A revamped Sue Shear Leadership Academy returns to campus

by | Nov 11, 2021

UMSL students Beauty Cooper and Tori Tappe participated in the program, which is designed to inspire women’s civic engagement and leadership.
Beauty Cooper and Tori Tappe

UMSL students Beauty Cooper (left) and Tori Tappe were part of a cohort of six women who participated in the Sue Shear Leadership Academy this summer. The program, held virtually this year, is an intensive six-day leadership development program designed to inspire women’s civic engagement and leadership through political and community involvement. (Photos by August Jennewein)

Tori Tappe got goosebumps as she listened to women in politics from across the country speak about their experiences in government this past summer. Beauty Cooper, who was tuning into the same virtual discussion, felt inspired as well.

“It was awesome,” Cooper said. “It’s awesome to have powerful women be able to come together and just be women. They didn’t come with big hats on. They were mothers, they were grandmothers. Everybody respected each other.”

The two University of Missouri–St. Louis students were participating in the revamped Sue Shear Leadership Academy – an intensive six-day leadership development program designed to inspire women’s civic engagement and leadership through political and community involvement.

Over the course of a week, participants take part in interactive panel discussions, small group exercises, leadership skills-building workshops and networking with female elected officials, government leaders and policy advocates.

The program was founded in 1988 at UMSL’s Sue Shear Institute for Women in Public Life. However, when the institute ceased operating, the program transitioned to the College of Education’s Center for Character and Citizenship in 2019.

“This just seemed like a great opportunity for us to extend the leadership virtues work we are doing in the College of Education across campus and to be able to support this really impressive historical program that helps women step into community leadership,” said Mindy Bier, co-director for the Center for Character and Citizenship.

Supported by Chancellor Kristin Sobolik and College of Education Dean Ann Taylor, the CCC team developed the program in partnership with the NEW Leadership National Network, a national nonpartisan program developed by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Bier facilitated this past summer’s academy with colleagues Satabdi Samtani, research scientist for the CViL project at the CCC, and Deborah Sanders O’Reilly, CCC senior program coordinator, as well as graduate research assistants Tamala Stallings, Eboni Sterling and Chloé Risto. Samtani recognized Stallings’ efforts in particular. She played a key role in establishing the partnership between UMSL and Rutgers.

Cooper and Tappe were part of a cohort of six women – five UMSL students and one Missouri State University student – from a variety of backgrounds, studying to earn degrees in a broad range of fields. Tappe is a United States Marine Corps veteran, graduate assistant at the UMSL Veterans Center and MSW student. Cooper is a cancer survivor, leader of a nonprofit ministry and a philosophy and psychology double major.

Neither had been aware of the Sue Shear Leadership Academy’s history at UMSL, but when they saw emails advertising it, both women became interested in pursuing the program. For Cooper, the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of politics was appealing.

“My not-for-profit is for women,” she said. “It is a women’s ministry, and the goal is to recover hurting women. I realized that there was just no way to get the social needs met unless I was somehow active politically.”

Tappe said because of her background in social work and as a veteran, she was interested in learning to advocate for policy change.

“I’m very passionate about helping veterans, especially female veterans,” she said. “I also wanted to get involved with women who are supportive and wanted to make fellowship with other women who are also passionate about similar issues.”

They both found what they were looking for and more, though their cohort’s experience differed slightly from others in years past. The program had taken a two-year hiatus due to the transition to the COE and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and returned via a virtual format in 2021.

Traditionally, sessions have been held in person, but the Center for American Women and Politics developed a five-day virtual academy and invited partners across the county to participate. Bier and the Sue Shear team decided to piggyback off CWAP’s curriculum, adding an additional day with activities related to CCC’s work.

The week kicked off with a discussion about representation in politics.

“We heard from a female speaker who fundraised for Chris Christie in New Jersey, and she was talking about why this representation gap is there, between the proportion of women in the population and how much representation they have,” Samtani said. “I think that was pretty eye-opening for the students.”

Other sessions included a discussion about life in politics with a bipartisan panel of women in elected office from Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Mississippi, New Jersey and Texas; a discussion about campaigns and elections with a panel of political and grassroots organizers; a networking workshop; and a keynote address from Missouri Rep. Paula Brown.

Cooper appreciated the practical, on-the-ground view of what it’s like to hold political office.

“There was one session where the ladies talked about the relationship with the men in public office and how it could be,” she said. “How to carry yourself and how to respond to advances. You wouldn’t think that you would have those kinds of experiences in that kind of environment, but it rears its ugly head. It was preparation of what to expect and how to respond, so that you’re not shell shocked if something happens.”

Bier and Samtani also prepared a day with sessions that focused on the virtues of servant leadership and courageous conversations. The sessions were an extension of their work at UMSL to develop leadership programming, an initiative funded by the John Templeton Foundation and Kern Family Foundation.

“We’d committed to doing conflict resolution with the students because of the Women’s Giving Circle Grant that we had, so we brought that piece in on our day,” Samtani said. “Improv artist Dr. DeAnna Massie talked about difficult conversations. When you don’t agree with somebody, how do you listen? Those really good tips to navigate spaces where you might be uncomfortable.”

Overall, Cooper and Tappe enjoyed the smaller group sessions the most. They fostered intimate conversations where everyone involved was able to be vulnerable while sharing experiences from their lives. Tappe was particularly affected by a discussion about the expectations put on women from a young age.

“I had high unspoken expectations placed on me, being a young lady, being expected to do all these things,” she said. “Whereas my brothers were just playing video games and not turning in homework. It’s just so interesting to hear, to be validated. It’s so amazing to feel validated.”

The experience was transformative for everyone involved. Bier felt like she got as much out of the program as the students, and Cooper joked that she loved it so much, she sent an email to ask if she could participate again next year.

Bier and Samtani hope to return to in-person sessions next summer, and Bier views it as an opportunity to re-envision the Sue Shear Leadership Academy and set it on the path to a sustainable future.

She added that it’s a tremendous opportunity for women who are not only interested in running for elected office, but also serving and leading local boards and regional committees that make important decisions for our communities.

Tappe has some advice for anyone interested:

“I always say, ‘Don’t think about it. Be about it.’ Just do it. Apply for it.”

Burk Krohe

Burk Krohe