Q & A with Caitlin Carey, RFL Academy 2018

Growing up in the South, Caitlin Carey was taught to “be less” as she puts it. Talk less; don’t be so loud; don’t wear bright colors; straighten your hair. “Less of you and more of your husband.” Though Carey eventually went to law school, which empowered her to share her opinion and write persuasively, she struggled with her decision to not take the bar exam and become a practicing lawyer. She wanted to be the “background person,” doing research and drafting briefs, but she found that other lawyers — particularly older male lawyers — looked down on her for choosing a different path.

After moving back to the Roaring Fork Valley in 2013 (she had previously lived in here in 2002) with her ex-husband and young son, she bounced around various jobs, none of them a good fit, until she was nominated for RFL’s Academy program in 2017. Surrounded by strong, ambitious women, Carey felt empowered to embrace the parts of herself that her upbringing and career stress had repressed. Now happily employed as a paralegal at a small family-run law firm in Carbondale, last spring, Carey took another step in her leadership journey: running for town council in New Castle, where she lives. In April, she was elected, fulfilling her lifelong dream of serving her community through local politics.

Recently, RFL chatted with Caitlin about how her Academy experience helped catalyze her personal growth and leadership goals.

Roaring Fork Leadership: What made you want to participate in RFL Academy?

Caitlin Carey: I had started a leadership training program through my church back in Alabama, but didn’t finish. When I was nominated for RFL, it felt like an opportunity to finish that training in a different environment. At the time, I had already begun what I call the “deconstruction of me,” which was me getting a 30,000-foot view of how I was raised and the politics of the environment in which I was raised – and how that didn’t sit well with who I was. I’m sure you’ve heard of the “peeling the layers of the onion” metaphor. I see it more like peeling an orange. The outer skin had been pulled off – that was the easy part. The harder part was getting all the white stuff off — pulling away from everything I had been raised in.

RFL: What was a highlight of your RFL experience?

CC: It was learning that change is not rejection – it’s a fine-tuning, a “sanding” so to speak. Having a really diverse group of people in our class gave me an opportunity to see the value of different perspectives. I grew up really sheltered, so RFL opened my eyes to different perspectives and helped me appreciate them. I realized that you may not be able to sit in my shoes because my shoes are my shoes, but you can try them on, walk in them for a minute, and see things how I see them.

RFL: How has RFL helped you grow?

CC: In the South, if you’re ambitious and a woman, you’re a bitch – it’s still very much that way. There were judges who’d tell women who showed up in pantsuits to go home and put on heels and pantyhose. Being around strong women, like Andrea and like all the other fantastic women in my class and those who came to talk to us, was such a perspective shift. Having people look down on you in your field is hard, but RFL made me realize I can be a strong, ambitious, and successful woman.

Going through RFL has helped me stand behind my voice. It helped me go back to that original version of me – the “me” who wanted to be in public service. I was interested in politics from the time I was old enough to understand that government decisions affect people. I would not have stepped into a campaign had it not been for RFL.

RFL: How did your RFL experience inspire you to run for the New Castle Town Council?

CC: Where I was raised, women are not supposed to speak up, so even though I’ve learned to be more — to have opinions and to share them — I’ve always been taught to take up less space and because of that, I’m terrified to knock on doors. So that was a challenge, but I’ve always loved governance, so when I saw an open position for town council, I talked to my husband about it. We couldn’t throw a bunch of money at a campaign, so it would have to be low key. In the end, I won one of the three open seats. RFL helped with my boldness.

In New Castle right now, there’s a lot of development happening, so that’s the big ask of the town council — how to shepherd New Castle through this boom. I’m excited to be a part of that.