Q&A with strategist Laura Olin: ‘This is the moment’ to run for office

A Q&A with Laura Olin, a digital strategist who ran social media strategy for President Obama’s reelection campaign and helped launch the digital strategy for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Off The Sidelines: Hi, Laura! We’re excited to talk with you today and share some insights from your impressive campaign experience with women across the country. Let’s get started just by acknowledging that there is tremendous energy right now in the political landscape, given how much it’s become clear that even one seat can actually change people’s lives. So many women are passionate and know standing up for the change they want is important, but they don’t necessarily know how to go about running for those seats. So why would you say it’s important that more women run for office?

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Laura Olin: Yes, I’m so happy to talk with you and do what I can to help. Women make up 50 percent of the population, and we should be represented to that degree. But we’re not even at 20 percent representation in Congress. More voices and perspectives mean better laws and better policies that certainly would reflect better on our country — and also address problems women and girls deserve to have addressed.

OTS: How would someone know whether she’s qualified to run for office?

Laura: I think if you’re passionate about it, if you’re plugged in to your community or aspire to be and you’re willing to do the work, that’s all you need. A lot of people count themselves out from running because they think they need a lot of money or a law degree or something, but running for office is about wanting to become a public servant. Just having the desire to help is the number one qualification for running.

OTS: If someone decides she wants to run, what three things should she do first?

Laura: The first thing is to decide what role you’d be a good fit for, both in terms of the structure of the legislative body and what you want to spend your time doing. Maybe it’s on a school board, a city council position or even a state legislature seat. One way to figure that out is to ask people in the position already. A lot of them have regular town halls or visiting hours, so I’d recommend just showing up. A lot of public officials let people know about appearances through their Facebook pages or newsletters.

The second thing is to start talking to people in your community — the people you’d be serving in office — to learn what their concerns are and what they’d like to see change. Listening is, I think, a huge part of any legislator’s job, no matter at what level they’re operating.

The third thing is starting to articulate for yourself what your main message is. Take what you believe about certain issues, and what you’d do about them once in office, and practice talking about that in the same way you would with your friends or family — sharing stories from your community or from your own life, anything that will make your message feel relatable. Obviously when starting out, you aren’t going to be a policy expert. You can learn that stuff, but fundamentally being able to articulate why you care and why you think you’d represent people well is huge.

OTS: You’ve talked about the importance of assessing legislative bodies and available seats. Local and state government are massively important, but they’re not well covered in the media today. What would you say about the importance of getting more women in these critical spaces?

Laura: I think once you actually look at the legislation local government is putting out, you see it has huge impacts on people’s lives. We might not be aware of what’s happening at that level, but when news coverage does hit, it becomes abundantly clear how critical those roles are. For example, the North Carolina legislature passing transgender bathroom bills. These people whose names you probably don’t even know have huge impacts, for good or for ill, on people’s day-to-day lives and can really change the course of a state.

We have a lot of work to do, and we need a lot more women’s voices in those important positions. According to the group Run For Something, the cost of the average school board campaign is only a few thousand dollars. It’s not a huge investment, especially if you can get your community to pitch in. Winning those offices is so achievable.

OTS: What resources would you point to for women who want to run for office?

Laura: There are so many organizations at the ready to help. Obviously Off The Sidelines is one. A bunch of training programs have been going for years and are really ramping up this cycle, including Run To Win, Emerge America and She Should Run. They’re getting women resources to run and providing step-by-step ways to build a campaign. On the digital side, CHORUS Agency is made up of former Hillary and Obama digital staffers who have signed up to give advice to progressive candidates on digital strategy specifically.

We’re in extraordinary times right now. There are grassroots, homegrown organizations in towns and communities across the country actively looking for candidates to support — because they’re more than ready to see things improve in the places they live. There are plenty of resources for anyone who wants to get that school board seat or that city council seat and actually start representing these vibrant, active communities full of people who want things to go in a very different direction than they are currently going.

OTS: What challenges can someone expect in running for office?

Laura: From having been a staffer on campaigns, I can say that running for office can be really tiring for anyone, and I think you just need to prepare for it to be pretty emotionally and psychologically intense sometimes. But just know that it’s completely normal. It’s just part of being a candidate. If you want something badly and don’t want to disappoint people, it’s going to be tiring. And that’s not because you’re weak or disorganized. You’re just one person trying to do a big thing.

But I think women who decide to run might be pleasantly surprised by the amount of support their communities are ready to give. Right now is one of the best times I can think of to run for local office, because there’s such an awareness around the country that politics matters — that it has a real effect on everyone’s lives. There’s a wellspring of desire right now to see someone making a difference, so people will step up to the plate to support someone who’s ready to do it.

OTS: If someone decides she can’t run for office right now, or running just isn’t for her, participation is still so critical. What can all women do to get involved and make a difference?

Laura: I think one easy thing to do is find someone in your community who is running, ideally for a local race like state legislature, city council or school board. Knock on doors for that candidate, get members of your network to donate money. Every volunteer hour you give to any campaign is really valuable, but especially for local races, an extra person helping out can make a massive impact compared to a larger campaign.

There’s also supporting ongoing resistance groups that are doing great work to build infrastructure and raise money for congressional races in 2018, and to create an ongoing base of activism that we’ve been struggling to get in the last few years.

But honestly, this is the moment. If you’ve ever even remotely thought about running for office, or if you have someone in your life who you think would be a great candidate, then run, or tell that person to run and that you’ll support her. There are unprecedented levels of enthusiasm on our side right now, and there are people everywhere who are raring to help you. I would really encourage women not to discount themselves. Consider running for office!

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