From Arkansas to Capitol Hill

Lydia Fletcher

As I began writing this, I was flying back from one of the most impactful experiences of my life. Last week I attended Running Start’s Young Women’s Political Leadership (YWPL) Program in Washington, DC along with 70 other amazing young women from across the country.

Before I continue, I’ve got to tell you a little about myself: My name is Lydia Fletcher, I’m an eighteen-year-old high school graduate from Arkansas. Yes, Arkansas, a state that has never had a female governor and where only 18.5% of the legislature consists of women. For a girl like me, who plans to run for public office one day, this is incredibly discouraging.

Not only is female representation lacking in my state, but women only make up 20% of Congress.How can women make up 51% of the U.S. population but only hold 20% of Congress?

Change is coming, though. The 2018 election has the most women running for public office. We need to be supporting these women in whatever way we can. Because as YWPL taught me, “when women run, they win!”

However, women are often hesitant to run. Every day we see the media focusing on female candidates’ outward appearance instead of their issues and policies. Even presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was attacked by many sexist articles, like: “The Pros and Cons of President Grandma” and “Could Hillary’s Smile Cost Her the Election?”.

These articles, and the way media portrays women, send the message that women are only as good as they look. It tells women that their self-worth is tied to looking “young and beautiful” at all times. This can lead us, the next generation, to believe that they must fulfill an unrealistic expectation.

“7 in 10 girls believe they are not good enough or do not measure up in some way, including their looks, performance in school and relationships with family and friends.”
Real Girls, Real Pressure: National Report on the State of Self-Esteem

We must dismantle the idea that girls must live up to “something.” It is our job to teach young women that they are enough, that they are somebody, and that they can do anything with hard-work and dedication. Claire Shipman, journalist, public speaker, and author of The Confidence Code, came to speak with us at YWPL. She encouraged us to “own our successes.” She said that once we did this, we would realize our full potential and understand how truly capable we are. One of her statements that stuck out to me was “Confidence is what turns thought into action.” She encouraged us to let go of our perfectionistic view of ourselves and understand that failures happen.

“The process that builds confidence is through failure and struggles.”
– Claire Shipman

It is time for us to build up our own confidence, and teach our fellow women to do so as well.

YWPL participants at graduation.

My experience at YWPL increased my confidence ten-fold. It helped me find a community in which I know I belong. Here are some reflections from fellow participants.

Oriana Riley, a fifteen-year-old sophomore from Pennsylvania, became a close friend during the six days. I asked her about what Running Start meant to her:

“I knew that Running Start would be a good opportunity for me, but I never knew it would change my life… I now understand what it takes to run for office and how much I want to.”

Through this program we were able to meet our own Representatives in Congress (or one of their staffers) to discuss our concerns and ask questions about running for public office. Spending the day on Capitol Hill was such an eye-opening experience.

I know that I am very lucky to have been chosen to attend this amazing program. Being surrounded and supported by a community of 70 diverse, accomplished teens from across the US, as well as all of the interns, staff, and speakers, gave me the opportunity to learn about issues I didn’t know existed, and it let me see girls fighting for change in areas I didn’t know needed changing.

On our second day, the participants got to lead conversation breakouts on topics of which we considered ourselves experts. My friend Franzi Wild and I were chosen to lead a breakout session on Diet Culture and Social Media Expectations. This was an amazing experience. We allowed ourselves to be vulnerable and share our stories relating to this topic and we listened to the other girls in our program talk about their experiences. That’s what community is. That’s what encouragement is. The fact that Franzi and I ended up providing a space for these incredible women to let down their guard and be vulnerable was one of the most gratifying experiences I had at YWPL.

After I led my session, I attended a session lead by New Jersey native and high school senior, Perri Easley. She talked about the intersectionality of mental health and how mental health is seen differently in her African American community. Her breakout session was incredibly enlightening to me, as I wasn’t aware of the differences that people of color face when seeking mental health care.

Over the week, I met so many women I will never forget. I saw girls stand up for their beliefs, find their passion and be vulnerable. Carolyn Adams, a high school junior, from North Carolina, was thinking about singing a song she wrote during our talent show. She was incredibly nervous — so much that someone else had to hold the mic because her hands were shaking — but we encouraged her the whole way. I’m glad she decided to share her song because that girl can SING! Our vulnerability grew our community.

YWPL participants (including Lydia) ran into alums of Running Start’s Congressional Fellowship.

“YWPL was the most amazing experience, because not only did I learn so many new things, but I met the most supportive women. It was a great community of which to be a part.”
– Maggie Davis, 16, Texas

Maggie is not alone in this feeling. YWPL was a life-changer for me. It proved to me that although I come from a small town in Arkansas, if I surround myself in a community of support and encouragement, I will make it in politics. Running Start was the perfect messenger for this. Now that we have received this message so clearly from Running Start, I and my fellow 70 sisters have a duty to spread this message to our family, friends, and community.

Let’s be CEOs, Founders, Policymakers, Congresswomen, Lobbyists, COOs, News Anchors, Ambassadors, or whatever we dare to be. It is time for us to make our voices heard.

I encourage you all to find your community, speak your mind, and at the end of the day, be a face of encouragement, confidence, and strength. Be the type of person you want the next generation to look up to.

Lydia Fletcher is a recent high school graduate from Jonesboro, Arkansas. She will attend Belmont University in Nashville this fall and will major in Political Science and Journalism. Lydia was active in debate/forensics in high school and plans to continue to compete at the collegiate level. She was editor in chief of her school newspaper and served as chair of the Women’s Caucus for Young Democrats of Arkansas. Lydia is passionate about social justice and promoting a fair and equitable world. In her spare time she enjoys reading, writing, and hanging out with her friends.