
Jennifer: It's been a joy to be with you. Thanks for everything. We owe it all to you, Sharlee!
Sharlee: No, we owe it all to God above.
Jennifer: Okay, I'll agree with that.
Sharlee Mullins Glenn is the founder of Mormon Women for Ethical Government (MWEG) and served as its executive director for the first two years. She graduated from Brigham Young University and then earned a graduate degree in humanities (with emphases in art history and English) before teaching at BYU as adjunct faculty for a number of years. Sharlee has published articles, essays, poetry, and criticism in periodicals as varied as Women's Studies, The Southern Literary Journal, the New York Times, and Ladybug Magazine. She is also a nationally-published author of children's books. Sharlee currently serves on a number of boards and volunteers with several humanitarian and advocacy organizations. She and her husband, James, live in Pleasant Grove, Utah and have five children and eight (perfect) grandchildren.
Emma Petty Addams serves as co-executive director for Mormon Women for Ethical Government. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in piano performance at Stanford University, she spent time in Boston and Silicon Valley working in contracts negotiation, corporate transactions and capitalization, and investor relations. In addition, she has built and run large piano studios in California, New Jersey, and now Omaha, Nebraska, where she currently resides with her husband and three sons. While seemingly unrelated, these previous career opportunities were excellent preparation for the fast-paced yet methodical and collaborative nature of the work at MWEG.
Jennifer Walker Thomas is the co-executive director for Mormon Women for Ethical Government. She received her bachelor’s degree in art history and Italian from Brigham Young University and went on to do graduate work in art history at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts. She worked as a consultant for underperforming schools in the New York City public school system and then worked in event planning and major gift fundraising for Massachusetts General Hospital. Following the birth of her four boys, Jennifer became a full-time parent and has consistently volunteered in her community. She currently serves as an elected member of the town government in Belmont, Massachusetts, where she lives with her husband and sons.