By Marilyn Odendahl

The Indiana Citizen

January 12, 2024

Tiffanie Ditlevson knew how to reassure her constituent.

Ditlevson had knocked on a front door as part of her campaign for Fishers City Council in 2023 and when the man inside said, “hello” – but kept the door closed – she began her spiel anyway, greeting him and announcing she was running for office. The man then interrupted with a forceful, “no.”

“I said, ‘I’m a Republican,’” Ditlevson recalled. “And we both laughed and he opened the door.”

Although Ditlevson describes herself as a conservative Republican, she realizes, as a Black woman, that she does not look like the GOP stereotype. She is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, a business professional and single mother, who, she said, ran for office so she could share ideas with others about how to make their community better.

“At the end of the day, that’s what politics is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be the competition of ideas,” Ditlevson said. “It’s not supposed to be the most likes, the loudest who’s on TV. It’s, ‘Are we having conversations that are going to improve the world around us?’”

Tiffanie Ditlevson

However, despite her success in the military and the corporate world, Ditlevson did not know how to politic. She was unversed in the etiquette and protocols of building relationships and running for office.

One program that helped her is the Indiana Republican Diversity Leadership Series, operated by the Indiana Republican Party. Ditlevson said the program gave her the opportunity to build relationships with elected officials and leaders in the state and learn from them.

“That’s the thing about the diversity series is that there are a lot of wonderful, conservative people of color, from many different backgrounds, but often the path is unclear because sometimes, even in 2023, we could be the first to do something,” Ditlevson said. “(The leadership of the Indiana Republican Party) did a really great job of building a program that exposed us to a lot of things to help us become more successful.”

Both the Indiana Republican Diversity Leadership Series and Hoosier Women Forward, a leadership training program for Democratic women, are celebrating historic firsts tallied in 2023, while they are also focusing on 2024 and a goal of accomplishing more.

The Indiana Republican Party championed the female mayor of Greencastle, who also was the first Republican mayor elected in that community in 38 years. In addition, the IRDLS saw six of its graduates on the ballot and wins by alumni Ditlevson and Ronald Morrell, the first Black mayor of Marion.

Hoosier Women Forward, not affiliated with the Democratic Party, noted 18 of its alumnae were on the ballot in 2023 and 12 won their races. The Indiana Democratic Party also commended three women who won mayoral races and became the first Black leaders in Evansville, Michigan City and Lawrence.

“Hoosiers are facing a lot of struggles right now,” Elise Shrock, Hoosier Women Forward board of directors’ chair, said. “It’s important that we have the best minds and the hardest workers at the take to make sure we can fix some of those problems and our women are a huge part of how those conversations will be successful.”

Making a bigger tent

According to the biographies on the websites, the past and current participants of either program are already leaders in their professional careers and their communities, building businesses, founding nonprofits, and, as Ditlevson noted, often creating paths for others to follow.

The Diversity Leadership Series and Hoosier Women Forward are months-long programs that teach the participants about their respective parties’ platforms and policies as well as how the political party structure functions. Throughout the course, the participants routinely meet and interact with elected officials and community leaders.

Whitley Yates, director of diversity and engagement for the Indiana Republican Party, described the IRDLS as teaching “politics from the grassroots to the grass tops.” She said the program’s goal is simple: to create a bigger tent, so more people, especially those from underrepresented communities and marginalized groups, can find a place within the Republican Party.

The Indiana Republican Diversity Leadership Series teaches participants politics from “the grassroots to the grass tops.” (Photo/Indiana Republican Diversity Leadership Series)

However, Yates noted, some minorities are ostracized by their communities when they align with the GOP.

“Being Black and Republican, being Latino and Republican, is almost seen as a traitor to some people, because there is a common misconception that you can tell how someone votes by the color of their skin and we simply don’t believe that to be true,” Yates said. “It’s the character, the morals, and the principles that really guide who you are politically.”

Ronald Morrell, a graduate of the leadership program, won the November election to become the first Black Republican mayor of Marion. Growing up in Marion and attending a Pentecostal church, Morrell said he was raised in a conservative home that believed in “faith, family and hard work.” The Republican label did not come until he developed his political aspirations.

Since his success at the ballot box, Morrell said he has been surprised by the number of people who have messaged him on social media, saying they wanted to join the GOP.  He is witnessing a new hope and a new light in the Republican Party that, he said, he had not seen before.

The GOP will prosper, he said, by welcoming all who agree with the fundamental philosophy of the party.

“Diversity for just diversity’s sake, to meet a quota, is a terrible idea. You’ll never be authentically diverse,” Morrell said. “So I think the benefit of any organization becoming authentically diverse and organically diverse, is you become a reflection of what the United States is supposed to be. … The United States to me is a melting pot, all these people coming together are supposed to function together.”

The Indiana Republican Party’s push to expand its tent comes as minority populations are growing across the state. According to 2020 U.S. Census data, the number of Hoosiers identifying as white declined by 3.1%, while the number identifying as Asian, Black and Hispanic increased by 64.3%, 9.5% and 42.2%, respectively.

Ronald Morrell

The Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University Kelley School of Businesses reviewed the census data and drew two conclusions:  “Indiana continues to grow more diverse” and “the state has long been more diverse than we previously understood.”

Better policymaking through diverse viewpoints

For Hoosier Women Forward, the focus comes from what Shrock said was the need to create a support network for Democratic women. Women in the program are already leaders in their communities, she said, but they are given an opportunity to sharpen their skills through HWF and create an infrastructure to assist them as they move higher whether in public office or in the boardroom.

Creating space in the Democratic Party for more women, Shrock said, will bring more diversity in viewpoints and experiences that will ultimately strengthen the party.

“We have women from so many different parts of the state, so many different perspectives and we know that our communities receive better policymaking when we have those different types of women at the table,” Shrock said.

Arielle Brandy, deputy director of the Indiana Democracy Collective/Indiana Progress, is a graduate of the HWF class of 2018-19. She has used the skills and knowledge she learned in the program to help others, especially people of diversity, run for office.

Most recently, she worked on the successful 2023 campaign of Bianca Tirado, who is now the first openly gay woman – and Afro-Latino – to serve as South Bend’s city clerk. Brandy was also part of the campaigns of ZeNai Brooks, the Democratic nominee for Indiana auditor in 2022, and of former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, who, in 2020, became the first openly gay man to launch a major campaign for president.

Asked if the victories of diverse candidates in 2023 indicate that programs like Hoosier Women Forward and the Indiana Republican Diversity Leadership Series are now not needed as much, Brandy smiled. The hard work, she said, is not done.

“We are making a lot of great, impacting success, but the fact that we have to say ‘the first’ in so many of these roles, we’re like ‘Ugh, what are we not doing,’” Brandy said, adding that Hoosier Women Forward wants women in minority communities all over Indiana to realize that they can run for office. “And then it becomes so normal for us to see people from all of these backgrounds in these positions and that’s just what our state is.”

Hoosier Women Forward met with White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre during a 2022 trip to Washington, D.C. (Photo/Hoosier Women Forward)

Bright ideas, hard work

Hoosier Women Forward and the Indiana Republican Diversity Leadership Series are each intent on preparing its participants for the hard knocks and high stress of being leaders, Shrock and Yates said. The programs teach their graduates to become substantive leaders who help communities advance rather than just being symbols of diversity.

Now that they are in office, both Ditlevson and Morrell acknowledged they are under more pressure since they are trailblazers. The leadership programs, they said, gave them the skills to be not only successful candidates but also elected officials who can build coalitions to tackle their communities’ challenges.

As they start their terms, Ditlevson and Morrell are motivated by energy and ideas.

Ditlevson has been developing a concept for “family zones,” which would steer tax credits to neighborhoods where many households are led by single parents and struggling with low income and low literacy rates. Morrell is launching an initiative to restore his community’s pride by cleaning up blight through tearing down dilapidated homes and picking up cigarette butts and plastic bottles in the streets.

“I was just telling somebody, ‘What does all this press matter and all these folks and accomplishments matter, if I get into the office and we don’t do anything for this community,’” Morrell said. “So our main goal is to take the energy that’s coming, both positive and negative, from local, state and national (sources), and turn it into a success story for our citizens.”

Dwight Adams, a freelance editor and writer based in Indianapolis, edited this article. He is a former content editor, copy editor and digital producer at The Indianapolis Star and, and worked as a planner for other newspapers, including the Louisville Courier Journal.

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