When I was a college sophomore at the University of Texas at Arlington, I decided to run for student senate. It wasn’t an easy decision. My financial situation was far less than stable — just a year earlier, I was homeless and on food stamps, moving from motel room to motel room, because I couldn’t afford rent near campus in addition to my tuition. I finally was able to afford an apartment after I found a job, started working 40 hours a week, and started giving plasma. I knew that campaigning for an elected leadership role in Student Government would take up time away from work and school. Could I add the obligation and duties of being a student senator to my already over-full plate? Would I even end up liking it?
But in the end, I really felt like I could make a difference on campus. So, I ran. I poured my heart and time into my campaign — and I lost. I was devastated and embarrassed.
After I lost, my mentor — who I’d met through a local women’s’ political network — had some invaluable advice. “Women lose lots of races,” she told me, “but that doesn’t keep them from running again.”
I realized that she was right. Why couldn’t I just try again? So, I tried again. And I lost again, and by a pretty big margin, even after back-to-back-to-back 12-hour days campaigning.
But still, I didn’t give up. The third time was the charm — I ran for Speaker of the Senate later that year and won by a landslide, becoming the first Latina at my university to serve in the position.
Now, two years after my term as Speaker, I work in Texas for a national coalition called ReflectUS, a national, nonpartisan coalition of the nine leading women’s political organizations working together to increase the number of women elected to office. The Coalition focuses on building capacity and eliminating systemic barriers for women — many in college, like I was — who are considering a career in politics. After being sworn in over the next few weeks, 26.4 percent of Congressional seats and 30.3 percent of elected statewide executive offices will be filled by women.
Women prove when they run, they win — a record number of women will serve in Congress next year, and our nation just elected its first-ever woman to be Vice President. I know firsthand that when women run it matters, and even with our historical wins this year, we’re not where we need to be yet.
My family likes to say “la mujer inventa,” which basically means that women are creative. We come up with new ways to do things, even with limited resources. I used to see this saying as a way to justify the many ways I could serve creative meals to my sisters on our limited budget, but as I’ve connected with countless women interested in getting involved in politics the meaning of this saying has changed. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about why women don’t often run for office, and how we can help. Like my family says, women are creative — and it’s time we apply that creativity to get more of us in power.
First, we must expand the political pipeline: we need to try and reach every community and every woman who is thinking about making change.
Through my work in Texas, I’ve noticed that a lot of programs for women in politics are geared toward women who already have strong networks and are already plugged into politics. This is not true for under-resourced and rural communities. I grew up in a single-parent household with my two sisters and my mom. While I was a kid, we moved 12 times. Often, my mom or I would miss a meal so my younger sisters could eat. The types of resources that help women get involved in politics never reached me as a teen — nor did they reach my classmates, or their mothers. Many women in rural or under-resourced areas who are working hard to make ends meet are overlooked. We need to do more to build up a political pipeline for women of all backgrounds.
Second, we need to look locally. In Dallas County, ReflectUS has built a heat map that illustrates women’s involvement in positions of power in our community — we are working to build similar heat maps for other Texas counties. One of those areas is city councils, commissions, and boards — positions that have a huge local impact and serve as an entry point to elected office. That’s why we need to encourage more women to get involved in city government.
After my term as Speaker, I wanted to find ways to make real changes, like the ones I made while in student government, in the real world. After I learned about the local impact of city boards and commissions, I even decided to apply to join one myself. Serving on a board or commission may seem unglamorous, but it’s a crucial way to weigh in on the future of our towns and cities. The issues boards and commissions present a unique opportunity to create a legacy and make your city a better place to live.
I recently submitted applications for a seat on the Parks and Recreation Board, Planning and Zoning Commission, and the Library Advising Boards in Dallas County, and ReflectUS is working to make joining boards and commissions simple for every woman. I used the ReflectUS’s guide to apply for city commissions in Dallas, which made what was an intimidating idea into a completely understandable process. For women also interested in getting involved at any level, ReflectUS Coalition Members like IGNITE National offer online events and training for young women interested in a path to political leadership, and Vote Run Lead offers workshops and resources on how to run. The ReflectUS Coalition has even launched the “It Begins Here” Fellowship program which addresses many of the systemic barriers that prevent working class women from going into politics and government.
When women do get the chance to serve, we make big changes. As the first Latina and only second woman in the Speaker role at my college, I know I made a concrete difference by noticing issues that escaped others’ attention — especially men. My proudest moment was a bill I authored, called “I Am Woman, Give Me Options,” which asked my university to provide free feminine hygiene products in every restroom. I noticed some of the restrooms had broken or missing dispensers, despite the fact that my university was 52 percent women and a lot of the student body is dependent on financial aid.
So, I went to every restroom on campus and made a tally of broken and missing dispensers — not exactly a college experience I’d anticipated. But my bill was an example of how women’s unique experiences motivate us to address problems that not every individual will face. It’s clear that our perspectives could solve a lot of problems in politics.
For other women who want to get involved, joining networks in your community like ReflectUS is the best way to start. The journey into politics can be scary, especially when you are already balancing other responsibilities, and although I love the idea of superwoman it’s important for you to know that you don’t have to do everything alone. ReflectUS is investing in every woman who comes our way; we’re becoming a one-stop-shop for women who want to get involved in politics. We’re hoping that with our help, women who want to make a difference can get creative.
Cecilia Silva is the Texas Program Manager for ReflectUS, a nonpartisan coalition of the leading women’s representation organizations working to increase the number of women elected and appointed to public office at the local, state and national levels.