When I founded Running Start eleven years ago, no one understood why talking to girls about political leadership was a good idea. Why did I want to train a 15 year-old to run for office? She wouldn’t be ready to run for any meaningful office for at least a decade. But we scraped together enough money to train a small group of high school girls that summer of 2007, and we’ve grown slowly and steadily into a national nonprofit that has now trained over 12,500 young women from every state in the nation. These young women we’ve trained know that their voices are needed in politics, and they know what it takes to run. They are ready to lead.
I think the world is finally starting to wake up to the tremendous potential of young women as future leaders. A recent New York Times editorial about the lack of women in politics said: “getting women engaged in college or even earlier is especially important”. Barbara Comstock, a Republican Congresswoman from Virginia, told Red Alert: “We need to get more young women engaged at an early age, seeing themselves as being a public figure, being able to run for office,” and “I think we just need to put that idea in their head maybe a little earlier.” Politico reports that “childhood is an ideal place to begin encouraging women to think about running for office.”
That’s why Running Start works with high school and college women to get them to envision themselves as political leaders. The earlier you talk to women about leading in politics, the more it become a possibility in their lives. Here’s one of my favorite success story of how planting a seed early can work: A few years ago I got an email from a woman named Allyson Carpenter. She told me she’d been part of a Running Start program at Howard University that trains college women to run for student government. Although the Elect Her program is designed to funnel women into student government, Allyson saw a need to run in her community instead. Allyson won and became the youngest woman ever elected to DC government at the age of 18.
As she told us:
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 to 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.
Although the Elect Her program is designed to funnel women into student government, I love that Allyson saw a greater need to run in her community instead. We always encourage our students to run for the office where they think they will be able to do the most good. Allyson gained authority and experience in this elected role which served her well when she decided to run for Howard University Student Body President. She decided to run when she saw that the slate of candidates running for the seat were all men. Building on her Elect Her training, she launched a professional-quality campaign complete with a multi-page platform detailing everything she would do for the student body while in office. Despite sexist attacks and charges of ballot rigging, she won the seat and served as one of the first women presidents in many years at Howard. She’s now out of school and serving as a Truman Scholar, no doubt on the way to even bigger and better things.
Allyson has told me that she grew up with a fire in her belly to change things for the better, so Running Start was responsible for amplifying rather than igniting her passion. But what I think programs like Running Start do so well is we give young women permission to admit to the world that they want to run, and to own the fact that they have the ambition to lead. Many of our students say the best part of our programs is being with a group of peers who share their desire to change the world. The support and encouragement they receive from each other makes their dreams seem possible.
When research shows that confidence and self-esteem peaks for women in high school or before, it may be no wonder that later in life men are 65% more likely than equally qualified women to feel ready to run for office. Reaching women at an early age is key to capturing the enthusiasm and confidence that leads a woman to consider running for office. Groups like Running Start are creating a groundswell of young women eager and ready to run because they see political leadership as a place where they truly belong.
Susannah Wellford founded two organizations to raise the political voice of young women: Running Start (which she now leads) and the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee. Susannah previously worked in the Clinton White House and for Senator Wyche Fowler. Ms. Wellford is a graduate of UVA School of Law and Davidson College. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her twins, Ben and James.