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.