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Rooting for the west: Four women join forces to tackle neighborhood needs

Clockwise, from upper left: Liz Olson, Beth Olson, Renee VanNett, Jill Lofald

Once every few months, a group of women gather over breakfast in a western Duluth cafe to talk politics. The group consists of leaders from various levels of local government: a state representative, a county commissioner, a city councilor and a Duluth School Board member.

The group internally calls itself the "Women of the West" because they all happen to be women who serve overlapping districts of western Duluth. The group started to meet last fall as a way to work across all governmental levels to best represent the west side of Duluth.

"We know by working together, sharing information and ideas we increase our collective effectiveness for our west-side neighborhoods," said Beth Olson, St. Louis County commissioner for the Third District. "We're mostly all new in our offices and we'd met each other through the election seasons. So we noticed there's a huge opportunity here to work together and engage with and support each other in our new roles."

The four women met through their campaigns. Beth Olson was elected to the St. Louis County Board in 2016, in the same election cycle Rep. Liz Olson was elected to represent District 7B.

School Board member Jill Lofald and City Councilor Renee Van Nett ran at the same time as well and touch base weekly. Lofald also said she looked to the two commissioners for advice when she was running for office.

"I was impressed with their leadership and wanted to get to know them more. I saw Liz at a town hall and watched Beth online at a County Board meeting," Lofald said. "I don't know if I was the one who pushed us all to meet, but however it happened, I'm glad we do."

The women have met twice in person and keep in touch via email when scheduling demands make it impossible to meet. When they meet, they chat about their lives as well as what they've been working on.

"One thing I've really appreciated about the group is the chance to share some of my own personal struggles," Van Nett said. "My first agenda meeting was frightening to me. I shared that with the group and they said they'd all been there, too."

The time is also spent sharing information they've heard from their respective boards and their communities.

"For example, I just talked to Jill about how the County Board is creating a pool of money to offer scholarships for students who are looking to go to technical college and work in the local industries," Beth said. "That's something the students should know about, and now that Jill knows about it, she'll keep an eye out for that."

Overall, they all agree that supporting their fellow female leaders is important, but they also agree that they'd want to continue to meet, regardless of gender.

"I feel like this would be important — to reach out to members who represent this district, no matter who they are," Lofald said. "But I can't deny that it is delightful to see women who have a lot to offer and who have a lot on their plates. Women who could have chosen anything, but chose to get involved in their local governments because it's important."

The Women of the West plan to host a public meeting sometime in May, but a date has not yet been scheduled.

Teri Cadeau

Teri Cadeau is a reporter for the Budgeteer.

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