This year’s Young Women’s Political Leadership program participants were featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition.

Allyson Carpenter at YWPL 2016

My mom is the type of woman I wish I could vote for — honest, hardworking, and passionate about her community. A hair stylist by trade and child advocate by passion, my mom has unfortunately never considered running for office. For many women, like my mom, politics is inaccessible. Really amazing women in our communities never find themselves on a ballot, even when they are probably the most qualified.

Many incredible organizations share the mission of getting more women elected to political office. Luckily, they have also begun to figure out that this includes women of color. They’re figuring out that this includes lesbian, bisexual, and trans women. But it also includes women living in poverty. It includes single mothers. It includes women with disabilities.

If these groups will continue to be successful, it will be because they are intentionally seeking women from diverse backgrounds and experiences. It must be because they remain committed to knocking down barriers for all women, making public office accessible for everyone. If we reach gender parity in government, but nearly all of the women represented come from privileged backgrounds, we are still at a deficit in representation. If we truly want to see more women in government, we have to meet women and girls where they are.

During my first few years in Washington, DC, I was overwhelmed by the availability of resources to young women like me who were considering running for office. Originally from the Midwest, my experiences made me consider, “How can we reach women from distant and/or rural communities? How do we inspire women who may never hear a female elected speak at conference? How do we engage women who may not be college educated?”

Running Start met me where I was — literally. I walked into my college residence hall and somehow ended up in a daylong conference called Elect Her. Lured by the free breakfast, I stayed for an experience that would alter my path forever.

They didn’t just convince me that I could run for office one day — they convinced me that I could do it right then. The only thing that stood in my way were election laws that don’t allow a 17-year-old college freshman hold elected office. But six short months after attending Running Start’s Elect Her training, I ran to represent my neighborhood, which included my college, in Washington, DC’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission. With only one semester and two political science classes under my belt, I was elected to office.

I owe a lot of credit to Running Start for giving me the tools I needed to mount a successful campaign. I owe them even more credit for the work they do to reach everyday women who come from modest means. Every year, Running Start holds more than 100 campaign trainings for high school, colleges, and young professional women across the country.

This summer, I am interning at Running Start and get to work on my favorite program, the Young Women’s Political Leadership Program, which runs June 19th — 24th this year. We will host 65 high school girls, ages 13–18, in Washington, DC for a weeklong conference exposing them to what it takes to run for office. Understanding the socioeconomic barriers that exist for many girls, Running Starts provides scholarships for more than half of the program’s participants.

This isn’t meant to brag but rather to shed light on an example of going the extra mile to reach women and girls who might otherwise never consider running for office. As we continue to work toward getting more women in office, we have to keep accessibility at the front of our minds.

Much of the work I’ve done at Running Start this summer centers on making political office more accessible for everyday women, using data and civic technology. I am currently leading the charge to create a campaign manual for women and girls that encapsulates all that I’ve learned while attending fancy political leadership schools and running my own campaigns. By the end of the summer, this manual will be available to all of the women and girls who attend Running Start programs.

One organization can’t solve the accessibility problem in our politics entirely, but together, we can begin to chip away at the barriers that keep so many women out of the fold. If we continue to make accessibility our primary focus, one day, I will be able to vote for someone like my mom.

 

Allyson Carpenter is a Harry S. Truman Scholar currently interning at Running Start. She studies political science and community development at Howard University. She is the youngest person elected to office in the Washington, DC history, having served as an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in 2014 at age 18. She most recently served on the National Organizing Committee for the Women’s March on Washington and hopes to inspire more young women to run for office.

Call Out Sexism in Politics: Women who run for office should deal with gendered attacks head-on.

Rep. Avery Bourne at Running Start’s Young Women to Watch Awards

This post originally appeared in US News & World Report, here.

No one doubts that women face more scrutiny that men for their looks. The scrutiny starts early, and no female is immune — we are judged by our bodies, our attractiveness, our hair and our clothes. If we hold leadership positions, we can almost guarantee we’ll be judged more on the way we look than on how we lead.

As political strategist Celinda Lake said, “When women’s ideas are threatening or women’s power is threatening, you often see them referred to in terms of their appearance.” Lake continued, “It’s a way to distract, to trivialize and to divert attention from the important things women are saying and doing.”

Last summer, at the 2016 Republican National Convention, I was shocked to see pins and T-shirts for sale, criticizing then-Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the most personal ways. One awful example: “KFC Hillary special. 2 fat thighs. 2 small breasts … left wing.”

But this behavior isn’t unique to Republicans — nor men. As Susan Chira wrote recently in the New York Times, “Misogyny, it seems, remains a bipartisan exercise.” She cites a recent tweet from a woman asking: “Why does Kellyanne Conway always look like she’s still drunk & wearing makeup from last night’s bender?” Yes, attacks on appearance often come from women, too.

When you are running for office as a young woman, you are not just criticized for your appearance — you are often sexualized as well. In 2010, Virginia Democratic candidate Krystal Ball had an old racy photo used to discredit her campaign for Congress. Last year, someone sent out fake nude photos of Illinois State Rep. Avery Bourne to her campaign mailing list. And Alejandra Campoverdi, currently running for Congress in California, said her stint as a model has been used to show she isn’t a serious candidate.

Sexual shaming has always existed, but it is so much more prevalent now thanks to social media. As Campoverdi wrote recently in Cosmopolitan, “From this generation forward, every woman will have grown up in the digital age where, unless she sat in a turtleneck at home for all her teens, she will have pictures readily available online that can be used to shame her.”

In my role with Running Start, I speak to thousands of young women every year about running for office. These twin issues — scrutiny over appearance and worry about social media skeletons — come up in almost every training. My job is to persuade women that they don’t have to look “perfect” and that shaming over social media content is something they can stand up to. Authenticity is my buzzword.

True, when the world judges you by your sexuality and your appearance, as it clearly does, no amount of authenticity can fully shield you. I end up urging them to be authentic while doing my best to prepare them for the nastiness of how the world will sometimes view them.

But I also ask young women to take part in the #ILookLikeAPolitician campaign, where people who don’t look like traditional (read: old, white, male) candidates post photos showing that they, too, can run for office. And I refer them to the Name It. Change It. campaign, which calls out out the media when they attack female candidates based on their gender or sexuality. The campaign tells candidates to deal with sexist or gendered attacks head-on, instead of avoiding the comments or trying to ignore them, as conventional wisdom used to advise.

I saw this approach work beautifully with Krystal Ball. Instead of hanging her head and dropping out of the race when her reputation was attacked, she held a press conference and addressed the controversy. She didn’t win the race, but she gained a lot of supporters that day.

As she wrote in The Atlantic in 2011:

People may not have the right to know about your personal, private life … but they do have the right to know whether you are honest, candid and forthcoming. When you resist the scrutiny, you magnify the underlying embarrassment of the photo or whatever it is and you bring into question your own candor and forthrightness…and that is fair game. Let the media savage you a little bit. Your dignity gets a bit ruffled, but the storm blows over and people know that you don’t duck and hide.

I hope more young women will follow Ball’s hard-nosed advice. If instead, as Campoverdi wrote, “these women decide to sit this one out because of [fear of personal attacks], we will miss out on talented, transformational women leaders in every public-facing field, especially politics.” And that would be the real shame.

 

susannah-5

Susannah Wellford founded two organizations to raise the political voice of young women: Running Start (which she now leads) and the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee. Susannah previously worked in the Clinton White House and for Senator Wyche Fowler. Ms. Wellford is a graduate of UVA School of Law and Davidson College. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her twins, Ben and James.

As a Latina working in the women in politics world, I often push for greater representation of Latinas. We are underrepresented in the halls of government, and our stories and leadership matter. When I was just starting at Running Start, I had the honor to meet Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the first Latina elected to Congress. She couldn’t have been warmer or more enthusiastic about our work. That was plenty for me to become a fan, but she added icing to the cake. A few days later, I received a letter of support from her — on her official stationery! It now sits in a special spot on the windowsill by my desk, framed and proudly displayed.

The Congresswoman’s support for Running Start has never waned. She served as our 2016 Republican Co-Chair, she’s hosted several of our Running Start/Walmart Star Fellows as Congressional interns, she made a speech on the House floor in praise of our mission (below), and she is always one of the first elected officials to say yes when we ask her to speak to our young women to inspire them.

I was sad to hear the Congresswoman announce that she will not seek reelection in 2018. We will miss one of our best champions in Congress and one of the best role models for girls and young women interested in politics. Just this year, two more Latinas followed in her footsteps and started their first terms in Congress: Congresswoman Nanette Barragán and the first Latina Senator, Catherine Cortez Masto.

To give her the sendoff she deserves, I reached out to some of our alums who have worked in her office and asked them what it meant to them to work for Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen. They all wrote back right away — I couldn’t believe it; that never happens! But the Congresswoman is special. The speed of their responses was a testament to the loyalty and dedication she inspires.

Lucinda Borque, Fall 2015 Star Fellow @Andrealucinda

I was one of the lucky ones. I say this because I interned for the honorable Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. If you ever visited Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s office, you would be reenergized with her famous Cuban cafecito (coffee) and her staff. I was asked what Ileana Ros-Lehtinen means to me and I find myself lost for words. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen opened doors for me — I did not know what a Republican truly was until I interned for one. She truly reaches across the aisle, someone who always educates, and someone who truly cares about the present and future of our country.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is a woman of honesty, integrity, and dedication. She is the voice for the voiceless: Ros-Lehtinen is a woman of character who always speaks her mind and speaks the mind of her people. She takes the time to speak to her constituents and she takes the time to get to know her interns. (I was able to intern for the Congresswoman after completing the Running Start Star Fellowship.) She even gave a speech praising my mother for all the hard work she has done raising her daughters. Being a Latina and a first generation college graduate in my family, and hearing those words being said to my mother will forever be engraved in my memory. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is an inspiration and I thank her for allowing me to be a part of her world. She is my inspiration to keep striving and when I run for office, I can look back and know, I am a lucky one!

Alexandria Murphy, Fall 2016 Star Fellow @murphalexandria

I am saddened to see that my former boss Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen is retiring, but amazed at the incredible career that she has had in public service. I have no doubt that because of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, many future leaders will emerge through her inspiration and leadership. Working for the Congresswoman as a Running Start Star Fellow was simply the greatest time of my life so far. Each day we were greeted in the office with cheerful hellos and cafecito, and the Congresswoman listened to our updates on life, even from the interns. She took the time to make every single person feel important and worthy of being there. Working on Capitol Hill is magnificent in and of itself, but to work for a female Member who so dearly cares about her district and her staff and who paves the way for those that come after her is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I couldn’t have imagined being a part of a better experience in Washington. There are three portraits in the Capitol which inspire me: Jeannette Rankin, Shirley Chisholm, and (in the House Foreign Affairs Committee Room, as a beacon of hope for future women in public service) the undeniably resilient and forward thinking Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

Taylor Johnson, Fall 2015 Star Fellow LinkedIn

Photo by Erin Schaff

Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen has been an inspiration to me and thousands of young women across our country with political aspirations. Many know her as the first Cuban-American Member of Congress, the first Hispanic woman ever elected to Congress, or the first woman to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee. I know her as the woman that other Members of Congress look up to. I have come to know her as a fearless individual who never hesitates to put her party lines aside to stand up for what she believes in and what is truly best for South Florida. During my time in Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen’s office, I have sacrificed many early mornings and a few late nights and I have developed a serious dependency on Cuban coffee, but all of those sacrifices become worth it in a job where you truly believe in what you do and the Member that you represent. She has taught me to never give up or give in when you believe in something, and that having a crazy work schedule is no excuse to not play on the softball team. She has set the bar on having a successful marriage and loving your children unconditionally. One of the things I will miss the most about the Congresswoman will be the daily phone calls that always begin with a loud, “Dexter Wayne! Love of my life!” that bring all business in the office to an immediate halt.

Above all, Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen taught me to not sweat the small stuff, to always take time to laugh throughout the day, even when there are a million and one things left to do before the sun sets. The personal impact she has had on me will stay with me throughout my life, and I could not be more grateful for the opportunities that have been afforded to me while working for Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen. I am honored to serve her and the constituents of the 27th Congressional District of Florida through her last day in Congress.

Alexandra Curtis, Fall 2014 Star Fellow @AllieCurtisRI

My time as a Running Start Star Fellow in Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen’s office was invaluable to me and many other Running Start alums and how we see our place in the chambers of Congress. Ileana took a genuine interest in her interns, and would even ask us about our thoughts on issues and legislation. The fact that Republicans and Democrats alike are saddened by the news of her retirement is a testament to her honor and legacy. She has been one of the most effective leaders I have seen in action and thanks to the example she set, I left her office knowing that as a young woman I have a place in Congress and I am not only capable of serving in that capacity — I am needed. The Congresswoman embodies all that Running Start stands for and I’m grateful for her exemplary dedication to the program and her leadership in Congress.

 

Sara Blanco is a women’s empowerment advocate. She graduated from Swarthmore in 2012, where she studied English literature and gender and sexuality studies, and joined Running Start soon after. Currently pursuing a master of public policy at the George Washington University, Sara co-chairs their Women’s Leadership Fellows Program after participating last year. Sara lives in her hometown, Arlington, Virginia. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policy of Running Start.

I stood firm and I was powerful.

I am eighteen years old, 4’11”, the daughter of a driven Moroccan Muslim father and outspoken Jersey-born Jewish mother, and #ILookLikeAPolitician. In fact, I plan to run for a seat in the United States Senate. Politics may not run through my blood, but certainly politics permeated the air I breathed growing up inside the beltway. My family, teachers and my classmates’ parents fostered my interest in running for office. They are newly-arrived immigrants, single fathers, passionate mentors, lawyers, founders of nonprofits that protect children, entrepreneurs, ambassadors, and even Capitol Hill’s most influential policymakers, businessman and lobbyists. My community taught me the importance of social justice and making a difference. Spending a great deal of time overseas and peering back at America from that new perspective inspired me to speak for others with no voice and to listen more than talk.

By eight, I was attending political rallies, campaign meetings, and had the opportunity to meet my favorite presidential candidate. As I got older, I considered myself to be an aspiring political activist, not an aspiring public servant. Nonetheless, at 15, I was selected for Running Start’s Young Women’s Political Leadership program (YWPL), a summer program for 60 high school girls designed to inspire them to run for office. YWPL offers workshops on networking, public speaking, how to fundraise, and how to run a campaign, and it instilled a newfound confidence in all of us. On the first day, a Running Start staffer asked us how many planned to run for public office; eight girls stood. When asked the same question a week later, all 60 of us stood. This was a true testament to the work and influence of Running Start.

Photo by Erin Schaff

Competing to serve as Running Start’s Ambassador was an opportunity to help spread the message of the #ILookLikeAPolitician campaign. The movement counteracts the lack of existing female role models in our nation’s government and highlights the way that sexism complicates the lives of women seeking public office. I know that when I run for office, I’ll have an important perspective and experience to offer. My platform will be steeped in my family’s philosophy that progress includes understanding our commonalities and celebrating the power that comes from our differences. I also want to bring my commitment to intersectionality and my vision for the future to the table. To get these principles into the political arena, I’ll face some unique challenges as a woman. Women entering male-dominated fields are often told to “man up.” I want to flip the script and show young girls that they can “woman up” and be successful, powerful individuals. I decided that running for Running Start’s #ILookLikeAPolitician Ambassador position would inspire other young girls, maybe even ones from similar blended backgrounds, to run for office.

Photo by Erin Schaff

Competing at the Young Women to Watch Awards on March 20th was both an inspiring and humbling experience. The audience included impressive people at the tops of their fields, which made me more nervous. Receiving feedback on my “stump speech” from Congresswoman Joyce Beatty as we fought to hear each other above the roar of guests networking was surreal. The Congresswoman shared one particularly compelling piece of advice. “If you forget something,” she told me, “stand firm. Plant your feet, and make them wait. Because that next sentence is sure to be powerful.”

Photo by Erin Schaff

In the three minutes when I stood on the balcony at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, I thanked Susannah Wellford, Melissa Richmond, and countless others, on both sides of the aisle, for their commitment to seeing first-generation faces like mine running for office and preparing us to take action. I celebrated the ways in which Running Start has changed my life, by simply telling me that I look like a political leader. I proclaimed that “men run for office to be something and women run for office do something. I want to do something!” I stood firm and I was powerful.

And it worked! I am incredibly honored to have been elected Running Start’s 2017 #ILookLikeAPolitician Ambassador. Having the opportunity to speak before Members of Congress, role models, and my mother, and boldly declare that I want to and will run for office was an extraordinary experience. On behalf of Running Start, I am committed to promoting tolerance and, most importantly, working to empower young girls to realize their potential as our nation’s leaders of tomorrow.

I look like a politician.

 

Photo by Erin Schaff

Sophia Houdaigui is Running Start’s 2017 #ILookLikeAPolitician Ambassador. She is a senior at Sidwell Friends high school who will attend Barnard College (an affiliate of Columbia University) in the fall, where she will join 2,500 young women who are “majoring in the unafraid.” Sophia’s participation in the Young Women’s Political Leadership program ignited her interested in politics, which grew when she served as Director General of her school’s Model United Nations club. Sophia also interned for CARLAC (Council for Arab Relations with Latin America and the Caribbean) in Morocco and worked on projects relating to food security and educational challenges faced by young girls in rural Morocco. Sophia played a small role in trying to shatter the glass ceiling by knocking on doors, making calls, and managing a Teens for Hillary Twitter account during Secretary Clinton’s historic campaign. Sophia is excited to start her first job on the Hill with Senator Tim Kaine next month.