Reaching Women Where They Are
My mom is the type of woman I wish I could vote for — honest, hardworking, and passionate about her community. A hair stylist by trade and child advocate by passion, my mom has unfortunately never considered running for office. For many women, like my mom, politics is inaccessible. Really amazing women in our communities never find themselves on a ballot, even when they are probably the most qualified.
Many incredible organizations share the mission of getting more women elected to political office. Luckily, they have also begun to figure out that this includes women of color. They’re figuring out that this includes lesbian, bisexual, and trans women. But it also includes women living in poverty. It includes single mothers. It includes women with disabilities.
If these groups will continue to be successful, it will be because they are intentionally seeking women from diverse backgrounds and experiences. It must be because they remain committed to knocking down barriers for all women, making public office accessible for everyone. If we reach gender parity in government, but nearly all of the women represented come from privileged backgrounds, we are still at a deficit in representation. If we truly want to see more women in government, we have to meet women and girls where they are.
During my first few years in Washington, DC, I was overwhelmed by the availability of resources to young women like me who were considering running for office. Originally from the Midwest, my experiences made me consider, “How can we reach women from distant and/or rural communities? How do we inspire women who may never hear a female elected speak at conference? How do we engage women who may not be college educated?”
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 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.
I owe a lot of credit to Running Start for giving me the tools I needed to mount a successful campaign. I owe them even more credit for the work they do to reach everyday women who come from modest means. Every year, Running Start holds more than 100 campaign trainings for high school, colleges, and young professional women across the country.
This summer, I am interning at Running Start and get to work on my favorite program, the Young Women’s Political Leadership Program, which runs June 19th — 24th this year. We will host 65 high school girls, ages 13–18, in Washington, DC for a weeklong conference exposing them to what it takes to run for office. Understanding the socioeconomic barriers that exist for many girls, Running Starts provides scholarships for more than half of the program’s participants.
This isn’t meant to brag but rather to shed light on an example of going the extra mile to reach women and girls who might otherwise never consider running for office. As we continue to work toward getting more women in office, we have to keep accessibility at the front of our minds.
Much of the work I’ve done at Running Start this summer centers on making political office more accessible for everyday women, using data and civic technology. I am currently leading the charge to create a campaign manual for women and girls that encapsulates all that I’ve learned while attending fancy political leadership schools and running my own campaigns. By the end of the summer, this manual will be available to all of the women and girls who attend Running Start programs.
One organization can’t solve the accessibility problem in our politics entirely, but together, we can begin to chip away at the barriers that keep so many women out of the fold. If we continue to make accessibility our primary focus, one day, I will be able to vote for someone like my mom.
Allyson Carpenter is a Harry S. Truman Scholar currently interning at Running Start. She studies political science and community development at Howard University. She is the youngest person elected to office in the Washington, DC history, having served as an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in 2014 at age 18. She most recently served on the National Organizing Committee for the Women’s March on Washington and hopes to inspire more young women to run for office.