“We’re going to count to three and I want you to say the name of a woman who inspired you. We’re going to do it all together. Get her name in your mind. One. Two. Three!” Denver’s At-Large Councilwoman Robin Kniech shouted.
Kniech is Denver’s first LGBTQ city council member.
She stood on the Civic Center’s West Stage before the vast crowd that had united for 2016’s Women’s March on Denver. Adding to the attendees’ indiscernible response, Kniech contributed her grandmother’s name.
“Think of a woman who paved the way that you’ve never met. Put her in your mind. We’re going to do it again. On the count of three, you’re going to say her name with me. Ready? One. Two. Three!”
Kniech was raised in a working class family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Both her parents were union members, her father in construction and her mother a factory worker with Master Lock for more than 40 years. As she grew up, she was armed with the sense that if you work hard then you should be able to get by.
“We always had enough food to eat and a roof over our head, but we also didn’t take those things for granted because they were hardscrabble fought,” Kniech said.
Public office wouldn’t cross her mind until after graduating law school, moving to Colorado, and working as a community organizer in Denver, but the childhood value held fast.
“It’s a big part of my concern with people and making sure that they have a good quality of life and are able to make ends meet,” she added.
Policy work with FRESC, who recently changed their name to UNE, introduced Kniech to job standards, affordable housing, and environmental standards in Denver. She humbly credits her quick rise to public office to her “very focused trajectory” and focusing on local government, investments, and transit in Denver.
Kniech traced her place in public office to her work on the Union Station Project. It proved to others, and in some ways herself, that she could put her talents to use as an elected official.
“I think I, like many women, had to be urged by others to run, and I was urged by a really diverse group of people,” Kniech said.
The Union Station Project was the first time that she made the switch from someone who was suggesting how to improve the city to someone who was appointed to sit at the decision making table. Kniech learned that she could be both an advocate for change and understand the logistics, good policy, and management that go into creating dependable solutions.
“One of my former colleagues used to say that ‘Denver is a place where you can prove yourself and it doesn’t matter if you have six generations of history,’” Kniech said. “I was able to, as an out lesbian and young woman, really find a path where people were judging me based on my outcomes.”
Kniech also had to overcome internalized barriers in order to run for office in 2011. In her mind, her background didn’t match that of the traditional decision maker. She didn’t come from a wealthy family. She wasn’t willing to make false promises for the polls. And she was a new mother; her son wasn’t even two yet.
Historically, women are less likely than men to feel as though they are qualified to run for office. Last June, NPR reported that women only made up 24 percent of state legislatures, 19 percent of congress members, and 12 percent of the nation’s governors.
NPR also recognized an analysis from Obama’s 2012 analytics director, Amelia Showalter. “Madam President, Role Model in Chief” found that when women are elected to major office, other women are two to three percent more likely to run in the coming years.
But in November, voters celebrated the victory of diverse women elected to office across the nation. Among so many other winners, the House of Delegates now includes its first trans women, first Latinas, and first Asian-American woman.
These elected women, and those that came before, continue to inspire Kniech. One of those women is former Councilwoman Cathy Reynolds.
Reynolds was one of the first women elected to Denver City Council in 1975, and after 28 years in office, was the longest serving member. During her tenure she helped to pass many of the city’s current LGBTQ protections.
“My ability to be in the seat was built on the shoulders of straight allies. It was an all-straight council that passed the non-discrimination policy in the city. It was an all-straight council that passed partner benefits for employees of the city. You don’t have to be LBGTQ to advance LGBTQ equality,” Kniech said.
As the first out lesbian elected to Denver City Council, Kniech believes her identity gives her a lens to include other disenfranchised communities. It allows her to continually go back and think about how she is including different voices and perspectives. It also gives her a chance to challenge perception.
Despite the fact that she is a minority in the political world, less-than-pleasant encounters are few and far between. As a young and active feminist she remembers being what she now considers the language police.
“If someone used a word that I thought wasn’t the right word for a sexual orientation or for a woman, I would berate them. Or I would want to,” she said. Nowadays, she handles uncomfortable situations by making her boundaries clear, aiming to meet people where they are, and education.
With about a year and a half left in her current term, Kniech is working on making lasting change in areas that she has been focused on throughout her whole career. Awareness and education on transgender issues, protecting Denver’s immigration bill, and providing access to opportunity and affordable housing for low-income families—just to name a few.
Kniech attributes a growing city and accelerated rate of displacement to making the affordable housing problems tougher to solve, but not impossible.
“We’re still using the tools we have because they make a difference for the families that they impact. We can’t throw up our arms and say it’s too big and we’re done. No. I can impact a hundred families. I can impact a thousand families. I have to do that,” she said.
Receiving money in the budget five years in a row for housing made her proud. Establishing a ten-year fund, a solution that will last longer than Kniech, made her even more proud.
Aside from lasting change, Kniech believes that success means championing the voices of the people who are most impacted by the issues.
“There is physical infrastructure and there is human infrastructure. If I am successful, the folks that I’m working alongside will be more empowered and more effective,” she said.
They also become more likely to work with government again. Support, believes Kniech, is the key to transforming constituents, especially women, into fellow elected officials and lawmakers. To her, the easy answer that many people point to is simply asking women to run, encouraging them to use their talents.
“Behind every great man there must be great woman,” she reminded the protesters last January. “Behind every great woman there are many other great women.”