What It Means to Be Political, ReflectUS Fellow

In 2017, I found myself unemployed for the first time in my life. After being minimally fulfilled in corporate life, jaded by my time in collections management and overworked in a small business, I eventually found a calling for public service through the Irving Arts Board. At the time, I did not imagine myself as a political leader, or even a political person. However, serving on a local Board for my community in Irving, Texas provided me with learning opportunities, shaped my future and cemented my drive to serve. Now, as a fellow with ReflectUS, I see that serving on Boards and Commissions is political leadership, and women are desperately needed to serve in these important roles. 

I applied to the Irving Arts Board after my mom circled the opportunity advertised in our local newspaper. I had no experience with Boards or local government, but I met the two criteria – “being interested in the arts” and “willing to commit a few hours per month to my local city”. I knew the government was responsible for decisions that affected me, but I never realized just how large the impact was. As a Latinx, first-generation woman in her mid-twenties, I often found myself advocating for ideas that no one else considered. Living in this experience made me realize that the decisions which affected my entire community were not being made by people who looked like me and were, therefore, not reflective of the rich diversity of my community. I learned how important it is for people with differing ideas and lived experiences to serve on local Boards. Diversity brings new perspectives that may not have been considered previously.

In my experience, there are many women who, like me, do not see ourselves as political leaders. We may not always see people like us represented or we have grown up with a specific idea of what “political” really means. Like many others, I have been conditioned to first imagine a white man in a power suit as the standard for a competent political leader. However, throughout my time on the Board, I’ve learned that every political leader at the local level is a member of a local community. We live in the same neighborhoods, have kids in the same schools, shop in the same grocery stores, visit the same restaurants, and live with the same community conditions. This was not lost on me as I was interviewed by members of City Council about why I wanted to serve on the Arts Board and what value I would bring. 

While I encourage every person who cares about their community to seek out opportunities to serve, it is important to know that there are areas for improvement and barriers to entry might be intimidating. In my experience, the appointment process was not defined or explained. I later discovered this is often the case with Boards and Commissions – sometimes you apply and wait for months before you are notified of a decision. My process took several months. Once I was notified that I was accepted, I was told to attend the meeting a few days later. In preparation, I was given tasks to complete which included reading information regarding past meetings and budgets, meeting with the Executive Director of the Department of Arts and Culture, learning about programming and events, and being sworn in by the City Secretary. That was a lot of information to unpack in just under a week! After my meeting with the Executive Director and another board member, I understood that not everything would make sense immediately, but as time passed, I would learn information that would inform policy, budgets and the network. Often, the introduction to policy and service can be daunting, but the more I realized that I didn’t have to be an expert in every room, the easier it was to bring my own expertise and passion to every situation.

Through my appointment to the Arts Board, I was introduced to parliamentary procedure, government structure and the incredible formality behind creating and influencing policy. My service on a City Board has led to my being an advocate to my national representatives in Washington, D.C. and state legislators in Austin, Texas. It has also included serving on multiple city committees, impacting multimillion dollar city budgets, and proudly being chosen to be a part of the inaugural “It Begins Here” Fellowship with ReflectUS. From these experiences, I’ve learned that being political means to be present and to be aware, because the world around us is being shaped, with or without our involvement.

Throughout the past several years, I quickly realized that my specific identities – millennial, Latinx, and female – are largely underrepresented in political spaces while simultaneously being impacted by every piece of policy, budget change, and memo that crossed my seat. I also realized that through the privilege of a chance encounter with a listing in a city newspaper, I had the opportunity to be a voice for many that are not represented in the rooms in which I was present. 

It seemed to be by happenstance that I came into this position, until I realized that being involved isn’t as far off as it seems. I know that outspoken individuals are shaping policy, our representatives want and need community input, and just by being present, anyone can make a statement and show what issues matter most. To me, being political is now something I speak about with pride, as I’ve learned that politics touch every aspect of my life. 

Three years ago, I would never have imagined myself in any political space, but now I’m proud to be a member of the “It Begins Here” Fellowship inaugural class. As I start to make plans with ReflectUS for my political leadership path ahead, I can’t help but think of the need for more diverse voices on local Boards and Commissions. 

For those who are looking to make an impact in their community, this is the perfect role to gain exposure and use your individual expertise in a political context. I had no previous political training or understanding, but learned these skills after my appointment. The time commitment has been easily balanced with my full-time job, and I’ve learned most people on these boards also work while volunteering in these and other community roles. Your presence, voice and opinion are needed to create a community that you can be proud to live in. While I found out about the Art Board in a local paper, you can learn more about Boards and Commissions by contacting your city or county clerk’s office, or view the ReflectUS Boards and Commission Guides for details on how to apply for local Boards and Commissions.

Karem Montemayor is a community advocate, City of Irving Arts Board Member, small business owner, and inaugural “It Begins Here” Fellow with ReflectUS based in Dallas, Texas.

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.