“With only one semester and two political science classes under my belt, I was elected to office.”

When I founded Running Start eleven years ago, no one understood why talking to girls about political leadership was a good idea. Why did I want to train a 15 year-old to run for office? She wouldn’t be ready to run for any meaningful office for at least a decade. But we scraped together enough money to train a small group of high school girls that summer of 2007, and we’ve grown slowly and steadily into a national nonprofit that has now trained over 12,500 young women from every state in the nation. These young women we’ve trained know that their voices are needed in politics, and they know what it takes to run. They are ready to lead.

I think the world is finally starting to wake up to the tremendous potential of young women as future leaders. A recent New York Times editorial about the lack of women in politics said: “getting women engaged in college or even earlier is especially important”. Barbara Comstock, a Republican Congresswoman from Virginia, told Red Alert: “We need to get more young women engaged at an early age, seeing themselves as being a public figure, being able to run for office,” and “I think we just need to put that idea in their head maybe a little earlier.” Politico reports that “childhood is an ideal place to begin encouraging women to think about running for office.”

That’s why Running Start works with high school and college women to get them to envision themselves as political leaders. The earlier you talk to women about leading in politics, the more it become a possibility in their lives. Here’s one of my favorite success story of how planting a seed early can work: A few years ago I got an email from a woman named Allyson Carpenter. She told me she’d been part of a Running Start program at Howard University that trains college women to run for student government. Although the Elect Her program is designed to funnel women into student government, Allyson saw a need to run in her community instead. Allyson won and became the youngest woman ever elected to DC government at the age of 18.

As she told us:

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 to 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.

Although the Elect Her program is designed to funnel women into student government, I love that Allyson saw a greater need to run in her community instead. We always encourage our students to run for the office where they think they will be able to do the most good. Allyson gained authority and experience in this elected role which served her well when she decided to run for Howard University Student Body President. She decided to run when she saw that the slate of candidates running for the seat were all men. Building on her Elect Her training, she launched a professional-quality campaign complete with a multi-page platform detailing everything she would do for the student body while in office. Despite sexist attacks and charges of ballot rigging, she won the seat and served as one of the first women presidents in many years at Howard. She’s now out of school and serving as a Truman Scholar, no doubt on the way to even bigger and better things.

Allyson has told me that she grew up with a fire in her belly to change things for the better, so Running Start was responsible for amplifying rather than igniting her passion. But what I think programs like Running Start do so well is we give young women permission to admit to the world that they want to run, and to own the fact that they have the ambition to lead. Many of our students say the best part of our programs is being with a group of peers who share their desire to change the world. The support and encouragement they receive from each other makes their dreams seem possible.

When research shows that confidence and self-esteem peaks for women in high school or before, it may be no wonder that later in life men are 65% more likely than equally qualified women to feel ready to run for office. Reaching women at an early age is key to capturing the enthusiasm and confidence that leads a woman to consider running for office. Groups like Running Start are creating a groundswell of young women eager and ready to run because they see political leadership as a place where they truly belong.

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.

Training All Young Women to Run for Office

At Running Start, our nonpartisan political leadership trainings are for all women. To make that clear, we encourage women to create #ILookLikeAPolitician posts on social media to flip the script on our idea of who looks like a serious candidate. But we also know that our trainers need to be part of our message that all young women can run for office. We’re looking for new trainers from all kinds of backgrounds and party affiliations to be role models for politically ambitious young women. Learn more about our September 16th facilitator training here.

The hashtag and our facilitators work in a surprisingly similar way. We love #ILookLikeAPolitician because it shows that there isn’t one kind of person who can lead in politics. In fact, part of why we train young women to run for office is that we know it matters to have diverse voices participating in our government. Women bring their particular experiences and leadership styles to the table. The hashtag is a fun way to get that message out there and show that women are the new face of leadership.

Women, however, are not a monolithic group! We come from all backgrounds and have varying perspectives, and at Running Start, we want to train all of them. Our programs have always included diverse groups of young women: women with different ethnic backgrounds, disabilities, religions, family incomes, educations, sexual orientations, political beliefs, and more. In keeping with #ILookLikeAPolitician, our more serious approach to creating that same role model effect is that we aim to have speakers and trainers who mirror the young women they train and inspire.

One of our best facilitators for our Elect Her program recently shared her own experience with this. She said that one of her favorite parts of teaching college women to run for student government and future political office is how the women of color in the audience gravitate towards her when the workshop is over. That’s not to say that they are the only ones who enjoy her training and want to talk to her! But there is something powerful and important about a woman of color telling the younger women of color in the audience that they can lead on campus and in public office. Women of color make up just 7.1% of Congress (compared to roughly 19% of the population). It’s hard to be what you can’t see, but this successful, confident, facilitator is telling them that they can do it.

We want that magic to continue as we grow our programs, so we are holding a special facilitator training on Saturday, September 16th. Running Start is looking for new facilitators from all the different backgrounds and ideological perspectives our participants have. Sign up for the training here. If you can’t make it to DC, look out for highlight videos we’ll post soon after.

Young women might have trouble finding someone like them to look up to in politics. But Running Start is about to turn a brand-new network of leaders into the very role models young women need.

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 served as a co-chair for their Women’s Leadership Fellows Program. 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.

The best part of #YoungWomenRun? Meeting a network of young women passionate about political leadership.

If you want to find a room full of inspiring young women from across the nation infused with a passion to serve their communities, then you’ve come to the right place. IGNITE National and Running Start created their inaugural #YoungWomenRun, a training for outstanding college and young professional women who plan to run for office, which took place last month in Washington, DC. Speakers included outstanding individuals such as Former Representative Mary Bono, 43rd Treasurer Rosie Rios, and Democratic Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives for the 115th Congress Nancy Pelosi. During this two-day event, participants were not only exposed to leading women within government across the nation but representatives from top-of-the-line organizations like Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, Solidarity Strategies, and the Op-Ed Project that presented on valuable tools to help a political candidate run for office. In addition, other politically-engaged nonprofits participated on a panel to provide additional training and support for participants, including RightNOW, She Should Run, VoteRunLead, Empowered Women, Representation 2020, Latinas Represent, and Higher Heights.

As a participant who had previously run for public office, who is a Running Start alum, and who currently works for IGNITE as a Program Facilitator, I took on a double role of sharing my story with other young women aspiring to run for office while gaining as many tools and networking opportunities as possible. I shared my story towards political engagement through an online live interview with the The Representation Project, the organization behind the documentary Miss Representation.

I also participated in an impromptu elevator pitch for the training that spotlighted my early advocacy for Nahum’s Law. ​

But the most impressive part of the entire conference was the ability of participants to interact with one another. The women I met while at #YoungWomenRun have exponentially blown my network into a new, more sophisticated direction full of leading women from across the nation. I met young women who were currently running for local office, some who founded nonprofits focused on political engagement among their communities, news anchors interested in the political sphere, and female student body presidents who made HERstory on their respective campuses. I am honored to have attended this conference and met amazing women and men who have begun inspiring the next generation of female political leaders. Thank you, IGNITE and Running Start!

 

Brooke López is majoring in Public Affairs and Geography at the University of Texas at Dallas and started her political career at a young age. At 15, she worked with her local congresswoman to propose a bill; at 16, she founded a nonprofit, “Student of Change”; at 18, she ran for Wylie City Council; and at 19, she became the youngest member of the Wylie Public Arts Advisory Board. She’s also involved in the Delta Zeta Sorority, the Gamma Theta Upsilon Geographic Honor Society, the John Marshall Pre-Law Society, the AAUW National College/University Relations Committee, PERIOD: The Menstrual Movement, and more.