A New Congress is Sworn in, Proving That When Women Run, It Matters

Republished from Shondaland

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.


It Begins Here Fellowship Program

It Begins Here Fellowship Program

Most of my childhood memories are of my mom standing up to the school administrators for her daughters. When I was fifteen and bullied every day, my mom made her way up the steps of the school to tell the principal that this was an issue that needed to be addressed. When my sister wasn’t being given her accommodations for her dyslexia, my mom fought for her right to stay in the same grade as her classmates. Growing up, I always admired my mother’s determination to help children and as I became a young adult, I always wondered why my mom didn’t run for office.

Looking back at my teenage years, I now understand the obstacles she faced and the decisions she made are clearer to me now than they were at the time. My mother is a first-generation Mexican American immigrant who became a single mom of three girls at 30. After my parents separated, my mom had to work three jobs with long hours to make ends meet. Oftentimes, she would skip meals by leaving before breakfast or come home after dinner just to make sure my sisters and I had enough. My mom’s work ethic and passion for helping others has always shown and she embodies the leadership characteristics that many of my political icons seem to possess. Although she has never run for office, I know that she’s the kind of person we should be electing – a mother who has lived through many challenges and can share those unique experiences to create policies that help uplift children, women, and men alike.

I see now that the biggest obstacles she faced were financial insecurity and lack of strong support systems to encourage her to seek out elected leadership roles. In my work today, I always think about what could make a difference for the many working-class women like my mom. This is the reason why I am so proud to announce the one-of-a-kind “It Begins Here” Fellowship Program that ReflectUS North Texas is launching this Winter 2021.

The It Begins Here Fellowship Program will address the myriad of barriers women face when seeking elected and appointed positions. Just as importantly, it will also focus on the unique challenges facing working-class women, including the financial obstacles that keep them from running. By combining campaign training with financial empowerment and financial literacy workshops, we hope to empower and propel working-class women towards political success. Each fellow will participate in workshops ranging from campaign fundraising and financing, public speaking and storytelling, campaign staff and volunteer selection, and much more.

The goal of our work with this 12-month cohort is to provide a support system while simultaneously addressing the barriers that working-class women face.

We’ve seen that when women are elected, they often make decisions that are best for everyone in their community. We at ReflectUS believe that it’s time to start looking out for women and providing them with the support they need. Together, we can create a more reflective government that works for all the people, and it begins here.

Cecilia Silva is the North Texas Program Manager for ReflectUS, a national, nonpartisan coalition working to increase the number of women in office and achieve equal representation across the racial, ideological, ethnic, and geographic spectrum


Texas Women Winning and More Work to Do

Texas Women Winning and More Work to Do

I began my journey into politics, in 2017, by attending the Women’s March in Austin with my best friend and more than 50,000 other Texans. Both women and men turned out in great numbers to show their support of women’s rights and the respect that we felt we deserved as human beings. During one of the speeches, the orator stressed the right of women to be heard and the long battle for equality that women have been waging. Three years later, “We want it all!” continues to echo in my head as I anxiously waited for the 2020 Texas ballots to be counted.

Now that most races have been called, I continue to reference that speech and can’t help but reflect on the work that has been done in such a short amount of time. Women left that day in Austin and continued to fight for their rights by running for office in record numbers across the state. This past election cycle, for instance, 80 women had their names on the ballot for Texas House positions – twice the number of women in the 2016 election. Yet, the increased number of women running for office did not mean an increased number of wins. In fact, there were less women elected this year in comparison to 2016.

In this last election cycle, ReflectUS spoke to many women and listened to their campaign stories. We learned that campaigning during the COVID-19 global pandemic was not an ideal situation, but it didn’t prevent them from running. It was the opposite. These candidates thought of new ways to campaign – some organized their volunteers to bring groceries to those at high-risk, some offered paid campaign roles to those who now found themselves unemployed, and they all continued to prioritize their community’s health and safety above all else.

The question that keeps echoing in my head is – how is it that the women in our communities, and especially these candidates, can show up for us in every way imaginable yet we aren’t able to return the favor and get them elected? I will be the first to applaud our Texas voters; we had an increase in voter turnout. In fact, Texas set a new record of 66 percent of the 17 million registered voters participating in this election. While I applaud this increase, how many voters supported these and other brave women that made the ofttimes difficult decision to run for office?

If you’re eager to see more women elected then consider the many ways you can help women win. Candidates are always eager to find new volunteers to phonebank, block walk, and do a variety of tasks around their campaign headquarters. If you can’t donate your time, consider making a financial investment in their campaigns. With only about 5 percent of Americans donating and men drastically out fundraising women in campaigns, it’s important to make any contribution – no matter how small.

Additionally, if you find that you aren’t satisfied with the names you see on the ballot or with who is currently representing you, then take the leap that many other women have been taking.

Run for office!

The road to politics is similar to the many interstates in Texas – it has many bumps and potholes, but you don’t have to travel alone. ReflectUS has not only created resources and workshops for women in Texas to succeed, but the nine national ReflectUS Coalition members offer a myriad of capacity building and networking opportunities for women interested in politics, regardless of political party.

Finally, to the women who ran this election cycle, or any other election cycle –  you are strong, brilliant and will continue to set examples for the young women and little girls who come after you. If you lost your campaign, continue to run and be an inspiration. If you won, thank you for helping us to create a more representative government that reflects our community.

Women are known for their resilience and we’ve seen what women can accomplish and what they bring to the table. It’s important to remember that even voting is just one step of the many that will lead to long-lasting change and the gender parity we want to see. Just like that day in Austin in 2017, we must come together to uplift female candidates and help them win.

Cecilia Silva is the North Texas Program Manager for ReflectUS, a national, nonpartisan coalition working to increase the number of women in office and achieve equal representation across the racial, ideological, ethnic, and geographic spectrum.


Texas’ Role in the Passage of the 19th Amendment: Looking Back to Move Forward

Texas' Role in The Passage of the 19th Amendment: Looking Back to Move Forward

The women’s suffrage movement began in 1848 when women’s rights pioneers began educating the public about women’s rights and later organizing, petitioning, and lobbying Congress to pass a constitutional amendment. On August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment was passed and many, but not all, women won the right to vote. Now 100 years later, voting and partaking in the political process is more important than ever.

Over the past century, across Texas, we have seen women continue to make strides in government and other fields for the betterment of our communities. In 1908, Ella Isabelle Tucker and Adella Kelsey Turner became the first women elected to serve on the Dallas Independent School District when they were sworn in as trustees. Their legacies help build a foundation of political leadership for women in Dallas by inspiring us to get involved in government.  Today, women in Texas are running for city council, state legislature, Congress, and even the governorship. In spite of the accomplishments of the last decade, we still have a long way before reaching equal representation. 

ReflectUS, a national coalition of nine leading women’s representation organizations across the ideological spectrum, works in Dallas county and surrounding areas to bring together local efforts and national resources towards achieving gender parity in Texas politics. ReflectUS, for instance, gathered information from all 31 cities within Dallas County to create a visual map depicting our progress towards gender parity. The Dallas County Heatmap shows that only 5 of the 31 cities in the county have women mayors and only about 34% of appointed leadership roles are held by women – yet women make up roughly  51% of the Dallas County population. While Texas was the first southern state to vote to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, the state of gender parity in Dallas county is appallingly low – among the lowest in the country.

Through the work of our Dallas Leadership Council, we began creating ways to address the lack of women in political leadership. In the past year, ReflectUS has hosted online webinars that cover a variety of topics such as Organizing Communities Towards Political Leadership, The Importance of Raising Latina Women for Leadership Roles, and Understanding City Governance. Most recently we’ve published the first ever Boards and Commission Guides for Dallas County. This publication provides important information on how to seek appointments to City Boards and Commissions. The Guide details Appointment Eligibility, Application Process, Appointment Timeline, Mailing Address, Point of Contact Information and links to apply directly. 

Only one week after the Guides were published, we received an outpour of support from community members, telling us how valuable the resource is. In fact, one of our interns that worked on the Guides was so inspired that she applied and was appointed to the Cedar Hill Zoning Commission, becoming the youngest woman to serve on the commission! 

With the help of our nine lead organizations, Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS), Empowered Women, Higher Heights for America, IGNITE, LatinasRepresent, Represent Women, She Should Run, Vote Run Lead, and Women’s Public Leadership Network, ReflectUS is more than ready to help women in Dallas and Texas beyond launch their political leadership journeys. 

As we celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment, we reflect upon the accomplishments of the women who came before to help direct our path forward. Together, we will mobilize women to lead cultural shifts and create institutional change towards a more reflective democracy … because representation matters.