If we want to achieve political leadership that reflects the population of the United States, we need to be intentional about removing barriers to running. That is especially true when it comes to young women of color.
From society’s attitude towards women in leadership, to young people in leadership, to Native Americans in leadership, and of course, the role of money in politics, these obstacles weave together to form a kind of velvet rope behind out to an exclusive club.
Yes, you can cross it, but you need to be told how. Meanwhile, other people are called straight to the front of the line. I’m trying to level that playing field.
A public health professional, I ran for the first time in my job when I was 26 years old and fresh out of graduate school. I had to “on the ground my way up.” There were already two men in the race, but I won the Democratic primary with 70% of the vote.
At 28, I am among the youngest members of the Kansas legislature and one of only three Native Americans sworn in during my session.
Despite this level of achievement, when I was elected to the position, the biggest publication to cover my victory, Vogue Magazine, covered the story by mentioning the fact that I had chosen to wear Diné regalia traditional for my swearing in. I am extremely grateful to have had Vogue write about me, and it was a unique collaboration of my love for fashion and politics.
I think it’s great that Vogue is writing about politicians and highlighting the cultural significance of my outfit. Likewise, I also want us to have a deeper conversation about the ideas and contributions of women to society in general.
I first had the idea to run for office in 2018. I was in Washington, D.C., for the Native American Political Leadership Program. They sent me to a conference hosted by IGNITE, an organization dedicated to showing women how to harness their collective voice and flex their political power.
Many activities included young women saying they wanted to run for office, and my reaction at the time was that these young women are so brave. It was a three-day conference, and every day I thought, “this will never happen to me.” But, being around IGNITE and other young women removed a barrier in my mind. I thought I wasn’t good enough to run for office. I thought I could never win in a state like Kansas. Then I met Congresswoman Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland. Something changed for me.
More young women need a pathway to mentoring so they can see themselves in the job. As the saying goes, “If you can see it, you can be it.”
I don’t think many people thought I would win my primary. I had a lot of support from high schoolers and college people who volunteered, but raising money at a competitive level was a problem. My family raised me not to put myself in a situation where I need to ask for money. It was a challenge, but after hearing presentations about women running for office, I learned about specific prejudices that women face. It was enlightening. Women are often considered “charming,” “complaining” and my particular favorite, “silly.” These labels contribute to our reluctance to ask for money.
We put on the front as if everything is fine. We act like we’re happy to do things for free. But seeking elected office takes money in this country, and fundraising is a reality. My reality is that I ran my primary campaign while living in my childhood bedroom in my parents’ house. That kind of situation certainly won’t work for most. Funding women candidates is essential if we are to change the trajectory of who enters the halls of power.
I learned firsthand that women who run for office often face attacks. A consultant working for one of my opponents found a photo on my personal Instagram account. I was about to go to a concert in this picture, and I was wearing a mini skirt and a tank top. Someone bought ad space on Facebook and ran this picture of me with captions undermining me. It was pretty obvious that my opponent’s campaign was trying to embarrass me. This does not happen to men.
We looked into it and the campaign apologized. And, we ended up turning it into a good thing – we were able to raise about $500 in a few hours after we posted about it, and $500 is a lot of money for a local race.
Overall, we raised far less money than our opponents. I raised $15,000 in my primary and my main opponent raised more than $40,000. My campaign was a great example of messaging and connections with voters being more valuable than cash.
The district that I represent, which includes the city of Lawrence, is not a wealthy district and in fact is among the most historically disinvested in the state in terms of education, economics and financial stability. I was born and raised in this area, and I saw for myself the lack of investment and development money going to the other side of town.
I campaigned based on my experiences growing up in this community. My constituents know that when I advocate for affordable housing and employment opportunities, it comes from a genuine place.
I found my voice in Kansas thanks to mentors like IGNITE, and now I want more young women to realize that they have the power to run for office. That their voices are important as are their experiences. We already have what it takes to lead — what we need are allies, funding and mentorship.
Representative Christina Haswood, D-Lawrence, is a member of the Kansas House.