Notes from the Running Start Campaign Trail

By Sara Blanco (email interviews conducted by Alex Aiello)

Running Start alum Congresswoman Lauren Underwood, the youngest-ever Black woman elected to Congress, shared her story with our high school students earlier this summer, and that got us thinking. What other gems could our amazing alums share?

Meet Maryland State Delegate Lesley Lopez, Dallas Independent School District Board of Trustees Member Karla Garcia, Fairfax County School Board candidate Abrar Omeish, Prince William County Board of County Supervisors candidate Margaret Angela Franklin, former New York State Assembly candidate Morgan Zegers, and former Polk County School Board candidate Kala Tedder.

Here’s what these real young women candidates took away from Running Start’s political leadership programs and their advice for young women leaders.

Excerpted and edited for clarity.

Confidence

LL: I think that in order to recognize certain leadership qualities in myself, I needed to be exposed to a group of equally passionate peers who I could start to see myself in, as well as meet speakers in positions that were aspirational but still attainable. I had the energy and conviction, just needed a spark to help me connect the dots and see that potential in myself.

KG: I don’t think there’s anything more empowering than convening young women from all backgrounds and addressing their concerns (because we already know what we want — that’s why we’re here) through training and mentorship by leaders we see ourselves reflected in. I am affirmed that I belong — and that I can do this — in every sense of the word.

MZ: When you run for office you have to be able to push yourself outside of your comfort zone every day, even if you’re struggling with impostor syndrome or feel out of place. Running Start gave me the courage to embrace the awkwardness of being a young, female candidate and instead focus on the most important factor: I was a member of my community who cared and wanted to bring positive change.

AO: I learned the power and importance of fighting, fighting some more, and continuing to fight despite the discouragement and dismay of those around you. I learned to derive confidence from within and to lean on those mentors and women who are out there rooting for me and who are counting on me to get there because politics is not easy… In the same way some of the senior leading ladies we met were able to make it in a time that rejected them, perhaps I, a young Muslim woman, may be able to push for my values and make it today.

Left: Abrar Omeish (second from left) participating in Running Start’s 2012 High School Program. Right: Kala Tedder (left) participating in Running Start’s 2018 High School Program.

KT: Prior to Running Start, I had the confidence needed to run, but not the confidence make the most out of my run. I was unsure of myself and what people would think of an 18-year-old running for office, and the more time I spent thinking about what other people thought, the less time I spent actually communicating with those very people. Running Start helped me to put myself out there and be apologetically me in a world where authenticity is not always valued.

Capabilities

LL: Being collaborative, more results-driven than ego-driven, being unafraid of compromise — these are what women effective leaders in government.

KG: The importance of building relationships. Extend your hand, give a firm handshake, confidently state who you are and what your aspirations are, and work on it — you’ll never know where it takes you!

MZ: Running Start taught me the power that comes from lifting up those around you and building relationships. As an underdog candidate, building a strong network of key stakeholders and party leaders in the district was key to securing needed endorsements, volunteers and supporters.

KT: Running Start taught me to view networking differently. I learned how to make strong connections with people from the beginning and, most importantly, how to maintain those connections, which was absolutely crucial for campaigning.

Connections

LL: The fact that it’s a nonpartisan org was also really helpful, not just because it strips the tactics down to the essentials, but because you work on shared missions with women from the other side — just as I do now as a legislator.

MAF: Running Start not only introduced us to women who are elected officials, but they also introduced us to consultants, heads of agencies, and other dignitaries who helped us envision ourselves as candidates and elected officials. They gave us the courage to step up and run for office and normalized the idea of women running for office, particularly women of color.

Right: Margaret Angela Franklin, at Running Start’s 2012 Young Women to Watch Awards.

AO: I should add — the mentorship of women and seeing what they were willing to do for us inspired me to further value mentorship and giving back as I go up. There is never a time when I can justify not giving back for being “too busy.” I am not too important for anyone and no one is too unimportant for my full attention.

Advice

KG: Build your network of support. When times get tough (and they inevitably will) have a solid team of mentors, advisors, and simply good friends.

MZ: Don’t allow yourself to be pressured into using campaign tactics or messaging that doesn’t fit your personality or come from your heart. Authenticity gives you extra confidence in yourself and in your campaign, and increases the effectiveness of your message to your community members.

Speak up when you are mistreated. I experienced sexual harassment when I was a candidate, and I wish it took me less time to gain the confidence to speak out about it… Sexual harassment can be uncomfortable to discuss, but I would rather feel uncomfortable for a small time if it means young women who run for office and experience these negative situations won’t feel alone. If we don’t share our experiences, they will continue to be brushed under the rug. If we share our experiences, we can move forward with a plan for change and serve as mentors and supporters for each other.

AO: Stay true to you and to the principles that guide us towards a better world.

KT: One of the most invaluable tools Running Start will ever give you are the people in the program with you. Those bonds, if you choose to put the work into maintaining them, form a national network of support. Learn from each other, grow with each other, support each other, and you will find friendships that cross political and geographic boundaries.

As a Latina, Running Start Outreach Director Sara Blanco is especially interested in empowering women of color to run for office. Her leadership experience includes participating in and then co-chairing a women’s leadership development series in her grad program. Sara is a current and lifelong Arlingtonian. Under her fresh leadership, Running Start’s social media presence has grown 500%!

BA, English Literature & Gender and Sexuality Studies, Swarthmore College (2012); MPP, Gender Policy, the George Washington University (2018)

@sarablancosays, LinkedIn, www.sarablancosays.com

Running Start Summer 2019 Intern Alex Aiello is a sociology and religious studies double-major at Davidson College, Class of 2021. She has served as secretary for Amnesty International, small group Bible study leader for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and treasurer for a mental health awareness club. Alex is a member of the Davidson College Democrats and advocates on campus for students to get involved in politics. She is from New York City and loves trying new coffee shops in Manhattan and going for runs along the East River or in Central Park. She hopes to attend law school and then represent sexual assault survivors. Ultimately, Alex hopes to run for office and make lasting policy changes protecting women from sexual assault and harassment.

@AlexAiello8, LinkedIn