Senate President Karen Spilka speaks with attendees of the annual Women Elected Municipal Officials Spring Symposium on May 3.

Senate President Karen Spilka reflected on her career in public service and her experience navigating disagreements on contentious issues during the annual Women Elected Municipal Officials Spring Symposium on May 3.

In a virtual fireside chat with Ashland Select Board Vice Chair Yolanda Greaves (also the vice chair of WEMO), Spilka discussed how civil discourse has changed since she began her career in elected public office as a School Committee member in Ashland.

She said the “quicker pace of the media cycle” prompts people to be “much quicker to say what they would not have said before … [and] there’s more divisiveness.”

Drawing from her background as a social worker and mediator, Spilka advised women elected officials who are dealing with similar challenges to take the time to identify opportunities for agreement and compromise.

“Most of the time,” she said, “people tend to agree more than disagree. And it takes time and a lot of active listening … to focus on what you do agree upon and how you can build on that.”

Greaves asked Spilka to reflect on the increase in women’s representation and leadership during her career, observing that women officials now fill the majority of top leadership positions in Massachusetts.

Spilka observed that, beyond shedding more light on traditional “women’s issues,” “women bring a different perspective to almost any issue … and it’s a fuller perspective that can contribute towards getting a resolution.”

Spilka recalled her first time visiting the Massachusetts State House for her swearing-in as a representative.

“I didn’t even know where the bathrooms were, or where to get anything to eat,” she said.

The following year, Spilka started a mentorship program to pair veterans with newly elected women representatives. She later replicated the program in the Senate.

Spilka acknowledged the accomplishments of the women elected municipal officials in attendance.

“Getting more local elected officials in that are women has really helped make a difference as well,” she said. “So I congratulate all of you for doing what you’re doing.”

The Spring Symposium also featured a civil discourse workshop with Kathy Eckles, an associate at Essential Partners, who reviewed the “dialogue design” process, from preparation to facilitation and follow-up. She also organized a small-group exercise on developing communication agreements to foster safe and respectful spaces for discourse.


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