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.

We Can Do Hard Things

We Can Do Hard Things

In 2019, I ran for the Virginia State Senate. It was simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting. As a first-time candidate, I was also balancing being a mom of two elementary school-aged children, being a wife, serving as a deacon in my church, serving as the National President of Theta Nu Xi Multicultural Sorority, Inc., and working full-time (while also teaching graduate classes part-time). Every day after work, I spent hours on the phone calling potential donors, most of whom I had never met, and every weekend, I walked the district knocking on doors of voters to talk to them about the issues. I am not sure how I would have managed this without the support of my family and friends. Looking back, it sometimes feels as if that was another woman who managed all those priorities and responsibilities. 

I ran a competitive primary, working to gain traction against a long-standing incumbent.  I succeeded in raising the profile of my district and cutting the vote spread by nearly 19 points from the previous election. Even though I did not ultimately win the race, I had a core group of people who supported my family and me. In fact, one friend constantly reminded me, “You can do hard things.” – a motto my family embraced during long canvassing days in 2019 and has carried forward into the global pandemic of 2020.

Thinking about it now, “doing hard things” feels like the central theme of 2020. In 2020, my kids are struggling to figure out virtual school and all their assignments while missing the in-person connection with friends and family. We’ve had severe illnesses and deaths in my family this year. I know it’s not just my family – families everywhere are feeling the pain, some much more than others due to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on different communities. As I consider that 2019 was a year of instability for my family as we all worked to accomplish an enormous feat, I am in absolute awe of the women who are running for office in 2020, in the middle of a global pandemic, and knocking it out of the park! 

Current candidates Alexsis Rodgers and Dianne Morales, for instance, are running to be the next mayors of their cities, both served as directors of nonprofit organizations. Recently both spoke to ReflectUS on what it’s like to run for office during the pandemic. Their insights are reflected in our issue brief “Lessons from Campaigning in the Time of Covid-19: Women Candidates and the Challenges They Face.”  These women see 2020 as a historic year for campaigns and are embracing campaigning amid a global pandemic as the “new” normal. ReflectUS also spoke with city council candidates Vanessa Fuentes and Esmerelda Cortez and state legislative candidates Jasmine Crockett (who recently won her campaign and is now representative-elect) and Jessica González-Rojas (who recently won her five-way primary). All the women we interviewed are emblematic of the countless women around the country on both sides of the aisle running in the era of COVID-19. They have a similar, unifying message: 

They knew they needed to step up and run for political leadership, and they are up for the challenges that COVID-19 presents because their communities need compassionate, strong leaders, now more than ever

Women candidates are “doing the hard things” in campaigning so they can change systems and policies to improve the lives of their families, friends, and communities – which some would say is the greatest challenge of all. 

The challenges I faced in running for office – finding childcare for my kids while I made calls, raising money, getting volunteers active and energized for change, managing a full team, and doing it all while continuing my “normal” work life – are amplified in the COVID-19 pandemic. There are few, if any, childcare options available right now for those women seeking public office, but even if childcare were available, many states still do not have rules or allowances for campaign fund use for these expenses. It was only through the work of Liuba Gretchen Shirley, a candidate for Congress in 2018 who now supports moms running for office through her organization VoteMama, that federal candidates can use their campaign funds for this purpose. During this time of health crisis, familial support is even more complicated.  Reliance on grandparents and other family members, for instance, can no longer be assumed as the elderly and those with underlying health conditions are especially vulnerable doing these times. Hence, the support systems I relied upon to be able to survive the “hard times”are just not there for women running in 2020. The days when I had no help, when I had to make fundraising calls while trying to keep my kids occupied and on track with their school work, were the hardest. If a candidate has kids who are in virtual school now, that’s an additional barrier – how can you parent, campaign, and fundraise all at the same time? To say it’s exhausting is an understatement.

Campaigning in 2020 is also fundamentally different. Most candidates are not knocking on doors in the community or holding large fundraising events. In 2019, if I gave a particularly moving speech at an event, it was reflected in donations from those who heard me. The more money I raised, the less time I had to be on the phones asking for money and the more time I could spend talking directly to voters. While my team valued digital organizing and it was well-integrated into the campaign, it was not the foundation of our organizing plan. In 2020, digital organizing is considered the primary way (and in some instances, the only way) to reach voters. Texting and phone call programs are more active now than ever before. 

Recently, ReflectUS had an excellent conversation with Dr. Anne Moses, ReflectUS Board member and CEO and Founder of IGNITE National during our Fireside Chat Series.  We learned that younger women are running for office up and down the ballot now more than ever before.  They are having success in the time of COVID-19 because they are experts in digital organizing. Young women have been doing digital organizing their entire lives, and know how to get people engaged. Young women are fired up this year and are leaning into their own power. Yet, they also face crushing economic instability with an unstable job market. Consequently, they’re figuring out how to navigate the political world while grappling with harsh economic realities. 

Prior to the pandemic, campaign life for women was hard. Now, the intensity has only increased. Thankfully there are organizations and groups of committed women addressing the myriad of hardships women candidates face. Consequently, we’re still seeing women run up and down the ballot – across party lines – persevering towards the goal.  The words of my friend still rings true, “[Women] can do hard things.” I’m confident that we will solve the problems of systems designed to shut out most people from government power – and build a path for others to follow. Yes, we can do hard things…but maybe it won’t always be this hard. 

Amanda Pohl is the Programs Director 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.