“We must lift others as we rise.” — How Running Start is changing the status quo of political power.

by Ewurama Appiagyei-Dankah

I am a first-generation American who for some reason found myself drawn to politics as a child. Maybe it is because as I grew up, I saw that while my parents lived in a country they loved, they did not have much ability to influence the decisions made about their community because they were not citizens. Maybe it was because I realized on some fundamental level, even as a child, that women, especially women of color, were not often in positions where they were calling the shots. (As a fifth grader, my student council president speech ended with — I kid you not — “Don’t stick to the status quo! It’s time for a female president!”)

Either way, though I was interested in politics and ran for leadership positions from fifth grade student council president all the way to student body vice president at my university, I never had the opportunity to see what things looked like within the great halls of power. At least, not until my Congressional Fellowship with Running Start.

I was placed in the office of a Senator I admire, in part because of her position on a Senate Committee I am interested in and the work she has done around issues I am passionate about. Unusually contentious committee business that took place during my internship made the experience especially challenging. But there were other profound issues at play as well.

Before my internship, I’d had an idea about what Capitol Hill might look like. Even as a child, I was attuned to the fact that not many women had the opportunity to serve as leaders in any capacity. I looked up to the women closest to me but had few women to look up to as political role models. So, I approached my time on the Hill clear-eyed, and with the understanding that I just wouldn’t see many people who looked like me. Even with my expectations, it was still disheartening for me to see how few women and people of color, especially women of color, there were throughout the Hill, in both staff and elected positions. It was frustrating that the nation’s highest body of government felt in many ways unrepresentative of our country.

It was in these disheartening moments, though, that I was most grateful for my involvement with Running Start. As a Congressional Fellow, I was told every week in different forms and from different people, that I was strong, smart, capable, and tough — and that though it might be hard for me to see at times, I could do anything I put my mind to.

Left: Ewurama Appiagyei-Dankah making her #ILookLikeAPolitician contest speech to the crowd of DC movers and shakers at the Young Women to Watch Awards. Right: Ewurama and Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin taking a selfie at the event’s reception.

After my fellowship, in a beautiful full-circle moment at Running Start’s Young Women to Watch Awards, I had my own newly-elected Congresswoman, Representative Elissa Slotkin (whose campaign I had strongly supported) cheer me on and campaign for me as I competed to serve as Running Start’s Ambassador. Being surrounded by multitudes of politically-inclined women to celebrate the most diverse Congress in American history was unbelievably special. More than anything else, it helped me realize that we have the ability to shape what the future of our politics looks like. And that’s because organizations like Running Start are working hard to change the face of power.

So many of us have not seen ourselves represented in our nation’s politics. As Running Start’s #ILookLikeAPolitician Ambassador, I hope to use my platform to reach out to young women across the country and help them see that we need their voices in the political realm. Even a few months ago, Congress didn’t look the way it does now. We all have the responsibility to ensure that we don’t go back to how things were before. We must continue to tell young women from all backgrounds that they are strong, smart, capable, and tough, and encourage them to share their ideas. We must follow the example of people like my own Congresswoman, mentoring those who aspire to be in their positions. We must lift others as we rise.

I like to think my fifth-grade self would be proud of me today; it is for her that I will continue working. The status quo, slowly but surely, is beginning to change, and I’m proud to be a part of changing it.

Ewurama Appiagyei-Dankah is a graduate of James Madison College at Michigan State University. As a student, she served as the Vice President for Academic Affairs in ASMSU, where she focused on college and textbook affordability issues. She is an alumna of the Running Start / Walmart Congressional Fellowship, where she interned for a Senator. She was recently elected to serve as Running Start’s 2019 #ILookLikeAPolitician Ambassador, a position which will give her the opportunity to encourage young women across the country to embrace their political ambitions.