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Civic power needs women in leadership

When George Floyd was murdered, I sat, like many of you, waiting for our government to finally recognize the need for racial justice. When my local school system did not send so much as a letter to parents recognizing the event and continued on as usual, I knew that not much had changed. In the school district I am a product of, students of color — Latinx students in particular — and low-income students were the majority.

I ran for school board in the November 2020 election because I could no longer allow decision makers who did not represent my home community to make decisions for students and families. Although I lost the election, I learned so much about political power as a woman of color. I ran in the school district that I attended, which is located deep in a conservative area of Southern California. It was through this process of running as a progressive candidate of color in a school district where the Tea Party endorsed school board candidates (yes, that Tea Party), that I dove deep into the unfortunate reality of running for office as a Mexican-American woman in America.

The representation of women of color in leadership is eons behind the glacial progress made for racial equity since the 2002 California Voting Rights Act passed almost 20 years ago. In the 2021-2022 California state legislature, 19 of the 120 California state legislators identified as Latina, 1 as Asian and Pacific Islander, and 3 as Black. Currently, there are zero women who identify as Native or Indigenous in California’s legislature.

White supremacy and the patriarchy is without question prevalent in our electoral systems. This is a reality women know all too well. Across the U.S., women of color are fighting tirelessly to be represented in our political landscape. My home state of California is a prime example of how even in progressive states white supremacy and the patriarchy are manipulating our political system to elect men to positions of power. California has 25% of the U.S. Latinx vote and even created the 2002 California Voting Rights Act to ensure people of color had better odds of winning an election, because it shifted local elections to be district-based instead of holding at-large races.

The difference between who lives in California and who holds political power in California is stark. Latinx people make up 39% of California’s population, and yet 54% of our state legislature is white, compared to 25% of our legislature that is Latinx. This gap in the political representation for Latinx people widens when it comes to political power in the federal government, where white people account for 62% of California’s congressional delegation.

      

As I reflect on these enraging numbers of women’s leadership in my home state, I often think of the barriers I faced in my own candidacy — questions about the legitimacy of my candidacy in a place I was raised in, comments about how the “community” does not know me, and more often than not, people voting for an incumbent because of his identity. I often reflect on people opting to support “viable” candidates who could “win” in flip districts — those candidates often being men or white people. I reflect on the anxiety I faced when fundraising and re-evaluating my relationship with money. I reflect on the number of times I cried in the presence of my circle of strong women of color because I never quite felt good enough.

In my experience in women’s leadership as a candidate, policy and organizing director, and Young Professional Network board member of Latinas Lead Californiathe first and only non-partisan political action committee dedicated to increasing the number of Latinas in political leadership — power is often coveted and is often challenged when held by women. A woman’s path to elected leadership is one way to ensure that civic power is distributed fairly.

I challenge you to advocate to distribute civic power and make sure that women and women’s issues are prioritized in government actions:

1. Invest money into womens' campaigns

Wealth makes the ability to exchange forms of power easier and to move results in favor of candidates. We need to make sure that campaigns for women of color have the money they need to pay people for help and buy materials needed to run a campaign. Many candidates of color work full-time and money helps fund innovative campaign needs.

Prioritize donating to women of color, regardless of “viability” in the local races. Our assumptions about viability are largely grounded in our own biases and need for power. As you choose to support values-aligned candidates, think about how your desire for power is affecting your decision-making about your donations.

Ask yourself:

  • “If this candidate wins, does their leadership distribute power to historically marginalized communities?”
  • “Am I supporting this candidate because I have something to gain from their access to power? Do I have something to lose from not supporting this candidate?” Be explicit in what you have to gain and lose. Assign each category a value. Subtract gains from losses. If you are “losing” more, reflect on if you are willing to risk these items to further equity and distribution of power. 
  • “Does this candidate have access to other forms of support or networks of people to fundraise?” If so, donate 100% to a woman of color. If you are still torn, donate at least 60% of your donation fund to women of color.

2. Prioritize volunteering for women candidates

We grow what we put our time and effort into. Local elections can be won with as little as 100 votes and in democracy, every vote matters. A stable and consistent volunteer force is vital to getting through the voter record data, phone banking, canvassing, social media outreach, and all the other items that arise during a campaign. To distribute civic power, it is vital we give our volunteer time to women of color. 

In prioritizing your time, create frameworks for yourself to document how much time you spend volunteering for candidates that uphold the status quo. I personally like to donate 100% of my time to help women of color achieve their campaign goals. If that is not possible, try dedicating at least 60% of your volunteer time to women of color candidates. I also prioritize local races as state and federal races get much support and media attention because their perceived access to power is greater.

Running and winning is great, and across the nation we are seeing indicators of what is possible for women of color to achieve when they have the right support. For me, having run and lost provided an opportunity to learn about my own leadership and to figure out where I can make changes for the long-term impact I want to have in distributing civic power to women.

I want to leave us with the words of Stacey Abrams: “Invention, discovery, and empires are built of chances taken with high degrees of failure.” In celebration of all women and the work we have to do to ensure women’s leadership in politics, let us cheer for the many women running for office, losing, winning, and repeating the experience until our political systems represent us.


Danielle Guillen is a Director of Strategic Policy & Organizing Support at Leadership for Educational Equity. She works with elected leaders, executive directors, and community organizers across the nation to ensure that students have access to an equitable education.

As a first-generation college student at Yale University, Danielle realized her family was not alone in their struggle to access equitable educational opportunities. Her desire to extend equitable education opportunities to families, like her own, led her to become a secondary teacher in the Navajo Nation where she experienced first-hand the barriers low-income rural families face to accessing high quality education.