On April 7, the Community Service Learning Center (CSLC), Student Senate and Running Start joined together to host an event addressing the topic of women in office and leadership. “Elect Her” was dedicated to walking students through exercises around how to run for office, why it is important, and having a discussion with a series of panelists who are currently in a variety of political positions across Michigan.
“What we do is a combination of great discussions around running for office and women in politics, and also learning concrete campaign skills exercises,” said Jess Kelly, Running Start Chief of Staff.
Running Start is a nonpartisan nonprofit that seeks to empower young women to get involved in politics, one elected female leader at a time.
“We are all experts in the things we care about,” Kelly said. “Sometimes it is intimidating to think, ‘I don’t want to run for office because I don’t know enough yet.’ What helps to get you going is finding a topic or issue that you are really passionate about.”
Through examining topics participants were personally interested in, exploring their current networks, and helping them to create a sample elevator pitch about a possible campaign, Kelly led students through a workshop that taught them more about their own abilities, political interests and gave them a chance to use their voice amongst a community of support.
In addition, half an hour of the session was dedicated to a panel of successful women leaders in Michigan. The panelists included State Representative Mary Whiteford; Brandy Lovelady-Mitchell, Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion for Kent ISD and Trustee for Grand Rapids Community College; Jody Hanson, Allendale Charter Township Clerk; Milinda Ysasi, Executive Director of The Source and City Commissioner for the City of Grand Rapids; Michelle McCloud, Kent County Commissioner for District 13; and Sonya Hernandez, School Board Member and Commissioner, Hispanic Latino Commission of Michigan.
One important question posed was what challenges and obstacles do women in leadership roles face in the political sphere? There were many ways to answer this question, but the most resounding one stemmed from confidence and empowerment.
“You have to learn to overcome your fears,” Hansen said. “When there is intimidation in the room, you have to be empowered to be you and know that you have the skills to contribute to your team.”
Lovelady-Mitchell agreed, doubling down on how confidence and passion will result in closer bonds with the community.
“When we step out on faith-related to something that we care so much about, something that our community is so passionate about, people will notice and support you,” said Lovelady-Mitchell. “I also think that when we get into leadership positions, we might think the hardest part is getting to the table. What I have learned is that it is the community that put me at that table, and they are the ones who lack a voice and need me to speak up and not be quiet. I don’t have the right to be quiet, and I must boldly say what needs to be said for the people that I serve.”
Sometimes the biggest challenge can also be our network, knowing the right people in order to have your message be heard. As many university students have learned, it is important to maintain a network that is beneficial for what you want to do in the future. The same is also true for those interested in a political position and career.
“It is important to have social capital and build networks,” Hernandez said. “I utilize my social capital to bring about change that improves people’s lives. Build your social capital, speak up and be bold.”
To learn more about Running Start, students can visit their website at www.runningstart.org.