What makes someone fresh out of college want to get involved in politics–not national politics, mind you, but local, small town, Wilton municipal government? Newcomer Jill Warren, who graduated from Cornell University last May, did just that, deciding to throw her hat in the ring once she moved back home to run for a seat on Wilton’s Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z).
Warren hasn’t lived in Wilton very long. Her family moved east from Orange County, California just after she graduated high school in 2015. So while her parents and two younger siblings settled into Wilton, Warren went almost directly to college, and was away for a lot of the last four years. But now that she’s graduated and lives here full-time, Warren says getting involved in Wilton is a natural extension of learning just how important it is to fight for what you believe in and for others.
That principle, she recalls, started with her first political memory.
“I was probably 16 at the time when I worked on a campaign in high school for someone who was running for the US House of Representatives in my area,” she recalls. “He was a gay man in an area that wasn’t really accepting at the time, and it was really inspiring to see him fight for what was right even though people weren’t always receptive of him, of his politics and his personality, and of his husband. It was just a really cool experience to see him fight. Even though he didn’t win, it was a great experience because I could see what that perseverance was like, and I felt that I needed to at some point in my life fight for someone who couldn’t fight for themselves.”
She carried that introduction to politics with her to Cornell where she got very engaged with the Republican Club. Warren says connecting with Wilton Republicans was the logical next step soon after graduation.
“I reached out to [Wilton State Rep.] Gail Lavielle, a Cornell graduate as well, and I just asked her, ‘How can I get involved?’ She put me in touch with Bill Lalor, chair of the Republican Town Committee, and I met with him and talked about a few opportunities. Running for P&Z came up, and it just seemed like something I really needed to sink my teeth into,” she says.
In addition to her age, she’s not a typical candidate for P&Z–she doesn’t bring experience in land use law, architecture, or similar fields. Moreover, she doesn’t own a business or property in town herself. She graduated with a degree in Biology, Health and Society, which she says will help her understanding on areas that P&Z looks at, like water quality, pollution, population density, and public health.
Still, Warren knows her inexperience might be something voters will question, but she has another answer for that in the perspective of her generation that she offers.
“Most people I know from Wilton who are 26, 27, aren’t living in Wilton. They’re living in Norwalk or they’re living in Westport. The question is why? That’s really why I wanted to step up to this to see if maybe we could bring them back and grow Wilton, but at the same time maintain that heart of Wilton but also change it a little bit so that we can grow it,” she says.
“I don’t necessarily know that millennials are getting the voice or that everything they say is being interpreted how it should be. That’s an important voice that needs to be heard especially because that’s going to be who’s having kids in 10 years and staying here and buying homes here even five years from now.”
Warren talks about some of the things she knows will come up in the discussion about planning and zoning, recalling how she noticed “an abundance of empty storefronts” when she moved to Wilton, and looked into the length of time houses are on the market here. She also brings up another topic she knows is in the forefront of people’s minds on P&Z.
“A really big issue is trying to preserve the historicism of Wilton without turning away people who might want to live here but don’t have as much importance for three acres or two acres or the need for it. Obviously it’s important to keep all the trails, all the things that keep Wilton so unique. But at the same time I don’t know that it needs to have every single person have a certain amount of acre zoning. Although I do think it’s important to keep the zoning regulation in place, that’s one of the more interesting and complex issues that has a lot of different and well-backed up perspectives,” she says, adding, “I don’t want to live at home forever. I’d like to move out at some point but my options in Wilton are limited. There’s two or three apartment complexes and that makes Norwalk and Westport attractive but I’d rather live here where there’s nice heart and a nice history. It’s really important to keep that in mind when there’s millennials who aren’t looking to buy a home right now but they want somewhere that’s nice and historic and really want to be part of that community that just isn’t really as accessible as it could be.”
Overcoming Adversity and Learning how to Fight
Her involvement with the Cornell Republican Club wasn’t the only thing to which Warren dedicated her time while at Cornell. She became an activist on campus after being sexually assaulted just as her sophomore started. It’s an event that was extremely personal and traumatic, but one that she says has influenced her to be more outspoken and find her voice.
“I filed a complaint with the Title IX office, and for the rest of my sophomore year and into my junior year, I had to deal with that Title IX investigation and the person and his powerful parents. It was pretty hard for me–I don’t think that that type of thing could be easy for anyone. My parents didn’t let me stop fighting. There were several points when I just wanted to give up because it would be so much easier to go lay in my bed and cry than to be shaking my fist in someone’s face saying, ‘Why won’t you help me?’ And it really inspired me to help other people,” Warren says.
When she talks about fighting and not giving up, Warren refers to what happened in the 18 months following the assault. Her fortitude, with the support of her parents and friends, helped change policy at Cornell.
“The Title IX investigation was pretty ugly. His parents were pretty powerful, in the public sector, in the legal sector, and they were very well known. They put a lot of pressure on the school, and they filed two retaliatory complaints against me. So not only did I have to file these complaints, but he filed one that said I did that to him, and then he filed one that said I was retaliating against him by filing a claim that said he was retaliating, which is pretty stupid if you really think about it. But towards the end of the investigation, Cornell realized that he and his parents were using this process just to torture me, just to punish me for speaking out against him, which I should have–I wasn’t in the wrong here. And so they altered the policy to make it harsher against people who use it to retaliate and made it so that people couldn’t abuse the processes just as he and his parents had.”
Warren says emerging from the trauma and the aftermath empowered to take her experience and help others. She founded the Victims and Survivors Association at Cornell, became an educator for Consent Education, and helped create and eventually lead her sorority’s Committee on Sexual Assault.
“At the time I didn’t get the resources that I really needed. [I wanted] to provide people with resources, to tell them what to do because no one really knows what to do, and it’s becoming such a more prevalent issue. Girls can get together and talk about what happened to them, how to get the resources they need. It helped me a lot in my recovery because a lot of people think this is just some traumatic event and it will affect you and then they’ll move on and it’ll be great. And the truth is that it’s not always like that. Even today, this is over three years ago now, I’m still having issues with PTSD and anxiety, but helping other people get through it has made me see, ‘Wow, I’m okay. I survived.’”
It also helped her find her voice.
“When I was a kid in high school, I kept my head down. I did my extracurriculars, I got good grades, but I was always quiet. This caused me to remove that wall and to be outgoing, and to look at a girl who was over in the corner and obviously something is wrong and say, ‘What happened?’ Obviously, in something like this, your privacy is shredded. You don’t have any privacy. The school’s in your business, that person’s in your business, his parents are in your business, my parents were in my phone, in my business. It really forces you to be outgoing and to put yourself out there. But it also gave me the strength to have this voice that I don’t know if it was there before and it was just hidden under social anxiety, but now it’s out there and it’s rampant.”